As a child growing up in Ireland, being Catholic was as much a part of my identity as being Irish was. I didn’t give either a great deal of thought, nor felt the need to interrogate my Irishness or my Catholicism. I accepted it as the cultural landscape in which I lived; the road signs marked as Gaelige, the grottos dotted throughout the countryside — both were given equal importance.
It’s funny how, even as someone who doesn’t identify as Catholic any more, the markers of a childhood steeped in religion still emerge occasionally. I’m drawn to the symbolism of crosses, bearing two such tattoos on my body.
I find religious iconography pleasing, I’m comforted by the smell of incense, I’m instantly at peace when I wander into a cool, dark church. (I’m aware that is a privilege. There are many people for whom the same experiences would trigger feelings of deep distress, that their memories of churches are not, as mine are, tied to a feeling of family, but instead are inextricably interlinked with trauma and pain.) But even for a lapsed Catholic such as me, the burial rituals after my grandmother died were a consolation. The automatic mouthing of the rosary, the prayers of the faithful recited by my younger cousins, the moving sermon given by my granduncle, a priest, a man who had known and cared for my grandmother before any of us had been born.
We had the month’s mind in her old farmhouse yesterday, the fires blazing, two kettles boiling at the same time for the tea, neighbours arriving with home-baked scones and queen cakes and apple tarts. We sat in the parlour while my granduncle recited Mass, as he had many times before in that house. The gleaming white tablecloth that Granny used especially for such occasions, two cream candles lighting, the gold chalice that my great-grandmother had given her son as a present when he was ordained. All available chairs had been crammed into the room and I looked around as they bowed their heads and put their hands out to receive communion and I thought — this is the last Mass in this house. This is the last.
My mother has always said that the reason why the Church felt like a benign presence in her life rather than an oppressive one was because it felt close to home. Two of her uncles were priests, and much later on, a cousin would take her vows. I recently visited the convent where that cousin was professed. We saw the sisters at ‘nones’, the fifth canonical hour, their voices shyly singing hymns as the sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows.
Tea was in the drawing room afterwards and I asked question after question, secretly envious of such a quiet, ordered, life but wondering why would someone choose it all the same when there were opportunities to go out into the community? There was something beautiful about her response, in her steadfast belief in the power of intention and prayer to bring healing to the world, and it felt oddly reassuring as I left when she told me Granny would be in her prayers.
I went to have lunch with my beloved granduncle soon afterwards — a kind, good-humoured man, who was a trusted confidante for my grandmother when she was still alive. The other priests in the retirement home teased me, asked about my work, cracked jokes. They were all missionaries, and told me stories about their journey to Korea in the early 60s — a liner from Ireland to New York, a train across to San Francisco, six weeks on a cattle ship before they reached Seoul — and the changes they had seen in a country devastated by the Korean War, watching as it became one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.
I wanted to know if they were afraid as they left the only homes they ever knew for a place they couldn’t even begin to imagine, and as they explained further, I was struck by their innate sense of duty. They went because they felt it was the right thing to do. They went because they thought that was what God wanted them to do.
The Catholic Church has been criticised for many things, and rightfully so. Sometimes it almost beggars belief when you contemplate the atrocities that were committed in the name of God, lives ruined because holy men and women were granted too much power and were never questioned about the methods they used to wield that power.
Ireland bears many scars inflicted upon it by the Church. From the Mother and Baby homes to the Magdalene Laundries, to anecdotal stories about women who were threatened with excommunication if they used contraception and later died in childbirth, to the stomach-turning, heart-breaking accounts of sexual abuse that began to emerge. So many stories, and the only commonality was the criminal way the Church covered each of them up, protecting the institution rather than the vulnerable.
The blood it has on its hands is indelible. Yet, in this time of long overdue reckoning, I am left wondering — what do we do about the good people? People like my granduncle and his friends, who dedicated their lives to a cause that they saw as greater than themselves? The laypeople for whom their faith is a beacon of hope? If the Church wants to survive, can it modernise? Recalibrate their attitudes towards abortion and gay marriage? Become more welcoming to women? Maybe look at female priests or allowing priests to marry? There would need to be a willingness to admit to past wrongdoings, a desire to atone for its sins, to give reparations to all the people they have maimed in the past, and so far, that willingness doesn’t seem to exist in the upper hierarchies. It’s a shame. Because there are decent people in the church who want to make the world a better place, and they deserve better than an institution crumbling around them.
It’s funny how, even as someone who doesn’t identify as Catholic any more, the markers of a childhood steeped in religion still emerge occasionally