'I still believe in the faith on which the Church is built and that's why I’m going to Christmas Mass'

Despite his reservations about the Catholic Church, RP O’Donnell still has strong faith this Christmas.

It’s that time of the year again. The holidays. A time for family. A time to give thanks. A time to frantically google Can I cook turkey in a microwave? A time for wrapping presents and trimming trees and trying to determine what, exactly, is in minced pies. And, of course, going to church.

If you’re like many people, Christmas is one of two annual trips to the old stained glass. Not many people these days go to church every week. Even the auld boys smoking on the doorstep aren’t there anymore — the victims of cigarette tax hikes.

Christmas morning Mass highlights the usual lack of regular attendance in parishes worldwide. It’s true for my young family. But this year, it’s a big conversation in our house.

This is because my partner and I have made two large decisions this year. First, we decided to christen our daughter. Second, we decided that we will get married in a church. I also decided that, apart from Christmas morning, I will continue to not attend church.

A lot of fellow Catholics don’t understand this. They question why we would want to keep these sacraments if we don’t regularly attend church. The older generation especially accuse us of only using the parts of the faith that are convenient. They tell us, in stern words and over bowls of Shreddies (“It keeps me regular”), that we can’t pick and choose our faith.

My response is, what does this have to do with faith? I should start off by saying that I am a committed Catholic. I believe in it all, and quite strongly too. I grew up going to church every Sunday. And I mean, every Sunday. In 17 years, I can still remember the one Sunday I missed. A hurricane was knocking over Main Street. And my dad was on the phone to the priest, asking why they weren’t having services. (‘Ah c’mon Father. We’ll keep a firm grip on the smaller ones.’)

But one day, I decided to not go anymore. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to make the effort, or being too busy. I was disappointed in the Church, and I could not go anymore. Despite this, and I rather think because of this, I am still a devout Catholic, with a strong faith.

My son goes to primary school. His education is important to me, and I feel confident that it will be in good hands with the local primary school.

But say, just hypothetically, we lived in a different village with a different school. Imagine that there was a scandal at that school. A scandal that shook the community to its roots. What would I do?

Well, I would criticise the school of course. And if they didn’t take appropriate measures to atone for the mistakes, and to correct them in the future, then I would condemn the school. I might transfer our son to a different school. And if the problem was nationwide, and systemic, then I would consider home-schooling him.

And I think that people would find this reasonable.

At no point would anyone accuse me of attacking education, or belittling the education of other people who attended the school, or of not being a true believer in education. It’s easy to separate a specific school from education in general.

But when the same thing happens in the context of the Church, there is a very different response. Imagine the reaction if I said about the above, for example, that we wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater—we’re not the Sisters of Mercy.

People react to a fair criticism of the Church—the institution—with a visceral defense of their personal faith, or a criticism of my own.

And my question is, again, what does this have to do with faith?

The Church, somewhere along the line, adopted a similar policy to that of medieval kings’s rule by divine right: the Church is indivisible from the Faith. They are one and the same, and an attack on one is an attack on the other.

This idea makes it extremely hard to criticise the Church. I would never belittle anyone’s faith. But that’s how people feel when I question the Church, so I try not to. And that is how the Church has survived scandals that a monarchy could not. It’s a simple idea. But it’s powerful — look at how long the Church has lasted.

I want my children to be raised Catholic. But I would never leave them alone with a priest. And that breaks my heart. I knew wonderful priests growing up, and I know there are many still here. I want my children to learn from the good ones, just as I did.

But being a parent means not being blind. I grew up in Pittsburgh and in Boston, and I now live here in Ireland — three epicenters of abuse scandals. I had a wonderful childhood in the church, but how many children just like me, in my neighborhood, didn’t?

I can’t ignore the rotten wood of the Church. But I believe in the rock, the foundation of faith that it is built upon. I have faith that the Church will eventually right itself.

It is because of my faith that I will christen my daughter. It is because of my faith that I’ll get married in a church. And it is because of my faith that I’ll take my son to church whenever he wants to go. Which, so far, is just Christmas morning.

If I had dropped out of school, would people accuse me of hypocrisy for bringing my children to school? No. I think they would understand a parent’s simple, heartbreakingly complex, hope for their children’s future. So, if you’re in the village on Christmas morning, you’ll see my family and me at church. I just might be on the doorstep.


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