Who do the Irish think they are?

I can hardly express how very much older I am now than the twenty-one-year-old twit who concocted the following polemic. I can hardly believe myself the humanizing effect this third decade has had upon me. So please, read the below with as much head-shaking as it deserves; I read it so myself. But I still find it enjoyable as an historical document of who I was then, and what I made of that. So please, read on with as much judgment as you care to bestow on Beaner, vintage 2000; but please remember that he no longer works here! — The Editor

I dislike special treatment. Of course, I like it when I am the recipient of some sort of exceptional coddling, but on principle I have to object to it. And I am sure that most of you readers will agree. Who hasn’t seen spoiled children in retail stores, screaming and throwing a fit until they get whatever they want? It is awful. It shouldn’t happen, and we all know why it does: the parents are failing to be sufficiently firm with their children. I’m not going to launch into a dissertation on how I think children should be raised—that’s a different article, one I’ll write after I have some experience in that area. All I am trying to do here is establish that it is despicable when a child of any age whines until he gets his way (oh yes, and girls do this, too), and what is even more disturbing is the parents who allow and encourage this sort of behaviour.

If this behaviour is unpleasant on the small scale of parents and children, then what are we to say when a vast population of adults is treated with the same over-indulgence by a parent-figure who should know better? This, in essence, was my initial reaction to the announcement by the Most Reverend Harry J. Flynn, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that Lent did not matter this year. Yes, given the unalterable catastrophe that in this Jubilee Year, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Lenten Friday—a day where Catholics are required to abstain from all meat as an act of penance—the good archbishop chose to waive this horrible requirement, lest it interfere with the necessity of a certain ethnic group to engage in carnivorous and drunken revelry.

Are the Irish all children, that they cannot be told “No”? Were they going to throw a collective tantrum if they had to wait a day to gorge themselves on corned beef? Pray, do not accuse me of demeaning them; Archbishop Flynn has already done that sufficiently, I think.

(The Floating Egg would not wish readers to think this piece is a silly bit of reactionary journalism. This is not about me not liking the Irish. I have nothing against the Irish — aside from their apparent belief that they as a race are God’s gift to God. But this dispensation seemed entirely unjustifiable to me. So we did our homework, and this is what we have to say. Pray, read on.)

The Friday abstinence from meat is an ancient tradition in the Catholic Church. I will not attempt a history of the practice, but will only say that as a standard act of penitence Friday abstinence has been with us for a long time. I do not believe it is unreasonable to expect what is to me a pretty mild penance from everyone. If we are to heed the gospel, we should be doing far more than merely passing up meat once a week, but it is a good start.

And it is not unreasonable in its application, either. Children are not expected to abide by this, nor are the elderly. The law is binding between the ages of 14 and 65. Of course, younger children should grow into the spirit of penance, and the aged are not given free license to revel. It is a spiritual thing, and the law simply serves as a guide for us.

In the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, this all seems pretty clear to me. Canon 1251 reads, “Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities” (emphasis mine). I shall explain solemnities in a moment. Now, the national conference of bishops is empowered by Canon 1253 to modify this rule, and the bishops’ conference of the United States did so on 18 November 1966. Their pastoral statement from that date states that “Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent.” The U.S. bishops go on to say that “Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole.” A much easier rule to follow, I think, with room left to do as much penance as you like. No one should find this burdensome, should they?

But this rule is not inescapable, either. There always seems to be a loophole; canon law is like an iron rod: if you heat it up enough, it will bend. The local bishop has the option of dispensing with particular laws in his diocese under special circumstances. Canon 87, §1: “As often as he judges that a dispensation will contribute to the spiritual good of the faithful, the diocesan bishop can dispense from both universal and particular disciplinary laws established for his territory or for his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church” (emphasis mine). Yet this is curtailed by Canon 90, §1: “A dispensation from an ecclesiastical law may not be granted without a just and reasonable cause and without taking into consideration the circumstances of the case and the gravity of the law from which the dispensation is to be given.”

The feast days of saints are very important in the church calendar. Yet not all saint’s days are created equal. There is a hierarchy of importance — liturgically speaking — in their celebration. The highest level is solemnity. Solemnities are the top-notch festivities in the liturgical year. These include feasts of Our Lord (e.g. Christmas, Easter, all Sundays) and many Marian feasts (Immaculate Conception, Annunciation, Mary Mother of God, Assumption, et cetera), as well as several saints who are of great importance (Joseph, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul). The second level is that of feast, a celebration not quite as central as a solemnity, yet still quite important in the Church. These are the days of many important saints, especially apostles. At the lowest level are memorials, and these come in two brands: obligatory and optional. Memorials are, as the name implies, a remembrance of the saint in question, but without the high celebratory nature of a feast or solemnity. Obligatory memorials are fixed in the calendar and must be observed throughout the Church. Optional memorials, on the other hand, are celebrated at the discretion of the presider, depending on the particular devotion of the community.

