I remember, when I was about eight years old, being highly impressed by an older child’s linguistic skills, when he taught me how to say “fish” in Australian.
The charlatan explained there were some English words that just so happened to be the exact same in Jim Robinson’s native tongue. Neighbours was translated into English, for us pommes – obviously.
Ah, the innocence of youth.
It can be fun to reflect on the primitive beliefs we held as bairns. As Mr. Zouch once scoffed, as he passed me a brandy, recounting the tale of how he relieved a freshly orphaned boy of his inheritance, “What gullible dullards kids are, after all.”
But for those of us indoctrinated into the intricacies of papal dogma, there were one or two things we were told to believe that presented us with complex psychological challenges.
These troubling truths, and certain other key experiences, make up the memories of our religio-pedagogical nurturing. What follows is my attempt to compile a Master List of these memories. Inevitably, they are subjective, but the aim is to reach into what was common experience. Either this list succeeds, or I was just weird.
We’ll start with a big one.
When people die, they do not cease to exist. They live on as spirits, and watch over their loved ones still on Earth. This idea is often seen as a comforting one, something that offers us hope and cushions us from the fatalistic reality of a cold and unresponsive universe. Granny, Granddad, and any other expired family members are in Heaven, which is basically just a room in the loft.
All lovely and nice, isn’t it? But the idea is often exactly the opposite of comforting for a young child. Part of childhood is doing parentally proscribed stuff when Mum and Dad aren’t around. Being constantly under the watchful eye of the poltergeist police just spoiled the fun.
At this point, I have to ask: have you considered the implications for a young boy, masturbating in his bedroom, worried that Grandma is peeking through the floorboards like Christopher Ecclestone in Shallow Grave?
There is a certain cognitive dissonance only known by the boy who has salivatingly unbuttoned Neneh Cherry’s leather trousers in front of his Nan.
God Comes First
Mummy and Daddy love you, more than anything. Sensing that you’re getting the better end of the deal, you agree to reciprocate, prioritising them even above your mate Lee and your Michael Jackson Bad tape.
But then Father O’Donnell says that you must love God more than anyone else – including your family. This is confusing. Mum appears to be contradicting Father O’Donnell’s instruction. She said she loves you more than anything, which must include God, right?
So on the way home from church you ask Mum, “Do you love me even more than you love God, even though Father O’Donnell said you’re supposed to love God more than me?”
“Erm, well, it’s a different kind of love sweetheart.”
“But which one do you love more?”
“I love you more than anything sweetheart. I love God more than anything as well.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
No, it didn’t. It made about as much sense to you as the concept of the Holy Trinity. And no amount of maternal wriggling was going to help you understand.
Which brings us nicely onto the next entry in the list. Back in the 1990’s, most kids still had to obey their parents and their teachers. The Catholic child also had a third authority figure – the priest.
The priest must be a very important authority figure indeed, a bit like the red Power Ranger. You see, Mum had to do what the priest said, too. She looked up to him the way you looked up to her. The priest was the big boss, the man with a hotline to God.
If you read Russell Grant’s horoscopes in the Saturday paper, best believe Father O’Donnell’s Sunday sermon was going to expose the dangers of occultism and astrology, conflating the two. Father O-apostrophe-D knew when shit was going down, and he was quick to dish out some blows, casting Mystic Meg among the demons of Hell. For a few weeks at least, you kept your eyes firmly on Roy of the Rovers, avoiding the right-hand side of the page at all costs.
Homosexuality is Evil
What can I say? My segway game is on point. The problem when a priest is your big boss is that sometimes he says stupid stuff, and you’re supposed to accept it. It must be really, really stupid, because even you know it’s stupid.
Father O’Donnell was no monster. He didn’t ever say that gay people are evil. He just thought it was evil when they put their willies in each other’s bums. But still, when he stood on the pulpit, telling his flock that gay people have to fight against their God-given urges, as they are merely being tested by the Almighty, you knew it was all kinds of dumb.
You could ask Mum on the way home, “Why would God test some of us by making us love people we aren’t allowed to love?”
Perhaps you could follow this up with “And why did the people he chose to test like that deserve a lifetime of unhappiness?”
But that would have been cruel, and even your dumb little brain knew it.
This was a different breed of priest.
When Father O’Donnell was away, a guest priest gave Mass instead, just like when supply teachers took RE class at school (except you didn’t spit bits of liquorice flavoured Rizla at Father Julian when he wasn’t looking).
Guest priests didn’t have the same air of authority as Father O’Donnell. For one thing, they weren’t a hundred years old. But they also seemed a bit… quirky, is the word.
Father Mears looked like Phil Mitchell, smelled of cigarette smoke, and said “Let’s boogie” just before he started Mass.
Father Carey asked what music you liked, and if you said “Hip-Hop,” he name-dropped Public Enemy and Ice-T, before attempting to rap.
Father Julian was not an evil man, but he probably would end up doing evil things – if he didn’t fight against his God-given urges.
Serving the Altar
Where did Father Carey drop some bars? Why, in the sacristy, of course.
Yep, that’s right. If you were a boy, and after the Great Altar Serving Reformation sometime in the 90’s, even if you were a girl, you might have had the misfortune of Mum forcing you to serve in the famous red and white sheets.
And no, those of you from secular upbringings, smirking away. This did not mean an inevitable priestly bumming.
Serving time in the altar business was, for some us, like serving a couple of years in the army for Swiss kids. That is, except for the girl I knew who served as a child, and told me over Facebook, fifteen years later, that she was still serving. Bitch be crazy. For those of us who were sane, kneeling there in your robes in front of the flock was not a favourite pastime, and you just knew that one day you’d be seen somehow by a non-Catholic schoolmate…
Oh yes, it was always going to happen. At some point, you were outed. A kid from school had somehow seen you at church. He or she had been there with an Aunt, or happened to be in the back of their Mum’s car as she drove past the church at the pivotal moment. If you were wearing an altar server’s vestments, it was double bad.
Once you were outed, there was no going back. Years of mocking questions, and quips about how your friends attended football games “religiously” followed. Joyous.
Back when featherless dinosaurs were a fizact, us preadolescent papists used to grapple with the concept of a lie. It was more complicated than you might think.
One day, Father O’Donnell pays your school a visit. The nuns masquerading as teachers fawn over him and lay the red carpet, while the actual teachers take a fag break. Father O-to-the-D talks to your class about the importance of being honest, and you raise your hand nervously, your furrowed brow betraying your internal battle of logic. The priest smiles. You take a moment to compose yourself, and then ask the burning question – the one that’s on everyone’s mind.
“If I meet a blind person, and tell them that grass is blue, that’s a lie. But what if grass is actually blue, but I’m colour-blind and think it’s green, so I tell them it’s blue, and it is. Does that mean I lied, or told the truth?”
I might be mixing my memories up, but I think Father O’Donnell replied, “That would be an ecumenical matter.”