Peace Be With You

The other day, I had occasion to find myself in a completely empty Catholic church (I have my reasons). And as I knelt there, trying to find a comfortable way to kneel in a slightly-too-narrow pew, the experience began to conjure up all kinds of childhood memories. I was raised a Catholic, and I still consider myself a Catholic – albeit a horribly lapsed one who isn’t entirely certain about the presence of God. This post most definitely isn’t about religion so I’m not going to go into the whys or wherefores of faith. Believe whatever you like, and so will I. But there’s just something about the atmosphere of a church that I bet brings up a lot of mixed emotions for all of us.

I’m not entirely sure how this came about but even though both my parents are relatively godless people (I couldn’t tell you what, if anything, either of them believe in. It never comes up), but from an early age, my siblings and I went to Mass. My parents were virtually never there  – Mum might have come along for the odd midnight Mass, but that’s about it (to be fair, she wasn’t a Catholic, only my father was, and he couldn’t be bothered). This decision to herd a gaggle of six scruffy children to church on a weekly basis was certainly the brainchild of my eldest sister and brother. They can’t have been terribly old themselves but they evidently felt that the religious instruction of their younger siblings was of vital importance. I remember being dragged on a 30-minute route march (30 minutes there and 30 minutes back) every Sunday morning to ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’ Catholic church. I was the second youngest of the six and I must have been fairly small – but able to walk. I remember dreading Sunday mornings – mainly because of (what seemed at the time) the mammoth trek required to get there. But once we had made our way through the lobby, splashed ourselves with a bit of chilly holy water, pushed our way through the throngs and managed to find an entire pew for six, I was always fairly content to be there.

To be honest, the priest’s sermon was never terribly engaging to a small child like me. Mass seemed overly-long and a bit dower. It certainly went on for an hour. Maybe more. It felt like days. But nobody ever thought to bring me a colouring book. His sermon was never really relatable to little children – but I guess you can’t cater for everybody. Still, I liked Father O’Malley’s Irish accent, although that lovely gentle lilt (albeit unbelievably difficult to understand) did make me feel a bit sleepy. It wasn’t his fault that I, as a child, couldn’t engage with his words. Catholic services are notoriously crazy-boring. There ain’t no happy-clappy, throw your hands in the air, dancing in the aisles shenanigans in our church. But then I haven’t been for years, so maybe everything has changed…

I have always enjoyed a nice sing-song and therefore singing hymns in church was always the best bit. But only if they chose the right ones. Sometimes I would look up at the hymn numbers on the board, check them out in the hymn book and be bitterly disappointed that some joker had chosen all the dull ones with a melody that was impossible to commit to memory. Or the miserable ones which made you want to kill yourself. But what is it with the high-pitched key that hymn-writer’s invariably go for? Even as a kid I found I was practically screeching to hit the high notes. Apart from Maria Carey, who among us really can sing that high? Who? I ended up having to sing an octave lower like the men, but always came a cropper when the hymn had an unfortunate low point. Then I’d virtually be growling. No, church hymns are always arranged for sopranos and not altos, like me. I think this is unfair and perhaps we need to get together a petition.

I particularly got excited when you had the opportunity to ‘extend the sign of peace’; where everybody turned to the person next to them and shook hands, saying, ‘peace be with you’. My brother used to think it was hysterically funny to mutter under his breath so quietly that he actually got away with saying, ‘please and thank you’ instead. The rest of us thought this was a great lark and soon adopted this practice as well. There were a lot of ritualistic practices like the sign of peace – I wouldn’t dream of going to church now without doing a bit of revision on the order of service. You could look a complete fool. How do you know when to kneel? How do you know when to stand? How much money do you put in the basket (and where can I get one of those pesky envelopes that hides the amount)? One of the rituals I enjoyed was the Eucharist; getting in the queue and lining up with your hands out for the wafer-thin rice cake…I mean bread, and a sip from the chalice of cooking sherry…I mean wine. Our poor littlest sister wasn’t able to join us as she hadn’t had ‘First Communion’ (when they dress you up in a white dress and veil and disgusting white sandals if it’s the 70’s and…I don’t remember, I’ve blanked the rest out. It was worth it though, because you got to join the bread and wine queue!). I don’t know why she missed out, maybe my mother got bored by the sixth child. I always told her she might as well get up in the queue like the rest of us as nobody would ever really remember this secret shame after a while. But I guess she couldn’t handle the thought of lying in church, so she never did. And still hasn’t to this day

What I particularly liked was the end of the Mass. Now I’m not being cynical, I rather enjoyed going for the most part, but it’s like going for a long run or doing a work-out. You don’t especially want to do it but you feel really virtuous once it’s done.Yes, I remember those days with fondness. I miss our lovely old church with its beautiful architecture, statues of Jesus and Mary, and ornate stained-glass windows. I miss the atmosphere; the smell of incense and lit candles. Being surrounded by old people; their cold, wrinkled hands, the strong Irish accents and kindly eyes. I just can’t replicate those childhood days for my kids in the town in which I live now. Our Catholic church is a very modern building and it just doesn’t have the right atmosphere – the ambiance isn’t as I remember it. Plus I’ve grown up now. I’m in charge of what we do on a Sunday morning and, let’s face it, we don’t have to go. But maybe when I’m the old lady in search of companionship and feel the need to sing my lungs out to a ridiculously high-pitched hymn, maybe then I’ll venture back.


