Sunday 20 October 2019

My dirty little secret: why I go to Mass

Sarah Carey explains why she attends Mass and how the Maynooth affair has now created a crisis of conscience

'Even as I resent the judgements people might make because they know these things about me, so do I realise that's precisely the reason I like going to Mass: it's one of the few places where I don't feel judged.'
'Even as I resent the judgements people might make because they know these things about me, so do I realise that's precisely the reason I like going to Mass: it's one of the few places where I don't feel judged.'

Sarah Carey

There was a great laugh in Newstalk this week because Sean Moncrieff was hosting a nude outside broadcast. There were even more laughs when I reminded colleagues I'd visited a nudist colony last year and got the old kit off. And it's weird, I feel more comfortable talking about taking my clothes off than talking about going to Mass. What does the nudist stuff say about me? That I'm a liberal with a sense of humour? What does going to Mass say? That I'm one of Them. And you don't want to be one of Them, do you?

Even as I resent the judgements people might make because they know these things about me, so do I realise that's precisely the reason I like going to Mass: it's one of the few places where I don't feel judged. But I must admit, after the Maynooth thing, I'm having a crisis of conscience. So here goes.

I started going for a few reasons. My father suggested that I should go because a non-pensioner attending would cheer the priest up. I know appalling cruelties have been perpetrated by the Church; but our parish priest has done nothing wrong. There's "The Church" and there are priests. They have to keep the show on the road while being condemned for the sins of others. That's hard.

Anyway, people can say what they want about the death of the Church, but when it comes to their own death, they're less selective. Check out funeral notices and you'll see most still opt for the full honours, even if they haven't darkened the door of a church for decades.

I'd enjoyed getting married in a church, and loved having my babies baptised, so I'd been contributing financially to the parish, even when I didn't go to Mass. How was the electricity bill to be paid in between my family's life events? The next obvious step was to invest a bit of a time as well as money to entitle myself to the sacraments when I wanted them. It's only fair.

So what have you got there? A contrarian spirit. A dutiful daughter. Sympathy for someone on the rack. An insurance policy. Mix it all up and I found myself meeting up with my parents on Saturday nights at 7 o'clock.

The last thing I expected was that I'd actually enjoy going. This will sound barking mad but it quickly became a highlight of my week.

At first it was just an escape. I am wildly busy. So busy I can hardly eat. The connected world means the phone calls and emails never stop. Domestic duties are a tyranny. I love reading but everything I read is for work. Holidays are a memory. Mass became the only place where I could just stop and no one could stop me from stopping.

As a form of me-time, Mass couldn't be challenged. There's an air of self-indulgence about, say, doing some yoga at home or going for a massage. But you can't argue with Mass, can you?

The relaxation was great, but the real richness came in the routine. We all go and sit in the same places and we all have our little ways. Thus are our eccentricities exposed and in-jokes born. We laugh at Mass. All the time.

And so, gradually, this little community grows deeper and connections are made. When my last baby was born the priest asked me if I'd like to have him baptised at the Easter Vigil. I was a bit embarrassed because it's a big night and I always fear being thought a Holy Joe. But we agreed. Normally when there's a christening you just have your immediate family there, but this time we had the entire congregation, who burst into applause when the deed was done.

They'd been with me the whole way through a tough pregnancy. I knew they'd been sympathising with me, wishing me well and were genuinely joyful at the safe birth. I felt connected and supported and that felt great.

And that's how I feel every week at the sign of peace. No matter how bored and drained, no matter how much day-dreaming I've been doing; when the sign of peace comes, every tiny shred of negativity and distraction breaks down and hilarity and warmth ensue. A case in point was just a few weeks ago. It was my night to do the reading, when you have to sit in the front seat.

On those nights it's a bit lonely and forlorn. I miss sitting with my parents and usual neighbours because the front pews are often empty and there's no one with whom to shake hands.

But this night, a woman I barely know worked a little miracle. She has two adorable little girls who worship her. They sit in front of us so we've gotten used to them even though we don't formally know each other. Realising I was cut out of the moment, she'd gotten out of her seat and walked up the aisle, took my hand in both hers and said the prayer "peace be with you".

As I turned to greet her I saw the faces of all my usual friends behind us smiling and laughing that she had come all the way up so I wouldn't be alone.

It was the nicest, warmest, funniest, communal moment, when everyone knew that something really nice had happened, but without anything other than those four simple words being spoken. It really meant something.

I'd hate missing any of this. Which is why this Maynooth thing has shaken me up a bit. It quickly became apparent that the row in Maynooth isn't about Grindr. It's about a serious division in the Church between those who think that priests are the living embodiment of Christ and those who think he's closer to a community social worker. It's about religiosity versus a la carte Catholicism. Which brings me to the bit I've been dodging, because the one thing I haven't mentioned in all my ravings about Mass is faith.

The UCD sociologist Tom Inglis described the likes of me as those who like belonging without believing.

I've often felt like a huge fraud showing up week after week, extracting what I want from the liturgy; content to leave wanting to be a better person. But transubstantiation? Better not to think about that too much.

But have the traditionalists got a point? That Catholicism is ultimately about the Eucharist (which I rarely receive) and unless you're willing to sign up to the whole dogma, you've no business there at all? There's me, cashing in on the true faith of others because I get a hug every Saturday? Isn't that the grossest kind of hypocrisy? Apart from being a bit pathetic too. The Maynooth debate has obliged me to address the big hole at the heart of my cosy little hobby and air of self-congratulation. If I don't believe, what right have I to belong?

Which is better? A tiny congregation of those who fervently believe the dogma or a church at least half-full of the half-hearted. The commercial bet would be to maintain market share rather than mining the niche. What would Jesus do?

That's a question each side will answer to suit themselves. At the moment, I'm afraid to answer it honestly. You could call it a crisis of faith.

Sarah Carey presents Talking Point on Newstalk, Saturdays 9am

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