Attending 12.00 o’clock Mass on the average Sunday in St. Michael’s Parish Church puts me in mind of what we know of Mass attendance in the years before the religious revival of the 1840s. The sparse attendance is in sharp contrast to Mass attendance of thirty or so years ago. It is as if Ireland of today has reverted to pre-famine Ireland in terms of religious observance.
In the years before Catholic Emancipation and the decade which followed, Mass attendance in Ireland was extremely poor. There were a number of reasons for that, including the lack of religious freedom which at one time saw punishment meted out to those who sought to practice their religion in public. By 1800 active implementation of the penal laws had long been discontinued, but the legacy of decades of religious discrimination still adversely affected the Catholic community’s practice of their faith. In the 1770s the ratio of priests to people was of the order of 1 to 1690. With the huge population increase experienced in the decades preceding the Great Famine that ratio increased to one priest for every 2750 persons. Despite the opening of Maynooth College in 1795 and the subsequent increase in clergy numbers, the limited number of Catholic clergy available did not allow them to undertake the type of pastoral ministry which encouraged Mass attendance. The all prevailing poverty of the time no doubt also discouraged Mass attendance amongst the poorer classes, but that was to change following the holding of parish missions in the years immediately preceding the Great Famine.
The first parish mission held in Ireland was organised in St. Michael’s Parish Church Athy in November 1842 with the cooperation of the local Parish Priest, Fr. John Lawlor or Lalor. The mission was given by the Irish Vincentian Fathers and was scheduled to last four weeks. However, the numbers attending St. Michael’s Parish Church were so great that the mission was extended for a further three weeks. The Parish Priest, impressed with the success of the mission, arranged for the Vincentian Fathers to return to Athy to hold another mission extending over five weeks in August of the following year.
The missioners preached in Athy’s Parish Church three times a day, which according to a letter sent to Fr. Paul Cullen, then Rector of the Irish College in Rome, was ‘crowded to suffocation’. Sermons in the morning, at mid-day and in the evenings generated huge interest and attracted large numbers to the local Parish Church. So many attended for confessions, that even though the mission extended over seven weeks many of those who sought confession could not be heard. Fr. James Maher, Professor of Theology in the Carlow Seminary, writing to his nephew, the earlier mentioned Fr. Paul Cullen, who was a native of Ballitore and the future first Cardinal of the Irish Church, claimed that many people stayed in St. Michael’s Church overnight while many country people remained in the town of Athy for a number of days awaiting the opportunity to have their confessions heard.
This first parish mission was to be followed by similar missions held throughout the country and led to a major change in the practice of Mass attendance by the Irish people. During the Great Famine huge population losses were experienced through death and emigration, but at the same time the post emancipation years witnessed an increase in the number of catholic clergy. This allowed the Catholic clergy to offer pastoral care which harnessed the religious enthusiasm generated by the parish missions. The result was a decline in the traditional community practices such as pattern days, pilgrimages to holy wells and the traditional Irish wakes which were noted for games and merrymaking. Replaced by Catholic church centred devotions these traditional Irish practices went into decline and in some cases were expressly forbidden by the local clergy. Here in Athy St. John’s pattern day held on 24th June at Tobberara well was prohibited by the local Parish Priest.
The Catholic ethos of nationalist Ireland grew as the drive for political freedom gathered pace and both were reinforced by a higher community involvement in Sunday Masses. Now today as vocations fall to a new low the ratio of population to clergy grows bigger than ever. The pastoral attention afforded to a catholic community at a time when clergy were more numerous is now no longer possible. The church scandals of recent years have also damaged the Catholic church, but perhaps the lack of congregational numbers is but a temporary one if we are to have regard to the large attendance at the vigil Mass last Christmas Eve.
The 1842 mission in St. Michael’s Parish Church Athy was the first of a long series of church missions in Ireland which helped create a devotional culture amongst Irish Catholics lasting for the following 150 years or so. That devotional culture is now largely dissipated and St. Michael’s Parish Church, built in the early 1960s to replace the church which housed the missions of the 1840s, now awaits the next devotional revolution.