I never found out what she’d assumed…


NB: If you get the urge, tell me about your childhood church stories and experiences below. And if you’re a regular church-goer now (ideally Catholic), would you write me out a detailed list of what you’re expected to do during the service? I don’t want to look like an idiot next time I convince myself I ought to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve…

18 thoughts on “Peace Be With You

  1. I was brought up Catholic and was even an altar boy for some time. Me and my three siblings were dragged to church every Sunday by our parents: mind-numbingly boring as you mentioned.I don’t think time runs normally once you pass through the doors of a church.
    Christmas days were the worst. Just as you finished unwrapping all your presents, and were about to play with your new toys, we were all forced to wash and put on our nice new clothes and then dragged to Christmas mass. Sitting there in the pew, dreaming about playing with my brand new AT-AT walker, whilst some priest droned on about some fictional fairy tale.
    But even nowadays as an atheist, I often pop inside any old church or cathedral I pass by. The smell of incense as you mentioned is a pleasure and I love Gothic architecture.
    Here in Vienna, there are some impressive churches and a fantastic cathedral. I’ve even visited three of their crypts. Piles of bones, stacked six feet high, and painted wooden coffins, some of them still open with the mummified remains visible, are fascinating to witness. I like all that creepy stuff.

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  2. Cool! I’m off to Germany in the summer and I know they’re big on Catholicism too so hopefully we’ll see some of that stuff! You were an alter boy? I used to be really envious of them…life was so unfair as a girl…


  3. We,re a funny bunch us Catholics Adele. Lovely post, I have images of you six heading off on Sunday’s, a bit like the Von Trap family. I couldn’t give you the correct order of service to this day as I tend to day dream a lot at mass if left alone, but mostly it’s spent telling my two boys to stop talking and mimicking the priest! My eldest son in particular has it down to a fine art, so if you were in the pew behind us, there’s a lot of shaking going on, trying to silently laugh.
    I think we like the whole routine & rituals involved and for me they are comforting, a reminder of my childhood.
    I did take umbrage against the priests & nuns for a while there during all the abuse coverage, I was shocked by what I read about the Magdaline launderies and how so many Irish women suffered at their hands so I was determined to never darken the door of a church again. However I am to be found at least one Sunday out of four on my knees (wondering how I’m going to get up again). 😇😇

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    1. True, the Catholic Church has a lot to be ashamed of, but I can’t help but feel it’s still a part of my identity… Anyway, as far as the order of service goes, you were my last hope, Lizzie… 😳

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  4. Hahaha, the first time I took my husband into a Catholic mass he didn’t know the procedures, obviously. I figured he would be fine, he could follow the sheet, after all it tells you when to kneel, sit, stand, etc. How hard can it be? So, we inevitably got to extending the sign of peace. As we proceeded through this little trinket of a ceremonial practice I noticed the looks and smirks he was receiving as he embraced this opportunity to engage with the congregation. This was a very enthusiastic crowd I might add. They came from pews far and wide! My then 11 year old was falling apart laughing, but yanno, she was 11, anything could have tripped her out and I was preoccupied with gathering her back together to show what a good mother and congregation member I was. As we left the church my husband was waving at folk he’d never met before in his life, a little too enthusiastically. We reached the carpark and he finally turned to me and said ‘wow I never expected that?!’ I thought he’d been overcome with faith and marvelled that this heathen hadn’t spontaneously combusted during the service. “What?” I asked, fairly impressed. “Everybody coming up to me to say ‘pleased to meet you’ what a friendly bunch!” – it seems he’d misheard and repeated this countless times around the congregation. Needless to say I didn’t take him back!

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  5. Ps I’m not a practising anything but I come from a large family of “Catholics” ( I use this term very very loosely haha). I’ve never known any other church for the endless ream of rituals I’m often under obligation to attend lol. Oddly my childhood was filled with Sunday mornings when my sister and I would wake my mum at stupid o’clock and ask to go to Sunday School. My mum, the Catholic, still in her early twenties and full of life, would open one bleary eye (the other was no doubt still in the night club they’d been the night before?) and mutter, ‘kids, there is no God!’ Still, I loved colouring, and hymns, I was going!

