A la carte Catholicism is fine as long as love is the essence
Niamh Horan is part of a new generation that still call themselves Catholic but question which rules are really worth following
I was in my final year in college at a Kris Kindle dinner with a group of friends when it came to my turn to unwrap my present.
The guys looked on, grinning wildly, as I tore off the paper to reveal a plastic action figurine of Moses.
"What's this for?" I asked.
"Because you're the only Catholic we know that has broken every commandment - except murder."
"The night is young," I replied.
I've always been what you would call an 'a la carte Catholic'. Let's say, I like to make confession worth my while. Growing up, I had all the basics covered. I went to mass every Sunday, every day for Lent, became an altar girl at 12, and kept my pledge not to drink alcohol or take drugs until the age of 18.
What kept my faith strong during those school years - when nothing was seen as cool anymore, not least 'holy Joes' - was the fact that there were a couple of priests with whom I could identify .
They were as wild as their social lives. Drinkers, gamblers and always the last to leave a party. Or 'funeral' - as people in other countries like to call it.
They made me see that you could believe in God and still have the craic. Chase the fun in life - as long as you tried your best.
I have a fond memory of one such priest who called to our house for tea. I decided to unwrap a present my mother had received from her best friend which ended with him dancing around our living room in his black vestments and white collar - a pair of lacy lingerie wrapped around his head.
I can still see my mother standing behind him, face in hands, as red as the knickers swinging from his ears.
As I grew older, I continued with all the 'official' things a good Catholic girl should do. And then coloured outside the lines in my spare time.
But in between partying and dabbling in the seven deadly sins (unlike the commandments, I covered all of those), God was a constant. A central point to which I always returned to reflect.
Sometimes hungover, sometimes sheepishly lighting an extra candle and reminding him how weak we humans are, I was there nonetheless. Sitting in that pew and talking to him.
I can look back and single-handedly pin point the lowest times in my life when I always felt a bigger presence.
But my relationship with God and the Church remained very separate and I was glad that this was so when the paedophile scandal broke and so many used it as an opportunity to turn their back on their religion.
I also quickly realised it was pretty dumb to unquestionably follow every facet of a faith that's been handed down.
Jesus, if you believe he existed at all, was simply a kind man who died on a cross with the intention of teaching love, forgiveness and compassion. Many of his words were destroyed about 70 years after his death and what was left ended up in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.
Alas, as with everything in life - relationships, politics, charity and God's word - being human, we f***ed it up.
In the hands of men, the original message quickly turned into something that spewed judgement and hate. So the best I could do was to find a way to reason it out myself. The way I see it, 'love' is the single greatest message that God wanted to pass onto the world.
And - in turn - this allows me to chuck a whole load of the Church's interpretations into the wastepaper bin.
Sex outside marriage, for example, is back on the menu. (Many unwed couples have more loving sex than was ever seen inside a marital bed.)
I can also argue that neither sex nor marriage is solely for procreation, because what sort of twisted God would condemn couples who can't have children to a life without intimacy? Or marriage, if you so choose. So you can put contraception back on the 'carte' too. That's just a practicality. And as for same-sex marriage and adoption? Again, the people triumph because the basic argument goes back to love.
For me, though, the main thing that has to go - through reasonable argument - is hell.
'Convenient,' I hear you say!
Yes, but if you think about it - how much do your parents love you? And no matter what you do, they will always forgive you, right? Even when someone commits murder, we see their families loyally turn up in court.
So how much greater are we told that God's love is?
And you really think, in the heel of the hunt, he is going to cast you off for eternity to a place where, as Dante described, the "flakes of fire drift down slowly but ceaselessly".
Nah. Don't buy it.
Which leaves pretty much everything else up for grabs.
But it wasn't for the want of trying first - as the lads back in college can attest.
Nope, as the years passed, I realised there is one basic principle in God's original message that there was no way of getting around.
And, while in the past I would have acted first and asked for forgiveness later, these days this is what ultimately keeps me in toe: without getting too deep, it's the line in the Bible that says "The Kingdom of God is in all of us".
Russian author Leo Tolstoy based a book on it, that went on to become what Gandhi described as "the single biggest influence" on the way in which he lived his life.
Basically, whatever you do, comes back on you.
You go chasing superficial things in life -it might satisfy you for a time, but long-term it's going to leave you feeling hollow; you inflict pain on others, it will make you feel worse in yourself; if you don't stay true to yourself, then it'll chip away at you inside.
On the other hand, the more you love, the kinder you are, the more compassionate you are to people, the kinder you will be towards yourself and the happier you will feel inside.
And really, isn't that the foundation of all religions?
As Gandhi himself later wrote: "Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." It's taken me the long way around, but I think I'm finally, albeit very slowly, getting the hang of it.
Call it 'a la carte' all you want, but in a Church that refuses to examine its conscience and change accordingly, in that label, there is no shame.