Where does the Apostle of the Emerald Isle fit into this hierarchy? Surely a saint worthy of commercialisation must deserve a major celebration in the Church? Alas, no. In the United States, March 17 is an optional memorial, the lowest order of liturgical celebration. It is entirely up to the individual priest whether or not to say the prayers proper to St. Patrick, or to just go with the current weekday. In short, as a church feast, St. Patrick’s Day hardly merits special privileges. It barely merits notice at all.

In Ireland, of course, the case is quite different. March 17 is indeed a solemnity in the dioceses of the Emerald Isle, and rightly so. In fact, it is a holy day of obligation; all Irish Catholics must attend Mass on this feast of their greatest saint. I am told by a priest who is a native of Ireland that the day is actually kept as a religious celebration. Although this may sound far-fetched, he actually claims that the pubs are closed! I find this difficult to believe, but I shall take the good Father at his word.

This would be a notable difference from how the Irish saint is honoured in this country. Here, there is nothing religious about March 17, period. How many Irish-Americans do you know that went to Mass on St. Patrick’s Day? Not too many I bet. But who, Irish or not, didn’t hoist a pint or ten? This is a not a celebration of the bringing of the Faith to a wonderful people; this is at best a celebration of national pride in a new land, and at worst is merely a thin excuse to hold a city-wide orgy of drunkenness with the approbation of both church and state.

Is this the “just and reasonable cause” Canon 90 speaks of? Are Guinness® and corned beef essential for “the spiritual good of the faithful” in the Twin Cities? This is the message that Archbishop Flynn, and seemingly every other bishop in this country, have sent to the faithful, and I believe, in all due respect, that this message is an inappropriate one. The message is that, plain and simple, that the Irish are the most special people there is.

I am somewhat disturbed by this privileged place which the Irish are given in the Catholic Church in this country. True, there are a lot of them, and true, they played an important part in the shaping of Catholic America. But does this really mean that the rules no longer apply to them? I hardly think so! As an ethnic group they have suffered grave injustices in this country, in no small part due to their religion, and they should certainly have our respect for that. But that does not give them special privileges, nor does it give them the right to claim the Catholic Church in America as their own special domain. The Irish are no better Catholics than anybody else, and I do not believe they should receive special treatment. St. Patrick’s Day is no longer about faith; it is about celebrating national and ethnic identity. Wonderful as far as that goes (although I have strong feelings about nationalism, but we shall save that for another time), but they should not expect the Church to give them special privileges to do so, and Church leaders should not give them such preferment.

Interestingly enough, when I spoke to the archbishop’s office, they assured me that this was not the case. I had a nice chat with Sister Dominca Brennan, the Archdiocesan spokesperson, and she explained that the dispensation was not a special concession to the Irish, but rather, since so many people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in this country, it was a decision affecting the whole community. I then pointed out to her that it was hardly celebrated as a religious holiday. She shrugged this off. There was never any reference to it being a religious holiday in the dispensation; “Simply the fact that it was celebrated [by a large number of people] was seen as sufficient,” Sr. Brennan said. My pint, I mean point, exactly.

I would not be surprised if this dispensation by Archbishop Flynn was simply a cop out to make acceptable what was going to happen anyway. He didn’t really believe that any Catholic — Irish or otherwise — would obey the law of abstinence on 17 March, and rather than let them all commit sins of disobedience, he gave them the okay. Dispensation or not, the corned beef was going on the table that Friday, so why fight it? Why tell a child “No” when he already has his hand in the cookie jar?

It was weakness, yes, a lack of discipline further encouraged and justified by a biased Church hierarchy, but was it really so bad? Probably not. After all, the Irish are the most special nation on Earth. So next time you are in line at the supermarket and the child in front of you throws a tantrum over a candy bar, don’t get upset. Just smile, and think of the Irish. I know the analogy will amuse me for a long time to come.

One thought on “Who do the Irish think they are?

  1. It is hard to believe that has been ten years since I was so irate and persnickety that I stood in a phone booth and — on the basis of my self-identification as a writer “from The Floating Egg” — interviewed the PR contact for a major American Archdiocese. (My intent was to speak directly with the Archbishop, but I suppose people like me are the reason they have people to handle people like me.) The preceding is only slightly edited from how it appeared in the March-April 2000 edition of TFE, and I offer it again here in hopes of your aghast amusement, not your antagonism. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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