The other day, I had occasion to find myself in a completely empty Catholic church (I have my reasons). And as I knelt there, trying to find a comfortable way to kneel in a slightly-too-narrow pew, the experience began to conjure up all kinds of childhood memories. I was raised a Catholic, and I still consider myself a Catholic – albeit a horribly lapsed one who isn’t entirely certain about the presence of God. This post most definitely isn’t about religion so I’m not going to go into the whys or wherefores of faith. Believe whatever you like, and so will I. But there’s just something about the atmosphere of a church that I bet brings up a lot of mixed emotions for all of us.
I’m not entirely sure how this came about but even though both my parents are relatively godless people (I couldn’t tell you what, if anything, either of them believe in. It never comes up), but from an early age, my siblings and I went to Mass. My parents were virtually never there – Mum might have come along for the odd midnight Mass, but that’s about it (to be fair, she wasn’t a Catholic, only my father was, and he couldn’t be bothered). This decision to herd a gaggle of six scruffy children to church on a weekly basis was certainly the brainchild of my eldest sister and brother. They can’t have been terribly old themselves but they evidently felt that the religious instruction of their younger siblings was of vital importance. I remember being dragged on a 30-minute route march (30 minutes there and 30 minutes back) every Sunday morning to ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’ Catholic church. I was the second youngest of the six and I must have been fairly small – but able to walk. I remember dreading Sunday mornings – mainly because of (what seemed at the time) the mammoth trek required to get there. But once we had made our way through the lobby, splashed ourselves with a bit of chilly holy water, pushed our way through the throngs and managed to find an entire pew for six, I was always fairly content to be there.
To be honest, the priest’s sermon was never terribly engaging to a small child like me. Mass seemed overly-long and a bit dower. It certainly went on for an hour. Maybe more. It felt like days. But nobody ever thought to bring me a colouring book. His sermon was never really relatable to little children – but I guess you can’t cater for everybody. Still, I liked Father O’Malley’s Irish accent, although that lovely gentle lilt (albeit unbelievably difficult to understand) did make me feel a bit sleepy. It wasn’t his fault that I, as a child, couldn’t engage with his words. Catholic services are notoriously crazy-boring. There ain’t no happy-clappy, throw your hands in the air, dancing in the aisles shenanigans in our church. But then I haven’t been for years, so maybe everything has changed…
I have always enjoyed a nice sing-song and therefore singing hymns in church was always the best bit. But only if they chose the right ones. Sometimes I would look up at the hymn numbers on the board, check them out in the hymn book and be bitterly disappointed that some joker had chosen all the dull ones with a melody that was impossible to commit to memory. Or the miserable ones which made you want to kill yourself. But what is it with the high-pitched key that hymn-writer’s invariably go for? Even as a kid I found I was practically screeching to hit the high notes. Apart from Maria Carey, who among us really can sing that high? Who? I ended up having to sing an octave lower like the men, but always came a cropper when the hymn had an unfortunate low point. Then I’d virtually be growling. No, church hymns are always arranged for sopranos and not altos, like me. I think this is unfair and perhaps we need to get together a petition.
I particularly got excited when you had the opportunity to ‘extend the sign of peace’; where everybody turned to the person next to them and shook hands, saying, ‘peace be with you’. My brother used to think it was hysterically funny to mutter under his breath so quietly that he actually got away with saying, ‘please and thank you’ instead. The rest of us thought this was a great lark and soon adopted this practice as well. There were a lot of ritualistic practices like the sign of peace – I wouldn’t dream of going to church now without doing a bit of revision on the order of service. You could look a complete fool. How do you know when to kneel? How do you know when to stand? How much money do you put in the basket (and where can I get one of those pesky envelopes that hides the amount)? One of the rituals I enjoyed was the Eucharist; getting in the queue and lining up with your hands out for the wafer-thin rice cake…I mean bread, and a sip from the chalice of cooking sherry…I mean wine. Our poor littlest sister wasn’t able to join us as she hadn’t had ‘First Communion’ (when they dress you up in a white dress and veil and disgusting white sandals if it’s the 70’s and…I don’t remember, I’ve blanked the rest out. It was worth it though, because you got to join the bread and wine queue!). I don’t know why she missed out, maybe my mother got bored by the sixth child. I always told her she might as well get up in the queue like the rest of us as nobody would ever really remember this secret shame after a while. But I guess she couldn’t handle the thought of lying in church, so she never did. And still hasn’t to this day.
What I particularly liked was the end of the Mass. Now I’m not being cynical, I rather enjoyed going for the most part, but it’s like going for a long run or doing a work-out. You don’t especially want to do it but you feel really virtuous once it’s done.Yes, I remember those days with fondness. I miss our lovely old church with its beautiful architecture, statues of Jesus and Mary, and ornate stained-glass windows. I miss the atmosphere; the smell of incense and lit candles. Being surrounded by old people; their cold, wrinkled hands, the strong Irish accents and kindly eyes. I just can’t replicate those childhood days for my kids in the town in which I live now. Our Catholic church is a very modern building and it just doesn’t have the right atmosphere – the ambience isn’t as I remember it. Plus I’ve grown up now. I’m in charge of what we do on a Sunday morning and, let’s face it, we don’t have to go. But maybe when I’m the old lady in search of companionship and feel the need to sing my lungs out to a ridiculously high-pitched hymn, maybe then I’ll venture back.
(I never found out what she’d assumed…)
NB: If you get the urge, tell me about your childhood church stories and experiences below. And if you’re a regular church-goer now (ideally Catholic), would you write me out a detailed list of what you’re expected to do during the service? I don’t want to look like an idiot next time I convince myself I ought to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve…