She was to die.
The doctors had not said as much, but once the word cancer was uttered I knew it was only a matter of time. My mother took the news as she had taken all else in life: with an act of faith.
She had been diagnosed just prior to Ash Wednesday; she was to die on Pentecost Sunday. It was to be a Lent like no other. From early on she became increasingly dependent on others. Once she asked to be taken to the local church so she could do what she did every Lent: the Stations of the Cross. I still remember that visit. We started the devotion as we had done many times before, but soon my attention shifted from the Stations on the church pillars to the woman moving between them. But unlike previous occasions, each genuflection, each prayer uttered that day carried a singular meaning.
As time went on, she became less talkative, especially so if bland comments were made about God’s Will. Nevertheless, one conversation remains with me. It was unusual for a number of reasons. It concerned her childhood, something she spoke of rarely. And, it dealt with the faith in an explicit way; normally something she shied away from. Her faith was as deep as any I had encountered; but it was not one given to displays. So when she started to speak, I listened.
She talked of Corpus Christi—in particular of the annual procession to honor the feast. She had grown up in rural Ireland, in a Northern county still part of the United Kingdom if at that time, in the 1930s, with a level of local autonomy given over to those suspicious of, if not openly hostile to, the Catholic minority held within its boundaries. Back then, however, she was a child and oblivious to such matters. In any event, what she was recounting to me that night was something of a different order.
It was a great occasion. Corpus Christi was an outward show of faith that even then she knew was somehow distinct. Her parish contained three churches, spread out around a country area. Each year, it fell to one to begin the procession that solemnly moved from one church to another, finally ending with Benediction. She recalled the day starting with mounting excitement as all the children were decked out in their “Sunday best,” before the family accompanied their neighbors to the church where the procession would start. It got underway when, holding within it the Sacred Species, the priest raised high the monstrance. Thereafter, as he carried it forward, children scattered flowers in his path. The adults walked to the rear, reciting the customary prayers and singing hymns that marked this occasion not just in Ireland but also throughout the then Catholic world.
Slowly, through the country lanes, they processed, before eventually arriving at the last church. After the blessing was given, the day remained a celebration. Whilst the adults chatted and took their leisure—even for farmers there was no work to be done on that day if it could be avoided—the children played and were given treats to eat. It was a joyful day, a true festival. All sensed it was special, in particular the children, even if too young to articulate anything about Transubstantiation or the Real Presence, or how much their ancestors had suffered for these beliefs. The real celebration was that the faith had survived, and was once more being transmitted through family, through ritual, through culture.
Many years later, as she talked, my mother’s face appeared to lighten. It was as if she was with her family once more, a child upon those same muddy lanes. Then, almost as suddenly as she had begun speaking, she stopped, and with that we spoke no more of Corpus Christi.
Contemporary attitudes toward Corpus Christi
Since that procession, Ireland has changed much in the intervening decades. Today, rural parishes, like so many in the cities, are closing. Lack of vocations is blamed, but for years congregations have dwindled. There are still many who come for weddings, baptisms and funerals, but few for much else, including Corpus Christi processions. Doubtless there will be some this weekend, but not many. In any event, more than ever, such events are viewed as a relic of the past, now culturally irrelevant.
It seems the Land of Saints and Scholars is fading fast. A new spirit is abroad in the land as the recent anti-clericalism now turns to a harsher, more aggressive secularism. What others had failed to achieve with “dungeon, fire and sword,” and what Penal Laws could not suppress nor famine and immigration weaken, has come to pass in a few decades as Catholic Ireland crumbles. Cromwell would have been impressed.
It is a depressing conclusion, but not the last word. The Word is buried too deep within that nation’s psyche, much deeper than many realize. The generations that went before—my mother and her forebears—and the sufferings they endured have not been in vain. It is only a matter of time before one day, like Patrick upon the hill of Slane, a spark will again catch fire, and, in so doing, a light shall go forth.
At some point in the future, when sick of what this world offers and surveying all around the debris of its false promises, there will be those, a few at first, who will again seek out that light. And, perhaps on some far-flung island, they shall come upon a deserted church with something unexpected breaking through its shattered windows. Light from candles that tell of the Sacrifice then being offered as once more in Ireland Corpus Christi is held aloft.
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When, at last, it came, we buried her by one of those country churches perched on a hillside near to where she was born. It was a bright spring day when we lowered her mortal remains into the dark earth below.
Now, years later, often late of an evening, and surrounded by the noise of a twenty-first century metropolis—with horns blaring, music playing and the rattle of brightly lit, empty trains returning for the night—I notice my mind drifting to that hillside and its grey granite church. Then, beyond that darkened horizon, and before sleep finally descends, I seem to glimpse in the far distance a rare and delicate light and, in its midst, a child casting flowers before an eternal throne.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Sacraments processie,” was painted by Jules Breton in 1857.