Empty pews during Holy Week are rarely the surest signs of a worshipful congregation — least of all in Ireland, where historic clerical abuse scandals still beset the Catholic Church. But this year is different. In recent weeks, the national broadcaster RTÉ has counted an average of 34,600 parishioners tuning into its daily televised Mass service.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, the religious observance of Lent, and now Easter, looms ever larger in the Irish consciousness, shaping its response. Once again, the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ have reemerged as a powerful, sustaining force in the island’s national life.
It is no surprise, then, that the head of government, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, chose this past weekend as the perfect time to announce a three-week extension to containment measures, which will run until May 5. “Throughout our history, Good Friday has had a special meaning,” he explained. “It’s a day associated with suffering, and sacrifice, and sorrow. And also with new beginnings. The promise of rebirth and renewal and better days to come.”
In his four-minute speech, Varadkar mentioned “sacrifice” no less than five times. There is a lot in this word to unpack, and we should be forgiven for misunderstanding it as something troublesome, or merely inconvenient, although that is not what the taoiseach meant. Its significance runs much deeper.
For Catholics, the act of sacrifice entails giving to God. In the context of Easter, that offering recalls Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done.” The effect of this is to superimpose the passion narrative onto the nation’s hardships. There is purpose in suffering. Like Christ, citizens are called, in a national effort, to take up their own crosses. Their Veronicas are the doctors and nurses tending to the sick. Those that continue essential services are their Simons of Cyrene.
While much ado has been made of the recent abortion and same-sex-marriage referendums, Ireland remains a deeply religious country. Of course, it is indisputable that the number of churchgoers is greatly diminished from previous generations. Less than a third of the population regularly attend Mass today, compared with 91 per cent in 1972. In addition, almost half of all Irish clergy are aged between 55 to 74 years. According to official data collected by the church, annual ordinations are consistently fewer than deaths and departures from the priesthood.
Yet this is not reflective of the Irish people’s strong connection to the sacraments. Around 73 percent of newborn children receive a Catholic baptism. Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of opposite-sex weddings are religious ceremonies — over half are Catholic. And the rate of cremation represents only a fifth of all deaths, as traditional Catholic burials are still much preferred in Ireland, unlike much of Europe. Indeed, the impact of moratoriums on funeral Masses has wreaked untold grief on communities, where neighbors praying by the roadside as a hearse passes has become a common sight.
Some may say that Ireland has gone too far down the path of secularization for the resurrection to be of any great import on occasions like this. On the contrary: The country is most affected, most mindful of the Paschal mystery in times of national crises. One can discern as much within its cityscapes, where architecture and space enshrine the national consciousness.
Consider the British capital. The imperial graveyard of London, with its Trafalgar Square, Waterloo Station, and countless cenotaphs and war memorials, sets the stage for an altogether different response to the coronavirus outbreak. “We must act like any wartime government,” said the U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson in a national address. “Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable.”
Dublin, on the other hand, has themes of sacrifice and the resurrection paved into its streets. Two of the city’s largest public spaces are called Phoenix Park and St. Stephen’s Green (whose biblical namesake was the first martyr for the Christian faith). Parnell Street, named for the messianic figure of Charles Stewart Parnell, intercepts O’Connell Street, where a statue of “The Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell stands.
In 1843, as a member of the Westminster parliament, O’Connell delivered a speech on the Hill of Tara to hundreds of thousands of listeners. He called for the repeal of the Act of Union with Great Britain. Then, as now, the site is a rolling expanse of green fields. In ancient times, it was the seat of Gaelic kings. O’Connell’s opprobrium was steeped in the language of resurrection. “Those shouts that burst from you were enough to recall to life the kings and chiefs of Ireland,” he told the crowd.
Some decades later, the body of the exiled rebel Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, recently returned from New York, was interred at Glasnevin Cemetery. In his stirring graveside panegyric, Patrick Pearse boasted that “life springs from death,” a sentiment he would act on during the failed Easter Rising of 1916. The rebellion was a masterfully conceived plan to elide the theodrama of Holy Week with the cause of Irish republicanism. Pearse’s execution by firing squad was the third act; the climactic finale was the changing of hearts, the birth of a sovereign nation.
On O’Connell Street today, the worn portico of the General Post Office serves as a reminder not just of that “resurrection” but of the pain and death through which it was achieved. The Doubting Thomas can run his fingers over the bullet-scarred columns of the building and decide for himself whether Easter retains its spiritual power.
Each year, north of the border, in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are called to renew the hard-fought peace won under the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles in 1998. It is the depth of religious feeling shared by both communities that continues to solemnize the principles of this treaty.
All this is to say that the rhythms of Irish political and social life have long moved in step with liturgical time. Important moments in the nation’s history ride off the coattails of religious festivals. And so it is that the pews fall silent. No chorus of voices greeted Archbishop Eamon Martin for his Easter Sunday Mass at Armagh Cathedral. However, the message remained the same.
His homily echoed down the deserted nave: “We still have a long way to go in the fight against COVID-19 and its consequences. There will be many more sacrifices to make before this is all over. But as surely as Christ rose on Easter morning, we will come through this, hopefully as better people, strengthened by the experience.”