Friday, December 22, 2017

Nollaig Shona Daoibh

As I get older I find myself getting more disenchanted with the Catholic Church. That’s the church I was baptised into when I was a baby. Holy Communion followed when I was a pupil at Saint Finian’s on the Falls Road. I can still vaguely remember that day. Especially my First Confession. I took that very seriously.

Then Confirmation. My sponsor wound me up with his stories about the bishop going to slap me on the cheek. When that point in the ceremony arrived the Bishop, a mild mannered man, barely touched the side of my face with his hand. But he smiled when I winced. In between these high lights of my life in the church the De La Salle Brothers taught us our Catechism. It was all very straight forward. Mortal sins and venial sins and plenary indulgences and the Our Father in Irish. Impure thoughts and fast days.

I was living in Abercorn Street North for most of this time. With my Granny Adams. My other granny, Granny Hannaway, lived a few streets away. When I was a child she wore a shawl. We had three local churches. Or chapels. Saint Pauls. Saint Peters. And Clonard. My Granny Adams loved Clonard. It was much more intimate, brighter and welcoming for some reason than the other two. They seemed slightly duller. Distant. In those days Masses were in Latin. And the priest turned his back to the congregation.

Clonard was also the home of the Boys Confraternity. Thousands of us young Belfast Dominic Savios - Dominic was a boy saint who died for his faith - trooped into Clonard into our Sections to be entertained and uplifted and scared by Fr. McLoughlin and other fiery Redemptorist preachers. Heaven. Hell. Limbo. Purgatory. Impure thoughts. So many sins a young boy could indulge in. Sinning in thought, word and deed.

And singing. I still love church music. And choirs. We raised the roof of Clonard with Faith of Our Fathers. “We will be true to you to Death”. Then “Tanto Mergo make my hair grow”.

My mother’s brother Alfie was very associated with Clonard. For most of his life. My Granny Adams went regularly to Clonard. I went with her. Christmas there was special. Clonard had a great crib. It included a camel. A stuffed one.
And Mass on Christmas Day was special. In those days Clonard Street was packed with worshippers before and after Mass. including week days Masses. It was the same outside every chapel. Every Mass got large crowds not unlike the crowds which flock annually to the Clonard Novena.

When I went to Saint Mary’s Grammar School, in Barrack Street, and the Irish Christian Brothers, we graduated to RE - Religious Education. Theology was the main man. By now I was beginning to think for myself. I was finding out that there were more questions than answers. Which is no bad thing. I liked Jesus. I still do. He was more straight forward than most of the interpreters of his words and works make out. He still is.
My politics was also developing. Ian Paisley was partly responsible for that. I was learning that there were many versions of Christianity. I also heard that one of my uncles was excommunicated. Apparently he walked out of St Peters. I imagined what that must have been like.

Then in 1969 after the pogroms, Bishop Philbin arrived on the Falls close to St Peters to direct us to take down barricades. We refused. Who was he to tell us what to do?
A short few months later he arrived in Corpus Christi Chapel in Springhill to condemn Ballymurphians for resisting the violence of the British Army. I was delighted to be part of a protest against his intervention, mostly by local women led by the indomitable Tess Cahill. We picketed the Bishops Palace. Something profound was happening.

By now I knew Fr Des Wilson. His Gospel was socially just. It was about equality and fairness. Later in Long Kesh I met Fr. Alec Reid. He also embraced a people empowering Gospel. My journey through life was finding its own moral compass. I continued to go to Mass. In the cages of Long Kesh at Christmas Geordie Shannon’s choir lifted us with his uniquely tuneful Oiche Ciuin or as Geordie sang it ‘Eeeky Queuing.’
By now I was challenging Bishop, later Cardinal Daly, publicly over his support for British government policy. Later as MP for West Belfast, I was to try in vain to meet with him on these matters. In those days people regularly walked out off Mass in protest. Or didn’t go. I always went. I liked Mass. I still do.

But I don’t like the unequal status of women in the Church. The anti-womanist nature of it all. I disagree profoundly with that. And with the way the teachings of Jesus, which are about liberation and human dignity, were subverted and turned into controlling mechanisms. The obsession with sex. And the lack of democracy. Or the awful sins committed against children and young people. If you weren’t careful you could get very angry.

That’s why the Christmas story is so important. You know the real story of Christmas. The baby Jesus being born in a stable. It was probably a cave. Probably smelly and bogging as well. The Inn keeper couldn’t bear to see Joseph and Mary on the street when there was no room in his inn. So Jesus’s mammy made do with straw for a bed and brought her son into the world and that good man Joseph minded them.

That’s what I like about Christmas. I don’t like Xmas. Taking ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas’  misses the point. The commercialism, the stress and madness of it all.  I don’t like Boxing Day either. Nope. I’m a Saint Stephen’s Day man. Me and Wenceslas.

And Christmas isn’t just for children. It’s for us all. Of course for some people on their own Christmas can be a lonely time. And we all think of family and friends who have died. But we don’t have to be sad about that. That’s life. So we should do our best to be happy and to make others happy as well.

Happiness isn’t just for Christmas. It should be for life. So enjoy it. Live in the nowness. Don’t let any one ruin your happiness. Or your Christmas. Nollaig shona daoibh.

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