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Thursday
Feb032011

A visit back to my own church 20 years on...

WEEK one, Planetshakers. Week two, the Quakers. Week three, and in the final instalment of my interrogating-reality triptych, I sat through Sunday Mass on the same pew I grew up on at my childhood parish. But this time with my atheist sons. How did they become atheists? That's the way they were born.

Entering the cathedral of misogyny, deception, manipulation, chauvinism, hypocrisy and bigotry, all wrapped up in 'If you don't swallow this hook, line and sinker you're going to hell', felt like coming home. I'm not bitter, just being descriptive and honest. Going back was fabulous because it reminded me I'd escaped.

Under the same roof where I'd been baptised, confirmed and brainwashed, my six-year-old asked: 'Where's the Pope?' I laughed. Until the 11-year-old said: 'Here he comes.'

The priest, obviously drawn by the unusual sight of new people, approached us to welcome us to his flock. I shot out my hand. ?Hi, I'm Catherine.?

All the blood drained from his face. 'You're that writer?' 'Yes,' I replied. I happily introduced my sons, who, in an uncharacteristic display of manners, shook the priest's hand and said, 'Nice to meet you.' The priest wandered off in a daze. Or was it a trance? Maybe it was religious melancholy.

After surveying the "good news" of carnage and damnation on the wall, the 11-year-old asked what a virgin was. I explained. Then he said, 'Is there something wrong with sex?'

When I was four, one of the girls from a "good" family who sat two pews in front of us got pregnant. She was 15. She married on a Saturday afternoon wearing an orange kaftan. She wasn't allowed to wear white because she wasn't "a bride". The poor girl was being shamed and made an example for the rest of us.

On the way home from the wedding I remember Dad saying to Mum: 'I feel for her father.' I remember wanting to jump over the front seat and ram my father's head into the windscreen.

In the '70s this building, so groovy it could have been designed by the dad from The Brady Bunch, was Rock Mass Central. The breeding baby boomers had the place packed with little Gerards, Damians and Bernadettes singing along to Sister Janet Mead. The sad little crowd last Sunday was mostly made up of defeated-looking nannas who could whip up a pav at the drop of a crochet hook, plus a handful of Asians.

Mass had the feeling of a miserable couple married for 40 years just going through the motions; passionless, soulless and loveless. Too late to back out now.

The priest said there would be no 'sign of peace' because of swine flu and instead of shaking hands we should just nod to each other. Apparently God’s not that almighty.  I couldn't help drawing a comparison with the Vatican's refusal to endorse the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. Who cares if we lose a couple of golliwogs, but we can't have white people getting the sniffles.

Time for Communion, when bread and wine is turned into the actual flesh and blood of Christ by the priest. Because he's special. They call it transubstantiation; I call it bullshit. The congregation lines up and shares in this "celebration", as long as you've officially been given the nod via a bizarre bridal ceremony around the age of 10 known as "first Communion".

As we lined up, I thought about priests refusing gay people Communion, which is hilariously hypocritical when you consider the amount of hanky-panky some priests get up to. And that's just the stuff we know about. There's a list of things that exclude people from receiving Communion, including ?not believing in transubstantiation, participating in an abortion, homosexual acts, sexual intercourse outside marriage and deliberately engaging in impure thoughts?.

When it was my turn the priest picked up a wafer and said: 'The body of Christ.' The expected response is 'Amen'. Instead, I said: 'I have three children and have never been married. I've used contraception, had an abortion, use the Lord's name in vain, think transubstantiation is a crock and I'm an atheist. And I'm not sorry.'

Actually, I didn't say that. I wanted to, but I felt sorry for the priest. He looked tired and worn out. I thought of Dan Barker, the former evangelical preacher who is now one of America's leading atheists and who is gathering the names of atheist clergymen and women who only stay in their jobs because they don't know how to do anything else. Hell is truth seen too late.