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Image / Self / Real-life Stories

“I’m Catholic and I’m proud”: Christmas as a modern Irish believer

30th Dec 2020

A manger sitting under a star ornament that is hanging from a Christmas tree with lights blurred behind.

In an age when Catholicism is something folks are either turning away from or apologising for, believer Emer O’Reilly-Hyland has decided to wear her member’s badge with honour.

At Christmas time, my “crib” features a rather beautiful holy “crib” as the centrepiece of my festive decorations. This particular crib was sent piecemeal from a dear friend in the States.

It started one November – the Holy Family arrived, baby Jesus seraphic in his intricately hand-carved sandstone crib; Mary, her serenity perfectly captured in the smooth lines of the cast stone; and Joseph carrying his staff and the weight of the world in the strong shape of his swathed robes. Oh, how absolutely lovely, I thought, as I set it on the windowsill.

The following year came the three wise men, their riches and reverence intact despite their turbulent transatlantic journey. The nuclear family was no longer linear, so I moved it to a whatnot in the corner of the drawing-room and stood back to admire. And so, it went on, for about seven years in all; the large insulated parcel would arrive bearing shepherds, donkeys, camels, sheep.

With each passing year, as its size and impact grew, I traded up its residence. I rearranged furniture, Christmas trees and tinsel, until finally, with the arrival of two at doves, each perched atop a plinth, I was a bit like Frank Kelly’s Gobnait in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: “Thanks a mill, but steady on Nuala or there’ll be no room at the inn!” The perfect “stage” for this large congregation turned out to be the console table in the hall, the pale modern wood and Lichen walls providing an ideal backdrop. I carefully unwrapped each piece and laid them out lovingly on some straw; I added a candle with a glass hurricane tube, lit it and stood back to admire.

Wow! It’s a work of art, I mused; a talking point, a statement. It says, “Hello, welcome, come on in to this artistic, devout, Catholic home.” And that’s when I faltered. I suddenly found myself squirming.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a crib, I’m Catholic, I go to Mass… and I don’t just mean once-a-year Midnight Mass. No, I’m talking Sunday Mass, all year round. Well, most Sundays. A crib isn’t the issue; it’s just that this one is a proclamation, and I like my religion private, not public. It’s a bit like the ashes on Ash Wednesday – I’m happy, honoured to get them, but I don’t want to wear them all day, on my forehead for goodness sake. If I’m being really honest, part of me doesn’t want to be thought of as a Holy Joe or that my devoutness (yes, I’m struggling with that word) is the first thing you see when you come to mine for dinner. That said, I don’t mind if it’s the second or third.

“A crib isn’t the issue; it’s just that this one is a proclamation, and I like my religion private, not public.”

You see, I don’t know many practising Catholics. There are few amongst my contemporaries, so being one can feel a bit lonesome at times. That’s okay – each to their own, I say. Among my wider circle of friends and acquaintances, there’s the usual mixed bag of agnostics, atheists, God-believers without formal religion, the non-practisers who make sure their kids celebrate First Holy Communion, angel and white feather-believers, mindfulness gurus, etc. All of them believe in goodness, kindness, generosity of spirit and climate change, and whatever’s your bag, whatever’s good for the head and for mankind, I’m all for it. But I don’t always get that openness in return.

Take the other night, for instance. There were 12 of us around at Lisa and Charlie’s for supper. We were all sitting around the table in their fab new kitchen extension, the sparkle from the Christmas tree lights reflected in the expansive glass wall. Lisa was expounding on her recent trip to Rome, where she’d taken in the sights, including a trip to Vatican City. I was thinking, what a lovely time to visit the Sistine Chapel, nothing like a bit of high art at this time of high-church. She was marvelling about the high ceiling when Charlie remarked that the Catholic Church has all the best art. Someone else piped up about the starving millions while “the richest organisation in the world sits on its arse and does nothing”. Suddenly, the table rallied in a cohesive call to arms. “It’s a disgrace,” cried one; “They should sell the lot and give it all to charity,” exclaimed another. The rest did a collective scoff, an eye-rolling “PFAH!” The atmosphere went from peace, goodwill and Michelangelo’s murals to indignation, anger and mealy-mouthed mumblings. It wasn’t long before the Magdalene Laundries and paedophiles were mentioned, and this congregation of 11 was a ferment of belligerence and self-righteousness.

My problem is the blanket dismissal of an entire religion organisation, of God himself, without discussion or debate. Disagree and you’re a naive bible-basher, so it’s assumed that we all agree.

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t agree. Firstly, my life is enormously enriched by my spirituality, by the direct relationship I have with God. I am also a practising member of the Catholic Church, but being a “remainer” does not mean that I have lost all critical faculties. I am abhorred by the evil perpetrated by child abusers under its protection, I rebel against misogyny and I voted for the Right to Choose. For who can argue that the Church is faultless? But what I have is hope, faith in it that it will change, albeit frustratingly slowly. Most of all, I have faith in the vast majority of its followers who are trying to live a life with meaning. Harrumphing disgust over pinot and pasta is banal. Like the many other occasions I’ve been subjected to it, I silently listened, but in my silence I was the lone dissenter, I was the 12th, I was Judas.

Here’s what I do know. For years, I searched for the perfect Christmas Eve – in the early years, I joined the queue for The Shelbourne bar, and had a blast meeting lots of friends; later, there were lunches in the Four Seasons or in town, followed by some last-minute shopping. I enjoyed them, but I always felt a bit frenzied. I got tired of being on other people’s agendas, the rip-off menus, the consumerism, the feeling exhausted on Christmas morning.

As Naomi Klein says in her latest book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, in which she talks about consumerism in the context of climate change, “Shopping didn’t used to be the primary pastime for our culture,” while she extols time in community, with friends and family, and I’m with her.

So a few years back, I stopped. I thought about what I wanted – really wanted – to do on Christmas Eve. I took my family to the local Poor Clare convent for 8pm Mass, followed by a quiet supper at home, some last-minute wrappings, and all a-bed by midnight. To my surprise, two families of close friends came too. We all loved it… the peace, the serenity, the children being invited to the altar to lay baby Jesus in his crib and sing “Away in a Manger”. I didn’t care that they were a bit mortified, because they kind of loved it too. We’ve been doing it ever since, and it’s the highlight of my Christmas.

So “PFAH!,” I say to the nay-sayers. I’m not ashamed to be Catholic. I’m not going to be silent. My enormous crib is, like me, coming out this year. In the interests of diversity, I’m saying what my crib is proclaiming: I’m Catholic, and I’m proud.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine. 

Read more: Turns out Kylie was right, it has been a year of realising things

Read more: Estrangement, grief and the holidays: ‘Not everyone has that big around-the-table-together family Christmas’

Read more: 5 lockdown habits we’re keeping up in 2021 (and 5 we’re throwing in the bin)

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