Saturday 20 January 2018

Fair-weather Catholicism: Faith, but not as we once knew it

Modern Ireland has thrown up a whole new tribe of à la carte ­believers. One of them is ­Catherine O'Mahony

Once there was standing room only at Mass
Once there was standing room only at Mass

At virtually every major ­Catholic ceremony I have attended in the last 15 to 20 years - all the christenings, Communions, weddings and funerals - the attending priest has at some point made an oblique reference to the fact that he knows many of those in attendance are not regular Mass goers.

On at least two toe-curling occasions, the priest lost patience, and more or less declared his wish that we would all take off and stop bothering the Church with our tedious need for comforting ritual, unless we happen to be willing to show up at a few bog-standard religious events as well as for the showstoppers.

I understand the clergy's frustration; I truly do. It must be galling to find your church thronged with people each spring, for instance, as they support their little eight-year-olds' journey to First Communion, when you know in your steely heart that hardly a sinner amongst them will still be regulars come the cold autumn days.

It must be so irritating to realise that families with no semblance of devotion to Catholicism find themselves exploding in piety when someone dies, or wants to be married. It must make priests feel like they are some class of service provider - a hotelier perhaps, or a restaurant manager - rather than someone who is leading a congregation toward a stronger faith.

How the clergy must hanker for the days when there was standing room only in every church of a Sunday - no Confirmation, Communion or wedding needed.

Cards on the table, here; I am a fair-weather Catholic. I rarely attend Mass. I could not tell you the name of the local parish priest. I think the Catholic church has behaved appallingly in the past in minimising clerical sexual abuse and I just cannot understand its reluctance - given the dearth of vocations for the priesthood - to accept women as priests.

But I do not - cannot - tar the entire Catholic clergy with the same unsavoury brush. I have simply known too many sincere and spiritual nuns and priests to entertain it.

And I still sent my offspring to Catholic school. I still tick the Catholic box on the census form. I like to drop in at the local church to light a candle for my deceased mother. And when my father recently passed, I found myself delighted and relieved on his behalf to embrace the familiar rhythms, hymns and recitations of a full Catholic burial. Nothing else would have seemed right. And, when it comes down to it, I do not apologise for that.

Catholicism just feels part of me. It is part of me. I was at one time a candidate for the world's most devout 11-year-old, detouring from my walk home to school regularly to do the stations of the cross before starting my homework. Some of my best memories of childhood were from the church my father often brought me too, where a truly magnificent choir would wring tears of joy from a stone (and on top of that, I would get 10 pence for sweets on the way home). The words of the Catholic prayers and the Scriptures are so familiar that they provide a comfort nothing else can deliver.

In sum, the Catholic church means something to me. It doesn't mean enough to make me a decent Catholic. But it matters to me in my own way. I cannot let it go entirely. I believe I never will.

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