    My DD has autism, she is a complete atheist, she replies ‘show me the science’ to any question of faith lol… she really means it, her world is grounded in science and ‘fact’. Yet she loves Mass, from time to time she will ask me to take her to the longest, most drawn out Mass there is local to us. Each and every service is 90 mins long minimum, the Priest clearly loves the sound of his own voice. Her logic is that because she doesn’t believe, she doesn’t ‘need’ to listen, therefore she tells me that it’s the most peaceful place in the world, somewhere to shut down and sit quietly (now that she’s old enough to not find everything and everybody hilarious!). It’s also predictable… and there is an autist adult man, who rocks and chants throughout the service without fail, I suspect this stimulates her because she almost settles down to his rhythm.

    I always begrudge going (because there is always a risk of forming an unwritten contract with my DD, we went this week, therefore we will go every week for the rest of our lives?!) but we do from time to time. I enter wishing I shared her skill for shutting down and recharging my batteries, sadly I don’t possess it. However, as I sit there, I’m always reminded of a Greek Orthodox church I used to visit every Sunday many years ago whilst working in an orphanage in Romania. I used to grab as many kids as I could and take them with me, 2 masses per day, morning and night. It was the only ‘out’ they would ever be allowed, and so I used this opportunity to it’s fullest, filling the pews with a gazillion children, my effort to show them some liberty, and aim for acceptance in their village and community. I dreamed that they would have a life like you and I one day, but the biggest hurdle I could foresee was not their complete lack of daily living skills, nor their suppose ‘mental handicap’, or their incredibly short life expectancy (they went to an old peoples home in their 20’s). It was the rules and bias of the culture and society they lived in. Those Sunday Masses became a ritual which was really important to me, and often an experience! Last week I watched 2 of those ‘orphan’ adults get married in that church. I saw pews and pews of their childhood peers decked in clothes they’d chosen themselves, and not one of them was biting, punching, kicking, fighting somebody else. None were scrambling over or under the pews, or stealing out of somebody’s bag haha. I watched and caught sight of a girl I once had to high tail it after across the village, to retrieve an apple she had swiped (because when you’re starving and you an apple which you will probably never have the chance to taste again, you’ve got to take your chances, right?), else we would all have probably faced banishment forever lol. It was the same girl who had decked me with one very mighty right swing as I’d tried to show her how to wash some 18 years ago lol. Yet, there they were, not one of them swore or chanted ‘you lie to me you lie to God’ as they used to, in chorus. Each and every one of them have their freedom and independence now and are self sufficient adults like you and I. They blew my mind. They reminded me that anything is possible and in the face of the most gut wrenching adversity, to keep the faith. Sorry for the loooong reply, your comment just reminded me that my reasons for church attendance have never been orthodox, I’ve never once been there for the traditional reasons of belief if I am honest, but I have to admit that it has it’s uses lol.

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  6. I attended a CofE primary school and we went to chapel each Wednesday. My uncle, who roadied for AC/DC among others, gave me a silk tour jacket. The jacket was white with rhinestones and a scanty lady laying with a jaguar (the cat) on the back. I thought it was the dog’s boulders and chose Wednesday to show it off at school. My teacher, who I adored (always had a thing about teachers. Married one in the end!), FREAKED! How dare I presume to enter the House (Well, provincial apartment really) of the lord wearing a pornographic windcheater! I skulked off to the toilets where I engaged my secret.weapon, the jacket was reversible! On the other side it was simply a bright orange bomber jacket. Huh! I would show them.
    So, to the point. I didn’t have any fiddly rectors, ours was a salt and pepper bearded little John character with the coolest cross around his neck made of iron nails. But, I never really bought the whole follow the book thing that was administered by flawed men and followed by people I couldn’t aspire to. Even back then I thought it was a bit of a scam.
    As I’ve grown up, I have come to realise though that we need to believe in something. If that something is based in good, all the better.
    Here in Greece with the economic mayhem, it would be better if more could count on beardy priests to give support and meaning but the economic crisis has come hand in hand with a crisis of faith and the Greeks are suffering for it. Shrinks are doing brisk business though!

    I guess while trying to shrink-wrap too many ideas into this reply, I should clarify:
    Modern life gives us too many rules but too little to believe in. Too many obligations,too many sins, but too little grace. Too many freedoms but too little wisdom.

    ps. The Bible ROCKS! It’s got everything.

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    1. Aw, thank you Frank! And thanks for saying ‘hello’! It’s so lovely to chat with the readers to hear their views (and find out they are not a figment of my imagination😉)! Hope all is well in Texas and do comment anytime! 😊


  8. Somehow this reminds of temples, as a Hindu my mom wants me to pray, and visit the Temple like she, and my younger brother does, but I never do. And, she hates me for that.

    I remember as a kid, when few of my friends cousins liked to go to the church during Christmas.. Reasons free chocolates, cakes and other stuff. I always thought that I would accompany them someday but I was too lazy as always.

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