Nuns n’ Rosaries

The highs and lows of growing up Catholic.

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Bring up Catholicism and I get defensive. We aren’t all paedophiles and misogynistic homophobes. I could denounce my faith, yes, because at 21 I am finally free to decide between acting in keeping with or counter to my religion. But doing so would be pointless. Even if I am no longer a regular church-goer, my upbringing has made Catholicism a permanent element of my identity. I can no easier give it up than I can being of Irish origin.

My dad is dubbed ‘the most Catholic person I know’ by many. Church on a Sunday, as a result, was not up for discussion. It was as non-negotiable as our address, or our surname: something we share and something that wasn’t changing any time soon. As a child, exemptions from Church attendance were: a Saturday night sleepover, Dad being abroad for work, and dance exams. That these events should be so perfectly timed was a rare occurrence and, consequently, greatly anticipated when the rebellious stars were set to align. No one likes exams and I missed my dad in his absence, but the thrill of missing Church made these minor hardships well worth experiencing. Now, I miss Church on the regular, only attending on high day and holy days. I’ll be back in my local parish for the Holy Saturday Vigil Mass: a mammoth two hours which are supposed to be more sacred than Christmas.

Dad has finally stopped displaying active disappointment in me when I’m home on the Lord’s day and I opt for a lie-in instead – it only took him 20 years. (I think my sisters get off lightly, but that’s always the way.) I’ve confessed, been forgiven, made my First Holy Communion, been Confirmed and helped spread The Word to Sunday School attendees. I’ve had black, oily soot smeared on my forehead for Ash Wednesday, clutched palm crosses on Palm Sunday, held flaming oranges and been picked on during homilies, or sermons if you are (lucky to not be) Catholic. Currently, to rephrase Rachel and Ross, Catholicism and I are ‘on a break’. After the years of confusing rituals, Latin chants and awkward divulging of child-sized sins to some ancient and unknown priest, I feel like I’ve earned a breather. I calculated that I must have spent between 1250 and 1500 hours of my life in Mass.

My school was called The Catholic High School, as if it were claiming to be the only one in existence. It is, rather less impressively, the only one with a sixth form, for a 25 mile radius. Its motto is ‘christo fidelis’ or ‘faithful to Christ’, but instinct tells me that teenage pregnancy, possession of drugs by Key Stage 3 pupils on school premises and assaulting teachers are, in fact, displays of relative unfaithfulness to JC. Placing a crucifix in every classroom does not change this. RE was compulsory, the rhythm method advocated, the school nurse banned from handing out condoms and, most shockingly, even the laddiest lads would belt out the hymns during termly Mass. Our forms were named after saints, the room where naughty kids got sent to work in isolation was called ‘Trinity’ and our whole uniform bottle green emblazoned with a yellow cross. Nicknamed ‘Bible bashers’ by the neighbouring secondary, we dodged edible grenades on the way to and from school. And being a serious-looking ginger of small stature gave me no prospects beyond repeat victim. I think my old headteacher’s proudest achievement was naming his band ‘Nuns and Rosaries’ after ‘Guns n’ Roses’. 

School was entertaining at best and perplexingly traditional at worst. I don’t think Catholicism brings much to modern-day relationships, least of all when you’re young. My parents never spoke to me about a prospective boyfriend until I went to Oxford. My dad’s prize jibe was ‘I can’t wait to meet posh Tarquin’. After nearly three years, Tarquin is yet to make it on to the scene, I hasten to add. Sex is taboo in our household, so my mum had to awkwardly relay my dad’s adamant request that my boyfriend sleep two floors down from me when he visited. Is it really any wonder then, that prior to this relationship I, in the words of my mother, “used Tinder to the detriment of my self-respect”? Speaking of Tinder, my first seven dates were, coincidentally, with Catholics. Given that we are a dying breed among the English student population, it certainly provided scope for bonding. On the contrary, those who hadn’t been brought up Catholic thought it hilarious that me, an ex-Catholic schoolgirl, was now nailing her swiping game instead of fantasising about the convent. (No, we are not all tortured by self-imposed celibacy before marriage.) I could never be open about an abortion, or, God forbid, I had had to come out as anything but straight.

In spite of my father’s highly questionable views and his attempts to shove them down my throat, I will always love him. He and my mum have given me so much: a stable, loving home, foreign holidays, music tuition and, crucially, encouragement to apply for Oxford. My parish priest, an Oxford graduate himself, even gave me a mock interview to plug the gaps my school had left. I attribute the traditional Catholic values to little more than generational differences; you would be hard-pressed to find a young Catholic nowadays who espouses all the views contained in catechism. I know from experience that you can associate with a religion without doggedly following all its teachings. And, above all, I am certain that spirituality is what counts because then all religions can be equal. I am neither inferior nor superior to others by being Catholic – but it does give me a laughably clear insight into life in 16th-Century Europe – very handy for writing my literature essays.

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