John D. Sheridan was known to older generations of Catholics for the many writings that spanned the years from the 1940s to the 1970s. In “The Hungry Sheep” his analysis of changes brought to Ireland in the wake of the Second Vatican Council are deeply insightful. If this book had been widely read by Catholics at the time, it is likely that lay people would have been alerted and prepared for what was to come. They would also have had some valuable knowledge about what was happening.
Sheridan’s novels can still be enjoyed but perhaps he is best remembered for his humorous essays, now collected in several books and for his contributions to the Irish Independent newspaper leading to his being known popularly as simply “John D.”
Usually showing compassion and understanding towards human nature, Sheridan sometimes allowed his own humanity to surface and this is demonstrated in the absence of goodwill he felt towards anywhere he detected pomposity and officiousness. In the following extract it is church stewards who are the cause of his annoyance.
“When he sees me playing the publican at the back of the church, in company with a lot of other publicans, he waggles an imperious finger at me, as if he were buying me at an auction, and magnetizes me into following him up the aisle.
He scans the crowded seats as if he were looking for contraband, and then, stopping at one this is just as congested as any of the others, pretends that he has found a gap and indicates that I may fold my wings like a dove. But no-one wants to give me place and the resentful occupants of the seat to which I have been unwillingly promoted look at me as if I were someone known to the police. I barge my way past a fur coat, encounter some opposition from a Crombie, knock down an umbrella and a missal, stand on a little man and eventually reach the middle of the seat, where a tiny section of woodwork is visible. Presently my immediate neighbours, who quite clearly regard themselves as the dispossessed, move a little east and west, respectively, and the ripple spreads slowly throughout the entire seat until at last I am conceded a space about half the size of the one I occupied on the day I was confirmed. I am now faced with a desperate choice: I can either remain kneeling all the time like a mystic, or I can enlarge my small holding by twisting and turning until I start another tidal wave.
The steward meanwhile is snapping his fingers at other unwilling vessels of election and marching them up the centre of the aisle, assessing the human content of each seat as he passes it. When he comes to ours he affects to see an inch or two of unoccupied oak, so we all spread ourselves out and try to look as fat as possible. But he is not deceived. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand away from him, and we all huddle a little tighter. Now he signs to the waiting publican, who comes amongst us and sits down on my hat.
We are now so tightly packed that when the man in the middle takes out his handkerchief the man at the end falls off the seat. There is room for us when we kneel down for the prayers and when we stand up for the hymn, but when we sit down for the sermon there seems to be one over. If I were as spiritually-minded as I should be, I would offer it up for my sins, butbeing of earth, earthy, I find the congestion very distracting. My resentment mounts up and it is all directed – illogically and unfairly at the hard-working, well-meaning and unselfish steward, who, having made everyone unhappy, is now preening himself in the centre of the aisle like a clever sheep-dog which has succeeded at last in penning all the sheep.
I am ashamed of this outburst (I wonder is it matter for Confession?) but I just can’t help myself. I try hard to have sweet thoughts about church stewards, but I still see them as spoiled sergeant-majors, as parish Napoleons who at some critical stage of their lives studied book-keeping instead of strategy. And this in spite of the fact that no-one has a higher appreciation than I of the meritorious work done by these shining souls who serve the community without fee or reward.
But why are they so solemn and serious about it all? We may be the Church Militant but we are not conscripts to be coerced. We may be a little undisciplined at times, but a smile will bring the worst of us to heel – and there are some church stewards who, possibly from a sense of reverence, never smilewhen on duty and others who seem to think that no-one else in the congregation is dowered with intelligence and mother-wit.
It may well be that everyone else loves church stewards. Possibly I have inherited some dark and unreasoning streak from ancestors who threw stones at policemen during evictions and laid horny hands on bailiffs and tithe-proctors. So I had better be honest and say that although I admire church stewards and wouldn’t take their job for any money, I still don’t like them. God forgive me, I just can’t stand the strut and the set of them and their detached unwinking stares.” (Bright Intervals)
While some of us will give a nostalgic smile, it is worth bearing in mind that young people have no memory of a time when smiling in the church was inappropriate. These were years when gentlemen possessed handkerchiefs and hats which they removed in church while girls and ladies retainedtheir headgear. Nearly everyone read Mass from a missal. However some words such as “publican” have entirely lost their original meaning. In Sheridan’s essay there is an underlying allusion to the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, which in Gospel times meant a despised tax-collector. The Crombie and the fur coat belonged to the class of people who could sit at the top of the church while the poorer people stood at the back. Sheridan, always identified with the lower classes (he alludes to himself as a publican). The steward while “magnitizing” the poor publicans, shows no mercy or understanding for the fact that due to perhaps feeling inadequately dressed, some preferred to remain quietly at the back of the church.
Those were the days when churches were full to capacity and this did not just mean Sunday Mass. Most evenings had well-attended devotions that consisted of Rosary, sermon and Benediction. The first Sunday of each month had special devotions with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and this was known as the Holy Hour. As for words, “Sermon” has now become “homily” and it is worth pondering how many people nowadays remember or have ever heard the term “Church Militant.”