Confessions of a cradle Catholic

Eamon Duffy

How does a born Catholic learn to value his faith? Eamon Duffy, who is Reader in Church History at Cambridge University and author of the best selling Saints and Sinners: a history of the popes (Yale 1997), vividly describes his Catholic upbringing in Ireland and his later move to England. Despite its narrowness, his childhood Catholicism had what any Church claiming truth must have: ‘an intellectual confidence that… is one of the foundation-stones of Catholic Christianity’.

I have tried, but there seems something fundamentally dishonest in a Catholic of my background and generation pretending to offer a detached, universally applicable account of the power or attraction of the Church. I did not choose to be a Catholic: for me Catholicism is something bred in the bone, as fundamental a part of my identify as my name or (especially) my nationality. I was born in 1947 in the Irish east coast town of Dundalk, a strongly nationalist community just south of the border. During the Troubles of the 1970s it would earn the nick-name 'Dodge City' because it was the heart of IRA 'bandit country'; my own family were ardent nationalists. They were also (though somewhat less ardently) Catholics: ours was an observant but not a particularly pious household.

Everyone went to Mass, and my mother and I sometimes attended Rosary, sermon and Benediction on a weekday evening. Like everyone else we ate fish on Fridays, we kept the fast days in Lent, we made popular novenas, to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour or St Gerard Majella, at the local Redemptorist church (I was always baffled by the astonishing number of heavily pregnant women in the congregation) and we all had several stabs (in my case uniformly unsuccessful) at keeping the 'Nine First Friday’ - confession and communion which, nine months in a row, guaranteed a holy death. But there were no family prayers in our house. My parents had devotional books, and owned rosaries, which they used at Mass, but though I often recited the rosary and litany of Loretto communally in the evenings, that was at the home of a close friend (son of the local undertaker) who had a pious mother.

But the rosary was by no means exclusively for the pious. My grandmother, a formidable, bespectacled and black-bombazined Victorian, the dominant figure in all our lives, loved and feared in almost equal measure, was not a pious woman. For the last twenty years or more of her life she pleaded infirmity and, so far as I know, never entered a church, though she often went out shopping locally. Instead, a curate came once a month to bring her communion - the younger priests were said to compete for the privilege, so hilarious her conversation. But, sleepless with old age, she prayed the rosary all night long, and kept a luminous statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on the mantlepiece of her bedroom (sleeping privileged alongside her, as I sometimes did, in her high brass bed, I was made uneasy by the statue's sickly phosphorescent glow). The sound of the rosary still calls up for me the childhood memory of waking to the loud tick of a tin alarm-clock in that utterly safe darkness, bathed in the smell of Sloane's Linament, and hearing my grandmother's muttered preamble - "This one is for Tom, for Henry, for Molly, for Lily" - as she launched on yet another decade.

Almost everyone I knew was a Catholic, just as almost everyone I knew was poor. My grandmother, a British army widow, lived in a street built before Independence by the British Legion, and so had some Protestant friends: her own husband, my grandfather, had been an Ulster Presbyterian. But Protestants were exotics in our community, mostly middle class and so a cut above us anyway, unmolested but not fully comprehended, and thought of as definitely unIrish. For the rest, Catholicism was like breathing out and breathing in, part of the landscape, a given.

Eternal verities

What did it give? A sense of the eternal verities, certainly, and a strong ritual framework for life's entrances and exits. When anyone in our street died, the children were rounded up and brought to the wake house to sprinkle holy water and say a prayer by the open coffin: I have vivid memories of a friend's young plump mother, reduced by cancer to a waxen doll, her stick fingers wound round with beads, her coffin filled with hair, but the strangeness and terror held in place, and at bay, by the familiarities of the De Profundis and the conventions of Catholic mourning. Funerals were communal events, the local graveyard a meeting-place. A mile or so outside the town on the main Dublin-Belfast road, funeral cort¸ges (there seemed so many of them) processed there at a slow walking pace, and the nation's traffic, such as it was in the 1950s, slowed behind them. The liturgy was, for the most part, without grace or decorum - Pius XII's wonderful renewal of the Holy Week ceremonies had not yet happened, or at any rate had not penetrated to our parish, and apart from the familiar Latin of Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris at Benediction (for sheer theatre and nostalgic power, my favourite service) we sang only saccharine nineteenth-century hymns to the Blessed Virgin or the Sacred Heart, and we set a special value on priests who could gallop through a Mass in twelve minutes flat.

But the rhythms of the liturgical year, though not much reflected upon, were as absolute a part of the calendar as winter fogs or leaves in autumn - palms and ashes (we children held up screws of paper on Ash Wednesday, into which the priest dropped pinches of spare ash, ostensibly for house-bound relatives, really to freshen up our glorious black smudges as the day wore on and they wore off); the smell of incense and the subtler but more pervasive smell of holy water (in my parish church it was kept in bulk in a zinc dustbin by the street door, and there was always someone there filling a bottle - what did people do with it? - drink it, gargle? We seemed to get through gallons); stiff gold vestments at Easter or Christmas, purple in Lent, an astonishing clapper device like a football rattle in place of the bells in Holy Week. First Communions and Confirmations were folk events, row upon row of girls in miniature wedding dresses and veils, the suited boys with sashes and bemedalled rosettes: in our working-class community it was an event eagerly awaited, because when it was your turn you went round the neighbours in your holy kit and they gave you money. And at your Confirmation, aged nine or so, you raised your right hand and, speaking after the bishop, solemnly took the pledge, renouncing alcoholic beverages.

