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Image / Editorial

It’s 2020 and I’m still struggling to get over my Catholic guilt


by Edaein OConnell
16th Jan 2020
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Catholic guilt is a distinctly Irish affliction that this IMAGE writer believes we need to rid ourselves of – because the time of fear has passed 


I told my mother recently that I would prefer to be a Protestant than a Catholic. Unsurprisingly, she was not impressed — her name is Mary and she is holier than her namesake, Our Lady herself.

She scolded me for my lack of attendance at mass, and told me “you’ll have to go to mass one of these Sundays, Edaein, because everyone is asking for you.” I apologised for forgetting, in my Catholic guilt, that mass is actually a social occasion and not a ritual to worship our Lord.

Sunday Mass

Like many Irish people, mass, the church and faith were an intrinsic part of my childhood.

There was nothing I despised more than Sunday mass. I never knew what a Sunday sleep-in felt like. It was a holy miracle when we would go to the Saturday night equivalent. And this was saved only for special occasions and when they shipped me off to my aunt’s for the weekend.

My house, even more ironically, is a stone’s throw away from my local church. My kitchen window is in direct view of it. Not a day went by in my childhood without the six o’clock bell tolling with the Angelus calling, and if it didn’t — well, there was obviously something wrong with the tape recorder.

Related: Things fall apart: Instead of religion, we have our networks

I was the quintessential Catholic child. I made my Communion and Confirmation with vigour. I was an alter child and rang the bell with such passion that my Sundays became a continuous Broadway performance. Oh Holy Night was the party piece I liked to pull out of the bag at Christmas.

As I got older and brattier, my Sundays quickly started being spent in bed. And soon, none of my friends went to mass anymore at all.

The Catholic guilt

Our generation has seen so much about the wrongdoings of the church that we find religion, and all it entails, difficult to reconcile.

But what follows is an affliction called Catholic guilt, eating your insides whenever you see holy beads and hear a recitation of the Rosary.

As a Catholic, it follows you through the most mundane daily tasks. Wandering through the supermarket and picking up your favourite bottle of cabernet sauvignon makes you wonder if you should ring a priest to bless it first.

It’s going to mass only for Easter, Christmas, weddings, and funerals. You know it’s bad, but pulling yourself to a Saturday vigil is hard when someone hands you an impromptu Baby Guinness. You know in your heart and soul that Jesus is somewhere tutting you but you still can’t bring yourself to stand below the pulpit.

It’s eating meat on Good Friday and immediately feeling the need to go to confession.

It’s enjoying a humanist wedding ceremony and immediately feeling the need to go to confession.

And it’s thinking that a Catholic funeral is the only acceptable type when you attend a humanist one, and still immediately feeling the need to go to confession.

Always there

The most difficult aspect of Catholic guilt is that no matter whether you believe in it all or not — it’s always there. You always feel like you should be praying to something or saying sorry for something you did.

In times of trouble or hardship, the instinct of many of us is to pray — but to what we don’t know. Then you feel guilty for that, because what Catholic prays to God when they don’t even go to mass? The situation we find ourselves in can’t be won.

When I do frequent mass now, I forget why I’m there. I forget the reason we gathered in such a place. I only see neighbours and friends who have seen me grow up. The hardest part of my Catholic guilt is that underneath all the horror and awfulness we have seen from the church, there are good-hearted communities like mine who have shouldered much more than the guilt I harbour.

Related: The story of a community’s spirit and a GAA club called St Senans

Birth, death, happiness and sadness were all witnessed and experienced under one roof.

I’ve seen those who were teenagers when I was a toddler, now with their own families. Their kids with the same facial expressions I made; one that says all they want is to be is somewhere else.

While some are no longer there now.

Each of those Sundays spent at mass were flashes in time. Without knowing, we aged a little more, looked a little different; changed. But I still come back and feel at home. I’m comforted by the past and the familiarity of it, even though I might not believe anymore.

I feel guilty and uncomfortable for that, too.

New-wave guilt

As Catholics, lapsed or not, guilt plays a major part in our genetic make-up. If you’re Irish and are, or once were, Catholic, there is a double whammy. We live on the edge right next to a generation who were taught to feel guilty about most day-to-day activities — and these people were our parents.

Though we might not be as obedient and fearful as they were, we still feel remorseful for each time we pass a grotto or use the Lord’s name in vain. And each time the Angelus plays before the RTÉ Six One News, muscles tremble and it’s hard not to look dramatically out into the distance as the bells toll, like the actors on screen.

When you do get a twitch to proclaim an Our Father, there is a pang of new wave guilt for everything else and a feeling that you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Faith is faith, and being respectful of someone’s beliefs is important, whatever they are. However, there is no need for the guilt — it’s time we released the shackles. Because even though the guilt might tell you differently, the Holy Spirit is not going to pop out of a back alley to berate you with 20 Hail Mary’s and the fear of God because you forgot to bless yourself.

That time has passed.


More like this:

Read more: From Spice Girls to The Den: An ode to growing up in ’90s Ireland

Read more: We repealed the eighth: here’s what’s next for women’s health in Ireland

Read more: There’s still nothing being done to keep people in rural Ireland

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