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Published: June 22nd 2018
What prompted this little piece was a photo of me as an altar boy at a wedding. I remember the occasion vividly. I must have been twelve, so the year was 1964. The church is St William of York in Reading. The daughter of a well-known Catholic family – the Taylors – was being married, and the family requested that I be the altar boy. I received a handsome tip – a pound note, as I recall.
I was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. My parents were Irish, and my mother was a devout church-goer. She hung a picture of the Sacred Heart in the bedroom, over the dressing table, and made a pilgrimage to Lourdes twice. Before I went away on holiday, she used to sprinkle me with holy water and pin a holy medal under my lapel. My father, however, was a devout atheist and communist, extraordinary for an Irishman of his vintage (he was born in 1905). Above the door of the bedroom, the same bedroom where the Sacred Heart watched over Mum, he placed a bust of his hero, Vladimir Lenin. My mother ruled the roost, so young Kevin followed Mum to church each
Sunday. I often wondered why Dad never attended, but in those days I was busy growing up and never pursued the matter.
Every Sunday we (Mum, myself and my sister) attended mass at St William’s. There were services at 8-15 (low mass), 10-30 (high mass) and 5pm (low mass). Every couple of weeks I would receive Holy Communion, which necessitated another trip to church – on Saturday evening for the priest to hear my confession. I would kneel down in the little box, the confessional, separated from the priest by a cloth screen, and intone: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession.”
This would be followed by a catalogue of sins (forgetting my daily prayers, speaking unkindly to my mother, thinking bad thoughts), after which the priest would give me prayers as penance – nearly always some variation on two Our Fathers
and two Hail Marys
. Thus cleansed of sin, I was fit to receive the body and blood of Jesus into my body the next day.
As a good Roman Catholic boy, I underwent the two standard rites of passage: First Holy Communion (when I was seven) and
then Confirmation (becoming a soldier of Christ). When you are confirmed, you have to choose a name – a Confirmation name - and I chose the utterly ridiculous name of Erkinwald (a 7th
century English saint). I knelt before the Bishop of Portsmouth to be be anointed, and the old man was visibly startled by my bizarre appellation. "Why did you choose that name?
" he asked. “Because I like it”
was my lame response. In truth, I’d chosen that name for a laugh, for its outlandish sound.
Around the age of nine, I became an altar boy. This was considered a great honour among Irish families. For the next eight years being an altar boy was part of my weekly existence. In the sacristy I would don the altar boy’s official uniform of black cassock and white surplice and then shadow the priest through the various stages of Mass. My duties included lighting the altar candles before Mass began, dousing them after Mass, ringing a bell or striking a gong, handing cruets of water and wine to the priest and, at high mass, loading and swinging a thurible. Before the Latin mass was abolished in 1965, I used to
recite the responses and prayers.I knew them by heart and can still remember the first response: "Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam
" (to the God who gives joy to my youth)
. Also indelibly etched in my mind are the openings of the great prayers – the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer: “Credo in unum deum, patrem omnipotentem” (I believe in one God, the Father Almighty)
and “Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum” (Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name).
My mother was very proud of young Kevin, the altar boy. She was overjoyed when the priest asked me to read aloud the epistle each Sunday (I was a skilful and expressive reader), and she was thrilled when, on Palm Sunday, I played the part of Jesus in the Passion narrative. There was even talk of my one day becoming a priest. My atheist father was proud of me too and sometimes attended Mass just to hear me read.
In an ordinary week, between the ages of ten and fourteen, I would attend Mass on Sunday, then again on Monday and Friday before school, and sometimes go to Benediction on Saturday evening. Sunday
Mass was compulsory for Roman Catholics (otherwise we would go to hell). Now let me explain the Mondays and Fridays.
At the top of our road in Reading UK was a girls’ convent with a chapel. The teachers were all nuns and lived on site. Here the priest would celebrate Mass each morning at 7-15. In a fit or religious ardour, when I was eleven, I offered my services as an altar boy twice a week. My mother would wake me with a cup of tea at 6-45 and I would hare up the road and into the chapel sacristy to don my cassock and surplice. After Mass I would hare back home, have breakfast and take the bus to school. I maintained this routine for several years out of a sense of duty and in order to please my mother.
Our parish priest at St William of York during those years was Father Henry Donnelly. He was a kindly man to us altar boys. I would visit his house (opposite the church) on Saturday mornings to help him operate a Gestetner duplicating machine, which printed off the leaflets for Sunday Mass. As a reward for our services,
Father Donnelly organized and financed an annual altar boys’ excursion to Greenwich in London. I know what you are thinking: that this priest was sexually repressed and got his kicks from being with young boys. However, in all my years with Father Donnelly – alone with him in the sacristy, in his house, on those trips – there was never a hint of hanky-panky. Whatever may have been going through his head, he always treated us boys with kindness and respect.
Now an atheist, I look back on my church-going years with mixed feelings. I was an innocent, happy to be of service as an altar boy and epistle-reader, too conditioned and too soft to rebel against a religion I scarcely believed in. The perks of being an altar boy – money at weddings, the annual London trip, tasting the dregs of the altar wine, the kudos of playing Jesus - did not compensate for all those wasted hours in church.
I have given you the salient facts of my Roman Catholic childhood. Now let me go a bit deeper.
As soon as I left home for university I stopped attending Mass. This proves two things: that
I was a lukewarm Christian and that my religion was really all about not offending my mother. Did I ever believe in the transubstantiation (the idea that during the Mass bread and wine are actually, not symbolically, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus)? Of course not. Did I ever truly believe in heaven and hell? No. Did I ever believe that Jesus came back from the dead? No, I didn’t. I went to church because I was conditioned by the Roman Catholic faith and did not have the spirit to rebel, and because I wanted to please my mother. My atheist father never complained about my going to Mass - probably because Mum was the boss, and he didn’t want to stir up trouble by opposing her. Like father, like son!
These days I live in Vietnam and am surrounded by Buddhism. My wife is a lukewarm Buddhist who lights incense sticks each evening at the little shrine near our front door. I must say Buddhism strikes me as a far more sensible religion than Christianity - especially the Roman Catholic variety. Buddha was a man, not a god. His teachings are similar to those of Jesus
– in essence to “love thy neighbour as thyself
” – but Buddhism has none of the nonsense that is part and parcel of Roman Catholicism: the Virgin Mary, the Holy Trinity, the transubstantiation, the Resurrection, the fairy stories of Genesis. If I were to choose one religion to follow, it might be Buddhism. But I am a humanist who feels no need to subscribe to a particular faith; my heroes are flesh-and-blood human beings who have striven to improve the lot of Mankind: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Carl Sagan, Noam Chomsky, to name but four.
Looking back on my days as a Roman Catholic, I realize how difficult it is for a child to swim against the current, to challenge the beliefs of his parents. However, I remember what the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti said on BBC: that one must “shake off one’s conditioning
”. My father did this. Brought up as a Roman Catholic in holy Roman Catholic Ireland in the early 20th
century, he shook off his conditioning (there's a story about him as a teenager climbing out of a locked confessional) and became a communist. Although I’m not bitter about all those wasted hours in church, I wish I’d had the spirit of my old dad.
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