School

My school was run by De La Salle Brothers, raw-boned, stubble-chinned celibates in shiny black cassocks, topped by bizarre stiff white tabs which jutted from the front rims of their hard dog-collars like the bleached tables of the law, and made your neck and chin sore just to look at them. Very few were local products: they came from Leitrim and Mayo and all points west, they were keen on hurling and pipe-smoking and the glories of Ireland, strenuous beaters to a man (all the Brothers carried crook-handled canes in a special loop on the inside of their soutanes), few of them with much in the way of intellectual interests, yet decent enough for the most part, and it was they who took charge of our religious education. This consisted of teaching us to recite the rosary, go to confession, serve Mass, and get off by heart the Irish version of the penny catechism, which started with God ('Who is God?' 'God is our Father in heaven, the Creator and Sovereign Lord of all things') and human destiny ('Why did God make you?' 'God made me to know, love and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next'), then worked its way through the ten commandments, the seven virtues (four cardinal, three theological) the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven sacraments (why did God make everything in sevens, we wondered - how many fingers and toes did he have?). I know them still: ultimate reality named and tagged, the moral structure of the universe set out for use in the pages of a soft-backed schoolbook - sorted.

Catholicism was certainty: papal infallibility over against the invincible ignorance of unfortunate Protestants (God help them, what did they know?) but also the calm and in retrospect breathtaking authority assumed by the clergy. Canon McDonald, our parish priest, was said to have put a stop to a clandestine strip club opened in the back room of a local bar by turning up late one evening, unannounced, armed with a stout ash-plant: men and women limped for weeks, holy Ireland, muscular version. But Catholicism was also mystery: the competent mutter and movement of the priest at the altar, the words of power half-understood, the sense of being in touch, literally in touch, with holy things, with Holiness itself. The spotless starched linen of alb and corporal, the priest's fingers and thumb held tightly together all through the latter part of the Mass so that not the minutest crumb of the consecrated Host might be lost, a tight grip on the transmaterial: ritual and taboo, like the ban on eating or drinking even a drop of water from midnight the night before you went to communion - rules which marked the presence of the Immensities.

Older, folk Christianity

And as part of the mystery, continuity too: underneath, but not far underneath, the doctrinal drilling, the repressed sexuality and the sternly regular sacramental observance which the nineteenth-century clergy had imposed on their peasant congregations, there was an older, rawer, folk Christianity, linked to the rock and water of hill and lake and well. Two miles from my home was the shrine of Foughart, legendary birthplace of St Brigid, whom I have since learned is perhaps a Christian sanitisation of a Celtic goddess. The shrine had been modernised with a life-sized Calvary, concrete stations of the cross and garishly painted statues of Patrick and Brigid, and there was an annual pilgrimage or 'patron' there led by local clergy - my brother, an altar-boy, remembered the curate who had been ordered to preach, muttering on the way there, 'God in heaven, what'll I say to these people?' But the real life of the shrine was a series of oddly shaped stones scattered round a stream. Here was the hole left when Brigid threw one of her eyes on it, plucked out to repel an importunate suitor; here were the marks left by her knees as she knelt all night on the rock. We bathed sore eyes there, and the arthritic knelt where she had knelt. In the ancient graveyard on the hill, the burial-place of Edward the Bruce, in the news recently because the IRA left there the exhumed body of one of their long-lost victims, there was her holy well, the thorn bush beside it aflutter with the rags and ribbons tied by the devout.

All that came to an end for me in June 1960, when the family emigrated to Birmingham. The Vatican Council was in session, and for anyone interested in theology, as I was rapidly learning to be, it was an intoxicating period. Under the influence of superb religious education at my Catholic grammar-school (our RS master, a priest, went on to be the first Catholic professor of theology in an English university since the Reformation) my Catholicism changed beyond recognition. I shed my inherited ultramontanism, became (briefly) a zealot for change, put folk religion behind me. And forty years on, that sort of Catholicism seems gone for most other people too, even for those who live still in Ireland, where not only has the Council transformed the ethos and worship of Catholicism, but where, for quite other reasons, the Church has so spectacularly begun to lose her grip upon the minds and hearts of the Irish. In recent years we have seen to the full the dark side of Christianity when it shrinks to becoming the ideology and the possession of a nation: Ireland apart, in the Balkans, Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat have each perpetrated atrocity and ethnic cleansing in the interests of the so-called integrity of a Christian people. We are rightly suspicious of national Christianity.

