YEARS ago, when I was a guest contributor to this paper, one of the first columns I wrote dealt with a Belfast pub owner who decided to decorate the bar to look like a Catholic chapel. He placed statues, and Sacred Heart pictures on its walls and even had a mock altar installed.
I noted that such casual disrespect for Catholics lacked both imagination and guts; if he really wanted to make a statement about religion why not nail a Koran to his lounge wall? We all know the answer.
This week in New York, the Met Museum’s exhibition, Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, raised similar objections but is completely different. As New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan pointed out, there was no intention by the organisers to offend. The cardinal, who attended the event, even joked he’d lent pop star Rihanna his mitre to wear for the night.
While I’m a bad Catholic – who isn’t? – I still bridle when faced with crude disrespect for the faith. I made my First Holy Communion half a century ago, and how I wish I’d written 50 years – somehow that doesn’t sound as long.
What makes the memory all the more special for me is the fact it was a next-door neighbour called Mrs Pinkerton who prepared me for the sacrament. We called her Mrs Pinky. She was a widowed Protestant lady who not only insisted on buying me my Communion suit – a tweed shorts number – but also kept me in her house the night before. The next morning, having made my breakfast and dressed me, she stood at her front door to wave me off.
The reason all this has come back to me is because my daughter is making her First Holy Communion today. Keeping up the O’Kane tradition, she has been prepared by her Protestant mother, who’s taken every bit as much care doing so as Mrs Pinky did with me. And her communion lunch is being served by her Protestant godmother; yes, you read that right.
As for what my daughter is wearing, well, that was decided by the girl herself. It’s a classy, understated number – no meringue monstrosity for this little lady. My son made his First Communion a couple of years ago and I watched, fascinated, as a girl wore a dress so wide they had to sit her on two seats. Even then the poor wee lads sitting either side of her spent most of the service picking her petticoats out of their teeth.
Undoubtedly, there’s a degree of theatricality around most Catholic ceremonies, and with First Communion, many parents push the boat out. Some seem to look on it as a cross between a mini-marriage and a fashion parade, with children deposited at the chapel in everything from a horse and carriage to a stretch limo.
A friend told me of watching a girl go up for First Communion wearing a halo; upon receiving the Eucharist, she flicked a switch under her dress and the halo lit up. Not surprisingly, the look on the poor priest’s face was priceless.
We live in a world where cynicism of faith is the new currency of the chattering classes. Those of us who still see merit in religion are looked on as naïve, or worse, complicit by association with the scandals that have rocked Catholicism over recent years.
Many condemn the whole Church – and everyone in it – as evil, due to the heinous crimes perpetrated by some priests and the bigger cover-up that followed. I am neither naïve nor have I been silent on the crimes of the Church. What I will not do is deny the many religious men and women I know who are not only spiritual, but are decent and honourable people who’ve spent their lives in the service of others.
Many Catholic parents may feel somewhat hypocritical today due to the fact they haven’t attended chapel for some time. I was in that boat a few years ago when, on returning to Mass, I was unnerved to discover the service had changed. I was standing when everyone else was kneeling, and kneeling when everyone else was standing – I felt like a Presbyterian who’d wandered into the wrong church.
So, if at your child’s First Holy Communion you feel a bit estranged, realise you’re not alone – we are many, we are trying to find our way, and we’ve every bit as much right to be there as anyone else.