Tuesday, May 21

A country church in twilight

My parents were (and are) quiet but observant practitioners of the Catholic religion. My brother, sisters and I all received the appropriate sacraments at the appropriate ages. They also ensured we attended mass every Sunday, which was not always or often much appreciated by my childhood self. 

Worse was the season of Lent. This is the forty-day period leading to Good Friday during which Catholics, Orthodox and Anglican Christians are supposed to practice reflection and self-denial as a way of preparing for Easter. As if the restrictions on junk food weren’t bad enough, this time of the year also involved extra church. On Friday evenings. 

That was the night of the week that our little community in the Manawatu village of Rongotea made the Stations of the Cross. 

If you’re ever in a Catholic church, you’ll probably see a series of artworks up and down the nave marked from I to XIV. Each of these “stations” traces the final steps of the life of Jesus Christ. The first station is the condemnation of Pilate and the last is the laying to rest of Jesus’ body in the tomb. 

For those unfamiliar with the practice, the stations of the cross are a series of 14 devotions that trace the final steps of Jesus Christ’s life. Each station is marked by a plaque or artwork depicting a moment of Christ’s journey to the cross. The gathered people move from station to station, pausing at each one to pray and meditate on the suffering and sacrifice of Christ.  

The whole thing took about an hour and was greatly resented. To repeat: we are talking about Friday night here. The only consolation was that there were usually other kids from school there. Misery always loves company and at least there would be people to hang out with after it was all over and the parents milled around talking to each other. 

Most painful of all were those occasions when the old people decided to cater to the youth with a “youth” focused evening. On those nights, the teenagers were not able to hang out at the back. Instead, we had to take it in in turns to read out meditations that had been written by some well meaning boomer in an attempt to make religion appealing to us. 

I left home at 18 and do not think I went to the stations of the cross again until I was about thirty. That was the age I moved back to the village. Our house is just around the corner from the church and so my grandmother was naturally very excited to have me as an active member of the community again.  

And I could hardly let her down. Whatever my faults, I’m no Prince Harry. So, I started to go again. 

I am pleased to have done it for her benefit. However, in the ten years since leaving home, attendance had dropped off a cliff. Participation in organised religion had been on the wane for decades. In the 2010s, the decrease had become especially rapid.  

To borrow from Hemingway, decline happened slowly and then all at once.  

This is the story of Catholicism in the West. My grandmother, who turns 100 next month, is the proud mother, grandmother, and great grandmother to more than 100 living descendants. Of those, only nine regularly attend church. Five of them are me and my four children.  

It is quite startling to consider this history. Our family’s Irish Catholicism has endured for more than a millennium. It persisted in the face of harsh and severe persecution of England’s penal laws. It even withstood the great famine, where some unscrupulous Protestant organisations would offer soup to starving Catholics, if only they would renounce their faith. 

But we have lost that faith. We have lost our belief. So, as a people, we are headed towards extinction.  

We have not had any evening Stations of the Cross this year.  

Instead, for those who want to participate, they are offered directly after Sunday mass. I think this is intended to boost turnout by capturing the people already there. I personally can’t see a strategy of making Sunday services even longer doing wonders for church attendance, though. 

But the other night, when the kids were in bed and my wife was listening to music, I decided to slip out of the house and snuck over to the church. Leaving the lights in the off, I lit a candle and popped in my headphone to listen to a recording of meditations on the journey to the cross by the great English theologian John Henry Newman.  

The stillness of the church, with the flickering candle against the faded artworks, provided the perfect setting for contemplation. However, an empty church also brings a sense of melancholy. Churches are meant to be the gathering places of thriving communities, not the gravesites of fading ones. 

But why did I feel compelled to go? To be honest I am not entirely sure. 

But I think it has something to do with not wanting to break the chain. As a child, I never appreciated being forced to attend the stations of the cross. But I also never appreciated that our community might one day disappear altogether.  

If feels like a shock to think that my children may miss out on the faith, tradition and, yes, the occasional boredom handed down by their ancestors 

Well, for what it’s worth, I’ve kept that tradition going for one more year. Though it may seem like a feeble link, at least the chain remains intact. For now.