Imperfect witness

The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and I have come to see that the witness of the Church of my childhood to unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity, was very imperfect indeed. The unity we valued as a Catholic people was narrow and exclusive, a self-definition over against the Protestant other. It was not, I think, actively discriminatory or ill-willed, as Protestantism seemed to us to be towards Catholics in the North. Simply, our religion had no place for the other: they did not feature in the story we told about who we were. As church scandal follows scandal in the modern Irish press, and the media seize gleefully on horror stories of brutality to orphans and unmarried mothers, or of abusive clergy and teachers, we realise too, now, how hollow the notion of Holy Ireland could often be. Our conception of Catholicity was better based, and stemmed from our pride in belonging to Latin, Roman, Christianity, though it too was part of our nationalism. England, we thought, had apostatised, but the Irish had always been faithful to Rome. Ireland might be sneered at as backward, provincial, but in religion at least we were citizens of no mean city, and it was Protestantism which seemed to us provincial.

From this side of the Council, we can see that even Romanitas has severe limitations as an expression of Christian universality. The regimented discipline of Rome, the exclusive use of Latin in the liturgy, seemed then the epitome of that universalism. The Church was an army, spread across the world, moving to a single drumbeat, following a single law, speaking with a single voice: it was as if the Holy Spirit had inspired the apostles to speak Latin, and not the myriad tongues of the diaspora, on the day of Pentecost. But we have come to value diversity at least as much as uniformity as a potent sign of the Church's universal mission. And that indeed is the point: all these marks of the true Church are part, not so much of what she already is, as of what she is called to be. Catholics before the Council often spoke as if the visible Church had already achieved perfect unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity. These were characteristics we Catholics had, locked, strapped and sorted, and they were ours alone. But the unity, holiness and universality of the Church belong to her perfection, they lie ahead of the Church "perigrinantem in terra" as the Mass says, wandering here on earth, and not behind her.

All this I know, indeed passionately feel. Why is it then, that as I grow older, and after thirty-five years of studying and teaching the theology and history of the Church, I find myself living more and more out of resources acquired not in the lecture-room or library, nor even at the post-Conciliar liturgy, but in the narrow Catholicism of my 1950s childhood, warts and all? To answer that question fully would no doubt require a descent into my subconscious and my family history for which this is decidedly not the place. But it springs, too, from a growing appreciation of just how much of the essence of Catholicism my provincial Irish childhood transmitted to me. For all its apparent narrowness, it bore stronger witness than many modern forms of Catholicism to realities which have come to seem to me infinitely precious. Its ritual absolutes and rules look legalistic, rubric-mad today; but they spoke with a sure confidence of the sacramentality of life, the rootedness of the sacred not in pious feelings or 'spirituality', not in our heads or even exclusively in our hearts, but in the gritty and messy realities of life, birth and death, water and stone and fire, bread and wine. The matter-of-fact ex opere operato confidence of our ritual world assured us that God was real, with a reality that did not depend on what we thought or how we felt about it. And its ritual contacts with the remote past, its shrines and graveyards and wells, helped us locate our little lives within longer and wider continuities: the railway-men and shoemakers and labourers of 1950s Dundalk were more dignified as human beings because of the sense of their companionship with the holy dead. In our throw-away society, where people live disposable lives in increasing social isolation, that is an affirmation worth repeating.

Confidence

Even the past certainties of the Catechism have come to mean a good deal to me. I no longer think that you can find the answers to the problems of life and death, faith and doubt, neatly stitched up in a schoolbook. But at the heart of the Catholic faith is a confidence that meaning and value are not arbitrary constructs, that the most fundamental human instincts about right and wrong, about human flourishing and human misery, are rooted in the pattern of creation itself, and in God's self-disclosure in grace and revelation. We can believe, and hope, and love, because God has drawn near to us, in the order of nature, in the fabric of human society and morality, in the religious aspirations of all people in all places, and above all in the history of Israel and in the person of Christ. For all its limitations and simplifications, the Catechism was a coded form of a rich collective wisdom, handed on and received with joy, which went back through the lives and teaching of the saints, to Aquinas, to Augustine, to the apostles themselves. The intellectual confidence that, despite all its mystery, and miseries, and terrors, the world is a place where we belong, whose meaning and purpose we can know, by the force of reason and the light of faith, is one of the foundation-stones of Catholic Christianity, and I realise now that I was taught it, parrot-fashion, by the De La Salle Brothers.

The clerical authoritarianism of the Church of the 1950s now looks what it was, a drastic and distorted overdevelopment of one element of the Church's historical particularity at the expense of other equally important dimensions, like the role of prophecy or the dignity of the laity. I do not now believe that God's truth is to be received unquestioningly from the mouths of clergymen, whether they be popes or, more frighteningly, the parish priests of pre-Conciliar Ireland. But if we believe in the reality of revelation, and if we believe that the Church is entrusted with it, then we have to give a concrete meaning and form to that confidence. We cannot infinitely postpone our obedience and response to the truth, as it seems to me many forms of liberal Protestantism tend to do. If the Church has the gospel of truth, someone, somewhere, has to be trusted to say what it is, and to call on us to receive it. That process seems to me now more complex and less simplistically hierarchical than we imagined in 1950, but the essence of what we believed in 1950 seems to me both true, and precious. A Church without real authority is not the Church at all. We receive and proclaim the Catholic faith which come to us from the apostles, we do not invent it: the Brothers, and my grandmother, knew that too.

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