Writing this in a beautiful hotel room in Innsbruck, Austria. The room overlooks a gorgeous Catholic Church, whose name I can't seem to find right now. (I would simply ask reception if the reception wasn't closed and in complete darkness when we returned from dinner, through the almost deserted roads, at the outrageously late hour of eleven o'clock or so. Innsbruck believes in early nights-- or, at least, early Sunday nights.)
This was my first ever trip to continental Europe. We went to a small town in Germany called Garmisch-Partenkirchen (a town formed from two towns, through a shotgun marriage by Adolf Hitler himself), where we stayed at a five-star hotel (a new experience for me). I rode in a cable car there-- another new experience for me, and much less frightening than I'd expected. We went to look at the fairy-tale castle of King Ludwig, Neuschwanstein, although we didn't actually go in as the wait for the next tour was too long. We had a jaunt on a horse-drawn carriage here, too. We moved on to the Italian town Merano, which (despite being within the borders of Italy) holds slightly more German speakers than Italian speakers. It was an interesting experience to walk into a shop or restaurant and not know what language you would be addressed in. (My schoolboy German was stretched to breaking point and beyond. I had one completely German conversation with a Genuine, Authentic German speaker. I asked for an ice-cream, then I asked for cream on it. It may not seem much, but I'm very proud.) Today we moved on to Innsbruck, preparing for our return trip to Munich Airport tomorrow.
I have been very struck by the sheer obviousness of Christianity in continental Europe-- or at least, in Bavaria, South Tyrol, and Innsbruck. Churches are everywhere. Jesus is everywhere. Indeed, you encounter Jesus here in places where you would never expect to encounter him in Ireland. Restaurants, shops and public places are not at all bashful about having a crucifixion or Last Supper scene where, in their Irish equivalents, one would not look for anything more significant than a watercolour of lilies, or perhaps of a dreamy sunset.
We stepped into a few churches, and were impressed at how well maintained they were. When we eventually attended Mass this evening, at the small (but magnificently decorated) Catholic church beside this hotel, we were pleased to see that the Church was pretty much full and that people of all ages attended-- in fact, there were several families. Even without understanding German, I could see that the priest and congregation took part in the celebration with real reverence, that this wasn't simply some inherited cultural tradition, kept up out of inertia.
Everything I had ever read or held about Christianity in continental Europe had led me to expect nothing but a few feeble embers still glowing here and there. From what I've seen, the reality seems rather different.