I abandoned my vocation and moved to Australia, where my faith evaporated
Philip Lynch: The land of Down Under is a vast godless place, but I wouldn’t want it any other way
Philip Lynch: ‘Growing up in Ireland, going to Sunday Mass was an event. Kneeling in a near-empty church in suburban Melbourne quickly lost its appeal.’
At the end of summer in 1980 I headed off to Cork to begin my noviciate. Twenty-two like-minded lads arrived that day from all corners of the country. We were brimming with optimism, and, I suspect, some trepidation. Most of us had just done the Leaving but a few had given up careers as teachers, mechanics and computer technicians to answer their calling.
Back then there was still something compelling about Catholicism in Ireland. Roman collars were worn with pride. Hadn’t half the country had crammed into the Phoenix Park to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul II, two years earlier. My parents even went, one of the rare occasions they’d ever journeyed up to Dublin.
In Cork we were housed next to the new Wilton shopping complex. Its proximity seemed to jar with our pious undertaking. Two nuns and a local woman cooked our meals and saw to our laundry. We had a modest roster of household duties. In between scripture study, meditation and some token gardening, we played a lot of table-tennis and snooker. We got on each other’s nerves and although there were no fist-fights, it occasionally came close.
By year’s end I was floundering. My appetite was gone and I was waking up in the early hours with my mind in overdrive. One lad was languishing in the local psychiatric hospital. Another abruptly left after he swallowed a handful of pills, and several simply never returned after the Christmas break.
Remarkably, after my awkward end of year interview with the Dean, I was allowed to progress on to Maynooth. We broke for summer and I worked as a cleaner at the Ambassador Hotel in Ballybunion. That summer in Kerry was a welcome change from the claustrophobic atmosphere at Wilton.
At first, the Order’s modern open plan residence and its carefree atmosphere, within walking distance of Maynooth College, was enthralling. We saw ourselves as being a cut above the diocesan seminarians. Our destinations were exotic. We had sessions down at one of the pubs in Maynooth village. Dublin city was a short-ish bus ride away. Some of the lads even had platonic girlfriends. But in spite of all this new-found freedom, my insomnia returned. Meditating made no difference. And although I didn’t know it, my difficulties hadn’t gone unnoticed.
After breakfast one morning, the Superior, who always got around in Aran sweaters and corduroy trousers, sidled up to me and suggested I pop into his office “for a wee bit of a chat”. I wasn’t sure what to expect. He was a familiar figure gliding around the corridors, clutching his breviary behind his back, but we’d never spoken.
After I knocked on his door, he ushered me in and gestured towards an armchair near his desk. He stood at his window which overlooked the tennis courts. Normally a relaxed man, he suddenly seemed ill at ease. He turned towards me, and he told me the Order was recommending that I immediately terminate my vocation. It was in my best interest, he added, and there was no point discussing the matter.
After I’d been at home for a while, my father suggested that I should see about becoming a diocesan seminarian. For a shy man, loath to offer advice to anyone, his words caught me off-guard. We were up on the hill fixing a fence; our sheep were proving difficult to hold that summer. He’d made the comment offhandedly, as we were untangling barbed wire. I remember the backs of his hands being bloodied but he wasn’t one for gloves. I said I wasn’t interested.
I didn’t tell him that the prospect of living alone in some presbytery for years on end wasn’t what I wanted. It would’ve been too solitary a life. Nor did I tell him that I was beginning to realise that the man with the Aran sweater had done me a favour.
So I worked at a piggery near Kilkenny town until I’d saved up enough for an airfare to Melbourne. I used to get my pay cheques cashed at the supermarket on the weekends, as I couldn’t get to the bank during the week. At that time, Kilkenny had a cinema and a half-decent bookshop, so I was alright. There were long queues for ET and Return of the Jedi that summer. But what I remember most was the smell of Smithwicks Brewery, especially in the summer evenings and the multitude of pubs all along the main street. The Fieldcrest factory had folded and the economic gloom was palpable.
Thirty years later in Australia, my religious inclinations have well and truly evaporated. I went to Mass for the first few years but then things started to slide. Working as a nurse meant working on some Sundays, but it was more than that. Growing up in Ireland, going to Sunday Mass was an event. Kneeling in a near-empty church in suburban Melbourne quickly lost its appeal.
The Catholic Church in this country also has had its share of scandal. The Church’s response to a litany of sexual abuse allegations has been woefully inadequate. Perpetrators were also “moved on” only to continue on with their crimes. The church’s fall from grace here hasn’t been as spectacular as Ireland’s.
After all, no religion has ever succeeded in occupying centre stage in this continent. Maybe this is because Australians are a brash, sceptical lot. I honestly think that the land of Down Under will always remain is a vast godless place, devoid of any Croagh Patricks and Lough Dergs. But, truth be told, I wouldn’t want it any other way.