Like most Irish people of my generation, I threw in the towel with Catholicism somewhere in my teens.
There was no major falling out, no atheistic epiphanies that precipitated my departure. Teenage rebellion, a general anger towards the church with all its controversy, and reading The Da Vinci Code were all factors.
Besides, everyone else was doing it.
But can you really make an informed decision as a moody teenager? Would it not be wiser to give religion a chance as a adult to see if it has anything to offer you?
That was the genesis of my idea. I would give a Catholicism another chance, a week-long trial period.
To be clear, I didn’t do this to mock anyone’s beliefs. I did it with a genuine curiosity to see what difference, if any, adherence to Catholic doctrine would make to my adult life.
Of course, I know true Christians won’t begrudge me my little experiment – judge not lest ye yourselves be judged and all that jazz.
In the beginning
Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure I was doing it right, I thought (stupidly) that there might be a bit more involved in adhering to the rules of Catholicism. Of course, there are some key areas in my life where it would become quite problematic.
So what are the obligations? Sure, you’ve got the 10 Commandments, which we’re all probably more familiar with from popular culture if not from regular Mass attendance, but the new thing that I discovered was the ‘Chief Commandments Of The Church’.
The Chief Commandments include the basic obligations: attending at Mass every Sundays and holy days of obligation, fasting on appointed days, receiving Holy Communion during Easter, contributing to the support of the Church, receiving confession at least once a year, and observing the laws of the Church concerning marriage.
I had a slight problem on this front, as respecting the laws of the Church might conflict a little bit with the fact that I live with and share a bed with my girlfriend.
After broaching the subject of my sleeping on the couch for a week as part of my newfound and, let’s be honest, temporary piety, it was promptly agreed upon that that would be a ridiculous thing to do.
I guess I fear the wrath of my girlfriend more than that of God.
So, that was a bad start. And it didn’t go a whole lot better from there.
I tried to apply Jesus’ teachings in everyday life a bit more, do unto others as you would have others do onto you and all that craic, but it turned out I’d already been doing them anyway.
When it comes down to it, Jesus pretty much just wanted people to be sound.
I tried to be a bit more charitable, but that felt more like just a good thing to do than Catholic. I prayed a little, but I was just going through the motions.
I even had a golden opportunity to display my Catholicism to a street evangelist, but just couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of it.
I was walking back to my apartment from work at the time. I was on Rathmines Road when a girl about my age stopped me abruptly with a question, the kind of question that’s usually followed with something about Jesus. I also knew it was coming because this same girl tried to talk to me about Our Lord before.
Since I’d a gut feeling she was offering an alternative brand of Christianity, I could have sprung into a theological debate about the superiority of Catholicism at that very moment.
But I didn’t. Especially when she set me up as perfectly as she did. Her opening question was, “What’s your favourite part of the day?”. I couldn’t help but respond with “going home” without breaking my stride.
Sick burns like that just don’t come along every day. And I checked – there’s no commandment against ’em.
Is there anything to be said for another Mass?
So, in an effort to be a dutiful Catholic, I gave Sunday Mass another shot (after a failed attempt where I nearly attended a Church of Ireland service) .
To be honest – and I know this probably isn’t a popular opinion – it was nice. It might not be easy to see the appeal of going to Mass, but think about it: you’re told stories, songs are played, it’s a tranquil space, and you’re assured that everything’s going to be all right.
It’s easy to see why someone would turn to someplace like this for comfort.
I expected to be bored out of my tree, but the priest was cracking jokes, congratulating the crowd on actually saying the ‘Glory Be To The Father’ prayer for once and cursing himself for his phone ringing during the ceremony, and he gave a genuinely interesting sermon.
The whole thing had left a very positive impression on me – until it came time for the sign of peace.
Literally right before we were supposed to shake, I saw the man sitting right beside me use his hand as a hanky. He was incredibly thorough about it too; he got the back of his hand and his palm involved. Right before he offered it to me.
I had to do it, I shook his still-moist appendage and inwardly gagged.
The things we do for salvation.
I’m pretty sure I led the exodus from the Church that day in the rush to get home and surgically scrub my hand.
So, yeah, my first proper Mass in a decade was a bit of a mixed bag.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned…”
The thing that really daunted me all week was the thought of going to confession.
I hadn’t been to confession since I was in my mid-teens, when it was an excuse to get out of class, but I remembered that there were certain phrases and prayers you needed to know for the occasion.
I’d forgotten them all.
Luckily, this little YouTube video provided me with something of a refresher course.
So now I knew how to do it, but this wasn’t going to be the standard confession that you did at school.
I wouldn’t be giving the old spiel about calling my sister names, cursing, and not listening to my parents.
To do this right, I’d have to do an honest confession: a comprehensive catalogue of all my sinful thoughts and deeds over 27 years of life. I wondered how long that might take.
But while I was preparing myself for entering the confession box, trying to make a genuine catalogue of the ‘sins’ I’d committed over the past decade – saying “Jesus Christ” when I’m angry, not going to Mass, using condoms – I realised that I couldn’t bring myself to go through with this.
I couldn’t admit to feeling guilt over things I didn’t actually believe were sinful. Besides, I had no intention of repenting my wicked ways or making confession a regular part of my life.
I couldn’t do it because, to do it right, I needed to commit. I’d only promised myself I’d try Catholicism a week – not much of a commitment.
Scales fell from my eyes
While my attempt at being religious was subpar at best, I did learn something by the end of it all.
There is comfort to be found in religion and anyone who mocks the faith of others clearly doesn’t understand that.
It offers meaning in an otherwise indifferent universe, an explanation of our origins and hope for an ultimate destination. Clinging to these beliefs, and their accompanying duties, makes your life not only more fulfilling, but easier. Who doesn’t want that?
That said, it clearly isn’t for everyone. Relying upon blind faith is a scary thing and many of us just don’t want to be taken for fools.
Being a Catholic is a lifestyle that demands a colossal commitment if you’re going to reap the full rewards of community, comfort, and routine.
But a week was more than enough for me.