I miss comforting certainties of Catholic faith I grew up with

Revisiting Knock wrenched me back to a more innocent age

I had not been to Knock for decades. After the pope’s visit, I planned to mooch around the village to see what memories it would stir up. I never expected it to be emotional. Photograph: Ciro Fusco/Getty Images

I had not been to Knock for decades. After the pope’s visit, I planned to mooch around the village to see what memories it would stir up. I never expected it to be emotional. Photograph: Ciro Fusco/Getty Images

 

The man in the souvenir shop in Knock observed my media lanyard and concluded I wasn’t your typical pilgrim buying rosary beads and scapulars.

“Are you looking for the sticks of rock?” he asked me unprompted. I half-feared this tooth-breaking confection no longer existed in our risk-averse world and was delighted that it did. Then, as if to read my mind, he asked me if I wanted a clickety-camera, the ones where you press the shutter and a different image appears in the viewfinder.

“They are still popular you know,” he said. They may be, but the camera I bought had an image of a rather young looking Pope John Paul II, not the incumbent. Finally, I bought a snow globe of a scene of the Virgin Mary at Knock. Suddenly I was 10 again.

Children wait amid the rain ahead of a visit by Pope Francis to Knock Shrine in Co Mayo last weekend. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Children wait amid the rain ahead of the visit by Pope Francis to Knock Shrine in Co Mayo. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

When the visit of Pope Francis was announced, I volunteered to work at Knock. Visits to Knock were a perennial feature of my west of Ireland childhood. We all piled into my father’s Ford Cortina, my mother and father and the five of us children.

Most of the time my childhood seems so far away, but in this instance the past was the present

Foremost in our mind was the mental calculation of how many novenas and decades of the rosary we would have to endure before we could earn our earthly reward: sticks of rock, lollipops, gobstoppers, clickety-cameras, squirter guns, cap guns, the multicoloured Bic biros, cowboy hats and flimsy fishing nets.

We were easily pleased.

Mooch around

I had not been to Knock for decades. After the pope’s visit, I planned to mooch around the village to see what memories it would stir up. I never expected it to be emotional.

I thought firstly of my late mother who died three years ago and all the times she took us to Knock. “You’ll get nothing,” she would say when we tried her patience once too often.

Pope John Paul II in Galway in 1979. Photograph: The Irish Times
Pope John Paul II in Galway in 1979. Photograph: The Irish Times

I thought of the faith that sustained my parents and my grandparents. I thought of all those family members who were so much a part of my childhood and had died.

Most of the time my childhood seems so far away, but in this instance the past was the present. I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge when he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

I observed the joyful multitudes at Knock and I understood instinctively why they turned up

Blinking back tears, I turned away from my journalistic colleagues lest they conclude I was mad or overwhelmed to be in the presence of the pope.

The Catholicism I grew up was predicated on one fundamental belief – a belief in a benign God. God was good and if you prayed to him good things would happen. If you didn’t get what you wanted, you would get something else because God moved in mysterious ways.

Knock Parish church. File photograph: Kate Geraghty/The Irish Times
Knock Parish church. File photograph: Kate Geraghty/The Irish Times

When bad things happened, they happened for a reason. People who died went to heaven, especially children. Wasn’t that a better place than this vale of tears?

It had very little to do with the institution that was the Catholic Church. Popes were interchangeable, the rituals were immutable. In the hierarchy of belief, as professed in the Nicene Creed which Catholics recite at Mass, the “one Catholic and apostolic church” is in the penultimate paragraph after God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary and the prophets. I realised in that moment at Knock that I missed the comforting certainties of the faith I grew up with.

In his great poem Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold referred to the “sea of faith” which when replaced by doubt recedes with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”.

Our faith was innocent

Above all our faith was innocent. We knew nothing growing up of clerical sex abuse, Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and mother-and-baby homes.

I observed the joyful multitudes at Knock and I understood instinctively why they turned up, despite the continuing tsunami of scandal which continues to wash over the church.

Catholics want more than anything to practise their faith without having to defend an indefensible institution

Their faith brought them there. It is no longer unconditional. They believe Pope Francis is a good man who will deal with the “caca” filth he so graphically described in the meeting with survivors.

The avoidance of scandal in the church has had the opposite effect. It is the lies and the cover-ups that have shaken and sickened the faithful. If the institutional church confesses the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what it knows about abuse, it will be the better for it.

Catholics want more than anything to practise their faith without having to defend an indefensible institution.

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist

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