Whenever I’m asked about my Catholic upbringing, two feelings immediately come up: anger at having been deceived, and shame at the viewpoints I used to hold because of it. As a child, religion encouraged views I now find abhorrent on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Even as the gobby and conceited child I was, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t stand up to opinions like these.
Despite having such a negative view of religious belief, the closest and most loving
relationship I’ve ever had was with a devoted Catholic: my Nan. Throughout her life, she was a woman of faith and took what I understand to be a new testament ideal of kindness to heart. My Nan was possibly the only person who I’ve never heard say a bad word about anyone, with the exception of a former Penally community councillor as a result of an incident in the mid-1980s. Towards the end of her life, she developed dementia, something which I couldn’t actually bring myself to admit whilst she was still alive. Although she continued to have religious belief, the experience of seeing the person you love most lose their identity confirmed for me that god, and the omnipotent Christian god in particular, could never exist.
It can be easy to overstress the impact of growing up in a religious environment on some of my current interests and beliefs and, honestly, there are times I can’t help falling into this. It’s easy, for example, to assume that there’s a link between the fact I study medieval religious art and I am interested in saints and my upbringing (there’s not): my appreciation for church aesthetics is probably just due to my love for the warmth of the colour or other similar factors. Similarly, I could also claim that my veganism has roots in how my devout nursery teacher Mrs Conybeare encouraged care for animals on a Christian model, whereas in reality I never liked animals growing up, mostly as a result of people’s poor reactions to my cynophobia. For me, veganism was far more down to preferring mushrooms to a kebab on a night out three years ago than having anything to do with St. Jerome, St. Francis, or St. David, the latter being funnily enough the patron of Wales, vegetarians, and vegans who eat honey.
From the ages of three to eleven I attended St. Teilo’s / Ysgol Teilo Sant, a school of around a hundred pupils co-run by the council and my local Catholic diocese. Primary school was a religiously charged environment in a way that at the time I just didn’t notice. Regular visits to the monastic Caldey Island (where they make a great range of chocolate and fudge), RE receiving the most hours of any subject after English and Maths, and a school trip to see the man in Rome (sadly not Pavarotti) where my friend James had been slapped by the Pope (this is a real thing that happened), are all a part of both my general and Catholic upbringing that I’ll never really be able to shake off. A comment I made while undergoing preparation for my First Communion aged seven is likewise a part of my upbringing that I’ll never be able to ignore: that is, my answer of “the bit where it ends” when asked about my favourite part of the Mass, proving beyond doubt that I was an advanced raconteur for my age but also hinting that even that early on I wasn’t the most sincere about faith.
Lydia, a friend of mine who grew up in a Protestant evangelical faith before leaving as a
teenager and who agreed to talk to me for this feature, grew up with a far greater religious conviction than I ever possessed and one which we agree has affected her life to a greater degree. An incident in Lydia’s upbringing which she wanted brought up was a sex education class ran at a Christian youth weekend, where a woman told her about the fact that she struggled and felt uncomfortable knowing her fiancé had even had previous relationships. Lydia was eleven at the time of this class and now believes it has led to her living with unhealthy views on sex and relationships whilst in her early teens.
The one devotional aspect which I suspect has stayed with me from my upbringing is the
Catholic focus on the Virgin Mary: maybe that’s because religion came to me from a
maternal place, or that all my school plays were based on an unexpected teenage
pregnancy. I’ve never enjoyed the rest of the Bible, but the nativity story, with its comparative lack of miracles and its message of caring for strangers in need, will always be something I can appreciate. I’ll always be something of a Catholic, in that as much as I distance myself from the church, the lack of even a theist bone in my body, and mine and my sister’s abysmal altar serving, I will never be able to negate the fact mass for me was precious time I got to spend (sitting at the back, not listening) with the person I loved most.
[Sam Foley – he/him – @wholesamness]
[Photo credit: Emanuela Fazzio]