Society left wringing as bell tolls for Angelus

As RTÉ announces plans to revamp the Angelus, Margaret Hickey asks whether our lack of enthusiasm or at least ambivalence about its demise might well hold a deeper question
Society left wringing as bell tolls for Angelus

So it is time to sound a parting knell for the Angelus. We are no longer a Catholic country and the national, publicly funded broadcaster must fall into line with the new consensus.

Over the years, the Angelus has morphed into something that, apart from pealing church bells, has very little to do with any religion.

It is an inoffensive, pleasant interlude of calm just before the reality check of the main evening news. Yet, according to director of religious programmes, Roger Childs, the viewing public in the main has never objected to the Angelus.

However, following what the station believes to be its duty in reflecting a rapidly secularising society, it has decided to make the appropriate moves before they are demanded.

From the point of view of the religiously minded, it might seem better if the Angelus was dropped altogether instead of being attenuated to a point where it has not just lost its meaning — the story of the Angel’s visit to Mary as recounted in Luke’s Gospel — but is also trivialising the Christian message by attaching the prayer’s name to a banal and irrelevant series of images where people do everything except pray.

For the next generation, the Angelus will have as little to do with Mary and the Angel as Easter now has to do with the Teutonic, pagan goddess Eastre, whose feast was supplanted and appropriated by the central festival of the new Christian faith.

In our time, we are seeing something of a reversal of this process of assimilation as secular ideas and values attach themselves to the symbols, language and traditions of what may yet become “the old religion” in this country.

Weddings and funerals as well as the sacramental rites of passage for children — baptism, first communion and confirmation — are appropriating more and more, the values of the world, often with the collusion of the clergy.

Times have moved on of course and life is no longer short, nasty and brutish, so we may look forward to our respective ideas of heaven here on this earth, with any luck.

Life expectancy for baby girls born in the developed world in the last few years is 100. With that kind of vista of longevity ahead and so much to do and achieve in the here and now, the enduring need for religion is being reappraised.

For very many, the recent tarnishing of religion by scandals within the church is cause for reappraisal in itself. And so in a nice twist of history, we have Kerry County Council berating the Kerry diocese for presuming to set terms and conditions for funeral rites in their churches.

It is not long ago since not only county councils but the Oireachtas itself, took orders from church leaders on matters of social policy and administration.

However, the current encroachment of the secular on the sacred is not as one-way as it appears. The need for ritual and symbol has not gone away. They help us process life’s big events.

Neither has the need for silence, music and sacred text for the bruised or elated spirit. Being together in sacred space is healing and consoling. A recent study by Oxford University on the declining role of parish life and particularly the opportunity it offers to gather and sing together, concluded that both individuals and communities are the poorer for the loss.

Religious life is communal in character while secular life tends towards individualism. While life in the developed world today is more likely to be long, tedious and trying than short, nasty and brutish, we are no more masters of our fate than we ever were.

Mortality is our enduring condition: at the end of our days there are few among us, no matter how old, who can’t concur with the ancient psalm that life is “over like a sigh”, “a breath” or the “grass that withers”.

The growing interest in activities that originate in various religions such as meditation, pilgrimage, mindfulness and the cultivation of gratitude show that the human orientation towards the metaphysical is a constant. Bread and circuses, cakes and ale alone don’t sustain us. This is hardly surprising because our western civilisation is rooted in a religious consciousness, specifically a Christian one. Even today, we can see how the Christian values of justice and compassion and respect for the dignity of all persons permeate our legal charters and codes.

Even the official, blue flag of the EU represents Mary with the crown of 12 stars as described in the Book of Revelation.

Our languages are inextricably linked to this same religious consciousness. The original quest for knowledge was in pursuit of answers to the big questions of existence. Hence, we have the word ‘theory’ and all its derivatives stemming from the Greek word for God, ‘theos’.

The first universities were founded to ponder these same questions of life and death and to this day even in the heartlands of modern secularism their names testify to their original inspiration. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge read like a litany of the saints. How long before the politically correct in this country wake up to the fact that our most consciously and proudly secular university is dedicated to the Trinity?

Before we unravel too much of our spiritual heritage we need to consider how well we can hold on to the comfort and familiarity of ancient symbols and rites, while ignoring or even rejecting their meaning.

Can we attach new meanings to them in the way that pagan symbols and rites were grafted on to Christianity? Why have we got to replace what has been passed down to us over many centuries? Can we really have the social and psychological benefits of religion without the meaning that breathes life into them?

Calling time on the Angelus is just a very small part of a campaign to remove every vestige of religious expression from the public space. The public’s lack of enthusiasm or at least ambivalence about its demise might well hold a deeper question.

  • Margaret Hickey is a member of Mothers and Fathers Matter, a national organisation that defends the right of every child to their mother and father.

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