As published in the European Newspaper of the Year, The Mayo News on Tuesday 11th November 2014 🙂
In recent weeks, Fr. Brendan Hoban, a prominent member of the Association of Catholic Priests, appealed to Irish Bishops to ignore a Vatican directive instructing priests to remain at the altar during the Sign of Peace ritual during Mass. Because of its position in the ceremony, right before Communion, it is suggested that the hustle and bustle of the handshake disrupts the spiritual preparation of those preparing to receive the Sacrament, and one assumes, those administering it. However, the directive, according to Fr. Hoban, could do “untold damage” to the church, by destroying a custom that is part and parcel of pastoral care. If implemented, it would mean that priests should desist from offering the sign of peace to newlywed couples and their loved ones and to grieving families during funeral ceremonies. We are told that the Church and the church community are one and the same, but this unfortunate directive would essentially serve to create another barrier between the clergy and the community. And that’s a shame – for both.
Plenty could be written about the coldness, the heavy-handedness of the Vatican, and the chasm that exists between its reality and the lived reality of the lives of ordinary church members (and many of the clergy, human beings themselves), but – you can breathe a sigh of relief – I’ll save that for another day. Rather, what struck me about the directive was the way it aims to create distance and establish barriers where really, the need to demolish them appears far more prudent and necessary.
Once upon another lifetime, an old friend elbowed me and whispered during the Sign of Peace at a wedding. “Look around you”, he said. “Everyone in the place is smiling.” Now, it should be said that the same fella had a tendency to prank you during the Sign of Peace by holding onto your hand like a vice grips and not releasing it until either it turned blue or you made an undignified show of yourself trying to shake him off, whichever happened first, but unnerving habits aside, he had a point. Just reaching out, looking someone else in the eye and shaking their hand had lifted the room and filled it with a new light. The simple act of connecting, wishing someone else well. Surely that’s something that should be encouraged, not dissuaded?
It’s a thought that’s stayed with me down the years, and particularly so as we evolve into more technology-dependent beings. We’re privileged enough to have multiple means of connecting and communicating, yet sometimes it feels like we’re retreating further and further from each other. Where once we might have written a note, picked up the phone or knocked on the neighbour’s door, we now communicate using SMS, email, Facebook. Instead of looking someone in the eye, we stare at a screen. Sure, technology makes the world so much smaller, it’s a godsend for those with loved ones far away, and it facilitates business interactions in a manner light years away from fax machines and hand-delivered memos. The likes of Twitter also enables us to connect with people that would have been previously out of reach – people that might previously have only featured on CD covers, posters on our walls and our dreams – but how meaningful are those connections?
It’s hard not to wonder if we’re becoming more reclusive – and dare I say, lazy – when it comes to those in closer proximity. When I was growing up, in true country childhood style, no-one called ahead to ask if they could visit. The very idea was scoffed at; they just turned up on the doorstep, often in substantial numbers. It was the norm, and it was actually quite nice, unless the host had no biscuits in the house. Now, we make appointments for face-to-face contact and book ourselves in like we would to the dentist’s chair. Running through my neighbourhood in Dublin recently, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of iron security gates outside houses. A safeguard, or a barrier? To me, I must admit, they say one thing loud and clear – “Keep your distance”. The traditional Irish welcome now comes with a raft of terms and conditions, if you ever get to cross the threshold of your neighbour’s home. Indeed, how many of us living in suburbia can claim to even know their neighbours? It’s not just in the home, though, it’s at work too – those of us working in open-plan offices will be no stranger to communicating via email with the person sitting next to us – to my embarrassment I’m frequently guilty of this crime against civility and common sense.
I can’t help wondering how this trend will continue into the future and to what extent communication technologies will develop, but one thing’s for certain. No matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how independent, no matter how futuristic our communication tools, none of them will ever trump the power of a smile, a hug, a handshake at Mass or elsewhere, or a simple chat over a cup of tea. And biscuits only make it better.