In praise of the Angelus

Posted on: 3rd November, 2015

Category: A West Cork Life

Contributor: Tina Pisco

I hear that they have revamped the Angelus. Over the years there has been much debate as to whether broadcasting what is a Catholic call to prayer in a secular society is appropriate. Ireland has changed and is now composed of a wide range of people and beliefs. However, calls to abandon the Angelus have largely gone unheeded, because survey after survey concludes that people really like it.

The prayer itself dates back to at least the 13th century. It was traditionally recited three times daily and was accompanied by the 18 gongs of a bell. The broadcast  Angelus was established following a proposal by Archbishop McQuaid as a way to mark the Holy Year. It was first broadcast on the radio on August 15, 1950 and was most definitely a Catholic call to prayer. The first television Angelus was broadcast in 1962 and was accompanied by old Master paintings of the Annunciation. The prayer itself was never broadcast, just the bells. The bells were first (and still are) recorded from  St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, although initially they were broadcast live, which posed no end of technical difficulties at the time. In 2009, RTE almost scrapped it, but decided (due to popular demand) instead to abandon the Catholic imagery and so we got the ‘older couple feeding swans’, ‘girl with pony’, and ‘woman pausing as she hangs washing on the line, to gaze into the middle distance’.

We don’t really have a proper telly anymore, and somewhere along the line when we switched from analogue to soarview, we lost RTE One. I don’t watch much television, so I hardly miss it. There are so many other options to watch programmes, that I scarcely ever watch regularly programmed television. The one exception is the RTE news. I’m a news junkie. It’s a bit of baggage from my former life before I moved to West Cork, when I was a television news producer in Brussels. I live in Ireland and therefore I need to watch the national Irish news. I also surf around for US, UK and European news; but it is the RTE news that tells me what going on where I’m living (or sometimes chooses to ignore news stories, which is just as informative).

I can still watch the Six One news on the RTE news channel which loops day and night, but I’ve lost the Angelus. You’d think that it wouldn’t make much difference. I am non-religious and do not belong to any church. I also feel very strongly about the separation of Church and State, and RTE is the national broadcaster. Yet I miss it.

The bells would always catch me unawares as I busied myself around the kitchen, generally making dinner. They didn’t call me to prayer, but they did tell me that the day was done, and that it was time to pause and reflect — if only for a minute. It always reminded me of ‘Taps’ the trumpet solo that is played at the end of the day at camp: Day is done. Gone the sun from the hills, from the lakes, from the sky. All is well safely rest… The 18 gongs of the Angelus bell was my signal to set aside anything that could wait until the morning and be grateful for the rest.

I don’t know how it started, but we would light a candle (or five tea lights-one for each member of the family) when the Angelus rang. As each girl grew up and moved away, lighting a candle became a way of remembering them, and sending  ‘good vibes’. Sometimes there was an intention: a job interview, a new project; and the candle was lit with a wish that all would go well. We were never solemn when observing the Angelus, though we did get a little superstitious about it: the candles should be lit before the last gong sounded; matches were better than a lighter. We would often parody the thousand-yard-stare as we paused after lightening the candles. It was funny and warm, but also filled us with a sense of peace and loving as we thought about friends and family. To this day if we’re hanging out sheets to dry together, we will stop, stare into the middle distance and go: Bong. Bong. Bong. Though not linked to any prayer or religion in our lives, the Angelus was a daily moment of mindfulness and I loved the quiet grace it afforded me.

The new Angelus will be devoid of any religious connotation. The production company says that it will be “condusive to prayer and reflection for people of all faiths and none”. RTE calls it “a quiet space in a hectic day to day world.” Sounds good to me. Now all I need if someone to find RTE One on my telly.

Things evolve. Society changes, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. At these times of crisis and hustle, it is good to have a set time

If anyone knows how I can get it back…


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