Liturgy gives comfort in darkness

Michael Kelly on the power and beauty in ancient ritual

Tom O’Gorman lost his life in unspeakable circumstances. Of all the words that have been used to describe Tom by his many friends and colleagues since news of the awful tragedy spread, the most appropriate seems to be ‘decent’. Tom was a decent man, not in the literal sense of being satisfactory, but in the traditional understanding of supreme Gaelic manhood as selfless, spiritual and grounded.

“Splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy,” Pearse said of O’Donovan-Rossa. It was to honour Tom, to pray for the happy repose of his soul and for the consolation of his heartbroken family and friends that more than 600 people packed in to St Teresa’s Church in Dublin city centre on Tuesday evening. The church, clothed in darkness save for a few flickering candles, was an oasis of calm just footsteps away from the bustling early-evening busyness of Grafton Street. The darkness was poignantly appropriate and captured the mood of those who had gathered in disbelief, shock, grief, heartbreak and anger. The ceremony had been hastily arranged by Tom’s friends and word spread quickly on social media. No one talked very much, instead nodding in acknowledgement or with a gentle smile which couldn’t mask the inner turmoil of those who loved Tom. Hugs and embraces – which seemed to radiate the sense of the terribleness of it all – removed the need for words.

Sharing the pain

The Irish have always done death well and the mournful obsequies of the Catholic Church are amongst the most poignant and beautiful of the Church’s tradition. They speak to a felt need for people to come together and be with one another in sharing the sense of pain and disbelief. The ceremony in St Teresa’s was all the more important given the delay in holding the funeral Mass.

The rhythm of the liturgy, the familiar rituals, and the repetition of prayers learnt in childhood, offer calming solace in the face of tragedy. How often do heartbroken communities the length and breadth of the country come together in prayerful solidarity in the midst of horrific tragedies? I saw the same in my home town of Omagh when the community was devastated by the bombing of 1998.

Deepest feelings

When faced with death, the Masses and liturgies articulate the deepest feelings and emotions of the human heart. The tears shed during a much-loved hymn, the heartfelt invocation for divine assistance and the pregnant pauses that punctuate the liturgy all give expression to feelings that people struggled to name and give voice to.

Such ceremonies speak of hope too: the flickering candle in the midst of darkness, the knowledge that – for the believer – Christ not only died, but rose from the dead. The expectation that, in the midst of darkness and evil, there is goodness and light. The knowledge that with the grief and the pain there is also decency and kindness.


“It was good to come together,” many people said after the remembrance service. Some drifted away in silence, others lingered in that sacred place craving closeness, sharing memories of Tom, inquiring about funeral arrangements. We Irish don’t take death lightly, and it seems almost counter-initiative, but there’s a comfortableness around death in our tradition: we know what to do in a way that sometimes shocks newcomers. The rites and rituals of dealing with death are sewed into the DNA of our culture.

“Blest are you that weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh…” were the final words of the closing hymn. It was good to come together. It doesn’t dull the pain or ease the suffering, but the power and beauty of ancient ritual and liturgy blended with human solidarity and closeness help to express the grief and articulate the hope of good days again.