Why the Angelus still chimes for most of us



Right, let us pause for the Angelus, my father would say, the fork-full of beans on toast suspended midway to my mouth, my younger brother kicking me under the table. And so we paused. Froze. Perfectly still, like the painted picture on the old black-and-white telly in the dining-room corner, the image of Madonna and Child accompanying the peal of the bells as the Angelus rang out the length and breadth of Holy Catholic Ireland, courtesy of the then fledgling Radio Telefis Eireann.

I bet God doesn’t stop eating his tea just ‘cos the Angelus is ringing, I thought, as my brother made another swipe at my shin, and I inwardly asked forgiveness for my blasphemy. Meantime, that lifetime ago, in the seemingly comforting cocoon of a dominant Catholic and predominantly rural Ireland of the 1950s and 60s, the nation virtually came to a standstill for one whole minute twice a day, noon and evening, for the ringing of the Angelus.

I am reminded of this still from my life, as an RTE/Red C exit poll a little while back shows that two out of three people interviewed want to keep the Angelus. Asked, “Should RTÉ stop or should it keep broadcasting the Angelus?”,  68% said it should be kept, 21% said it should go, and 11%  declined to answer.

It’s a debate that religiously comes up annually: Should the Angelus be scrapped?

The one-minute reflection on RTÉ One has been aired daily at 6pm since the inception of national television in 1962, while the famous bells are also broadcast on RTÉ radio at noon and 6pm. Since 2015 the Angelus has been accompanied by more secular imagery which famously led Senator David Norris to remark in the Seanad that this was “hogwash”, stating: “It is and should remain Christian.”

Atheist Ireland once annually calls for the national broadcaster to discontinue ‘ringing’ the Angelus because it is an affront to an increasing secular and/or multi-religious society. An anachronism, they argue – a throwback to more homogeneously and observantly Christian times.

At the very least, Atheist Ireland – a loose consortium of like-minded non-believers founded in 2006 and a member of Atheist Alliance International – believes RTE should change the name of the Angelus. Changing the title “would be an important first step to creating a genuinely inclusive and religiously neutral moment of reflection,” it argues.

The head of religious programmes at RTE had previously said the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had ruled it is totally defensible to retain the 18 peals of the Angelus bell during the “moment of reflection, as well as continuing to call it the Angelus”.

Its origins as a daily devotion of sorts by the national broadcaster go back to 1948 and Leon O Broin, the then secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, who oversaw broadcasting. He discussed the idea of a daily spoken Angelus with the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, the infamous John Charles McQuaid.

The idea was rejected, but an alternative of experimenting with the sound of a bell was considered. Once the principle of the broadcast was agreed, how it was to be done was purely an engineering matter.

For centuries, an integral part of the mythos and vernacular of Roman Catholicism, the relevance today of the Angelus, despite the aforementioned poll’s result, can best be described as an anachronism. And a harmless one at that.

A simple, quiet minute or so in a day that allows time to reflect and take stock. To, as someone in the Bible wrote, “be still and know that I am God”.

Of all of the things offensive about Ireland’s unhealthy relationship with Catholicism, the Angelus is the least of them.

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