Despite being raised in a staunchly Roman Catholic household, I knew from a very early age that Catholicism didn’t want me, and I didn’t want it. If you fancy yourself a bit of a psychoanalyst, you could probably trace this realisation back to a certain childhood trauma in about 2005, when my grandmother thought, in her naivety, that Song for a Raggy Boy was perfectly acceptable viewing material for a seven-year-old.
Anyway, so began my tumultuous relationship with the Catholic Church. This year is the first year of my educational life that I have not been in attendance at an all-girls Catholic school, and I’d go as far as to say that the nuns are as glad to see the back of me as I am to see the back of them. You see, not only do I not like being a Catholic, I’m also really bad at it. Terrible. In primary school, I missed the part of Communion practice where we learned The Apostle’s Creed. So, every year during our family’s annual Christmas pilgrimage to the local church, I provide some low-level background mumbling noise while it’s being said. I am that person who stands when we’re all supposed to kneel, and sets off a wave of panic that ripples through the entire congregation. I’m also still very confused as to whether I’m meant to take my Communion in my hands or if I’m supposed to let some strange octogenarian who may or may not have washed their hands recently insert what is apparently the two thousand-ish year old corpse of Our Lord and Saviour into my mouth (as someone who finds it difficult to eat yogurt that’s a few days old, I hold the belief that Jesus’ body should also be held to Bórd Bia health standards, and have a sell-by date).
There’s a tradition in my old school that once a week, two members of the Student Council stand up on the stage at morning assembly and give the announcements and say a prayer. The whole school is meant to join in and it’s all very Kumbaya. One lovely February morning, myself and another member of the Student Council were told that it was show time, our morning to get up in front of roughly 300 people and say the prayer. Having nothing prepared, we decided that she’d take the announcements and I’d do the most basic prayer known to Christianity, The Hail Mary. Fast forward to me, on stage: “Hail Mary, full of grace,” I say. I do not say anything else. Again: “Hail Mary, full of…grace,” I stop. There is a collective intake of breath as everyone realises that one of the most senior girls in a convent school does not know the rest of The Hail Mary on her own. I look into the furious and unforgiving eyes of my principal, little Sister Joseph, and reflected in them I see my soul leave my body and descend into hell, damned for all eternity with the unmarried mothers and the prostitutes.
Sr. Joseph, despite being tiny, devoted to a religion that promotes peace, love and acceptance and also being mildly hindered when walking by her fondness for kitten heels, was not someone you wanted to piss off. And now she had pegged me for a heathen, and there would be no escaping her wrath until it was decided I was an upstanding Catholic. My whole class was made to atone for my sins. Religion class would no longer be a doss class despite being non-exam Religion, and would be taught by another fierce Catholic by the name of Mr. Twomey.
Over the coming weeks, however, my class, full of fellow covert atheists and people who on principle alone believed it to be a human rights infringement not to have Religion as a doss class, became restless. We became bolder, louder and in general more fed up with Bible passages, until Mr. Twomey, at his breaking point, slammed the door on his way out of our classroom as he went to get the more formidable Sr. Joseph to deal with us.
I heard my doom stalking up the hallway, the click-clack-click-clack of kitten heels that would turn your blood cold. The door opened. She had arrived. The five-foot-nothing Angel of Death with a bad arthritis problem.
She gave my name, along with a few others, to be called in for individual questioning. I was led into her office and there, we locked eyes. She began the interrogation but Sr. Joseph, not one for fucking around, quickly realised that questioning alone will not suffice as disciplinary action here. “Rachel, please put your head down on the table,” she said. I did so, heart going ninety and my brain, melodramatic as always, giving me some nice Raggy Boy flashbacks that thoroughly set my Catholophobia in stone. A pause. “Rachel, do you know the story of the Immaculate Conception?” I mumbled a yes from within the darkness of my crossed arms. “Now,” she said. “We all know the story of the Immaculate Conception and the birth of Jesus Christ, but one thing we never think about is the danger, the risk that Mary took.” I sat completely still, thoroughly fucking bricking it, as her sickly-sweet and chillingly calm voice continued near me: “We must remember, you see, what it would have meant to be Mary in her own time. Back then, do you know what would have happened to Mary; an impregnated, disgraced, unmarried girl?” Her voice appeared behind me. “She would have been stoned to death.” Silence.
The silence continued for approximately one minute, until: “Rachel, please stand.” Stand I did. “Now, if you could say The Hail Mary for me, please.”
So, there I was, all but shitting myself in front of a terrifyingly vengeful nun, asking Mother Mary to pray for me in the hour of my death which at the time, seemed to be drawing alarmingly near. It was on this day that I knew, truly knew, that Catholicism was not for me, because literally what the fuck. I still get the shivers walking past the African Missions.