I’m not a Mass goer. I eschew all things Catholic and have been known to sneer inadvertently at the very mention of religion – until I realised what a personal insult that was to millions of people, not least my own other half, who is religious.
A trip to the Vatican a couple of years ago left me crying with rage at the exclusivity and arrogance of the Catholic Church – one of the world’s biggest clubs still to treat women as second-class members. St Peter’s Basilica is cleaned by nuns, and the gift shop in the Dome is (wo)manned by them. Have you ever seen a priest clean anything, apart from the chalice the communion wine comes in?
Having worked in Development I also object to the ostentatious wealth of the Church, particularly when it is preaching against condom use in AIDS-afflicted communities.
I digress, but the scene is set: I’m not into religion, for a whole host of reasons.
Yesterday, I found myself at Mass in Ennis Cathedral, with my Granny, who is 86. I went because she’d have been upset if I didn’t go. And I would rather feel like a hypocrite than upset my Granny.
Ennis is located in the Diocese of Killaloe, of which the Bishop is Dr Willie Walsh, who was a close friend of my late Grandad. I have positive feelings towards Dr Walsh, some of which come from this personal link, but many of which are related to his position as the only maverick bishop in this country.
“Maverick” may be too strong a word – he still made it to Bishop, so he couldn’t be that liberal. But he is pretty out of the ordinary, and one of the few figures of religious authority to put his money where his mouth is – he is well known for offering his lawn to local Traveller families when the council refused to provide a halting site, something far closer to the message of Jesus than most of the Church’s actions these days.
And his Diocese shows it in spades. It was the most interactive Mass I’ve ever been at (although I don’t go these days, I was in a church choir as a kid and went every week for years).
There are banners around the Church that say things like “A good deed is worth a thousand prayers”, and “Dream of tomorrow, live for today, and learn from yesterday”. All very cheerful, positive, practical and pragmatic.
And the parish newsletter that I picked up had some very interesting reading: a meeting for anyone affected by the recession; charity fundraising initiatives, and calls for volunteers.
The congregation was invited to sing along with all the hymns – I could hear plenty of tuneless warbling, but it somehow made the whole experience a lot more interesting. Likewise, there was a call for a few more Eucharistic ministers, and up popped three or four people just out of nowhere. At one point those listening in at home on the parish radio were mentioned. And at the end, the priest had a chat about the weather, before telling a joke and wishing everyone safe home.
While many people in Ireland never really bought into religion 100%, almost all of us used the Church as a linchpin of the community. In fact, I don’t think I heard the word ‘community’ until I was an adult – it was all about the ‘parish’.
And, while a lot of the Church’s message has been lost in scandal, indifference and irrelevance, my experience in Ennis yesterday showed me that the Church can be relevant, and it can still provide an outlet and a network for people who are struggling.
The Cathedral was almost full. A cynic would relate this to the recession, and maybe that’s part of it. But the Diocese of Killaloe has managed to keep up with events and with people’s lives, and to stay relevant.
I wouldn’t say I’m converted – my issues around religion run deeper than that. But I’m impressed.