Going to Mass in Melbourne felt strange, devoid of warmth or familiarity

On a tram in the locked-down city, my daughter seems puzzled by my retreat from faith

Faith no more: Philip Lynch with his daughter

Faith no more: Philip Lynch with his daughter

 

“You were studying to be a priest, once, weren’t you?” my teenage daughter asks. “Why did you leave? You know, you have never even talked to me about religion,” she adds, with mild indignation.

It’s no secret that the pandemic is hitting my daughter’s generation hard. Zoom learning. Social distancing. Mask wearing. Staying home, staying safe. Misinformation about the merits of vaccinations. Add the well-founded anxieties of climate change and it all becomes a relentless barrage. My generation’s legacy is leaving a lot to be desired for our offspring. I suspect religion – specifically, Catholicism – is of little or no relevance to my daughter and most of her peers. So I am curious about her sudden interest in religion.

“My time in the seminary was complicated,” I say. “It’s a long story. It’s a long time ago now. I guess I thought I had a calling.” She watches and waits for me to elaborate. But where would I begin? And how can I begin? Trying to explain to her the mystery of the Son of God. Would she really believe Jesus’s resurrection on the third day, or the miracle of the loaves and the fishes?

We are staring at each other’s masks. On this tram, in Melbourne, everyone is wearing masks. Later, a night curfew will be imposed. So many keyboard warriors are apoplectic about this curtailment of the freedom of movement

“A calling?” she says, sounding mystified. We are staring at each other’s masks. On this tram, in Melbourne, everyone is wearing masks. Everyone, that is, except for the edgy-looking chap, standing near the door, who is staring around balefully, defiantly, as if daring someone to chastise him for his failure to conform. Masks are mandatory in public in this city. Yet another lockdown has been announced. And, later, a night curfew will be imposed.

So many keyboard warriors are apoplectic about this curtailment of the freedom of movement. Protesters have repeatedly clashed with the police on many Australian cities’ streets. “And why wasn’t I baptised?” my daughter throws in for good measure. “Aren’t all my cousins baptised?”

“Yes, I imagine they are,” I say. I’m the godfather of one of my nephews, though I have long since forgotten the responsibilities that come with the role.

“I decided I would let you work it out for yourself,” I continue. “Anyway, your mum wasn’t fussed. She grew up without any religion. You’re a smart young woman. I don’t mind what you want to believe. I’m happy to let you work it out for yourself.”

“But you don’t even go to church any more,” she persists, as if puzzled by my absolute retreat from faith. One of my sisters had taken my daughter to Mass one Sunday when we were in Ireland, two years ago. “It was confusing,” my daughter, who is now 19, had said when they returned later that evening. “There was a lot of standing up and sitting and kneeling. But Auntie Mary knew what to do. And we talked to a lot of people outside afterwards.”

I continued going to Mass for a few years after I arrived in Melbourne, back in the 1980s. The Australian way seemed more predicated on social activities: watching sport, home improvements, sunbathing and surfing, barbecues

“Do you remember what the priest was saying in his homily that time?” I ask now. She looks at me askance.

“Homily, what’s a homily?”

“His sermon. It would have been just before he gave out the communion host.”

“That was over two years ago,” she says. “Do you really think I can remember what he said? And it was hard to hear what he was saying. So you don’t believe in a God at all any more?”

“No. I don’t think I do,” I reply.

“You don’t think so?” she asks.

“No, I don’t think I do,” I say, digging in. “But I can’t be certain. I’d like to think there is an afterlife.”

Some of my Australian friends have surreptitiously poured holy water over their children’s foreheads unbeknown to their unbelieving partners.

I continued going to Mass for a few years after I arrived in Melbourne, back in the 1980s. But I was struck by how different it felt on those Sunday mornings. The near-empty church in the northern suburbs where I was living felt strange, impersonal and devoid of any warmth or familiarity.

Here in Tasmania the archbishop, flying the flag for vaccine hesitancy, recently requested that priests with conscientious objections be granted an exemption from being jabbed

The Australian way, especially on the weekends, seemed more predicated on social activities: watching sport, home improvements, sunbathing and surfing, bushwalking, barbecues. Churchgoing in this country has always struck me as almost an incidental peripheral activity, an afterthought.

Maybe I’ll go back to it one day, when I begin to come to terms with my mortality. It’s difficult to comprehend absolute oblivion after my life ends. And yet, given the Catholic Church’s all-time low stocks in recent times, it’s difficult to resurrect my faith.

Here in Tasmania the conservative Catholic archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, flying the flag for vaccine hesitancy, recently requested that priests with conscientious objections be granted an exemption from Covid inoculation so that they can continue to provide pastoral care to the elderly in nursing homes.

The good archbishop has unwittingly or otherwise highlighted the age-old chasm between science and religion. But in this pandemic era, science and common sense may need to prevail if we are ever likely to regain anything approximating our previous norm. Belief in some higher being may need to bide its time.

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