By Leo Devine
As Dara Ó Briain once said, there’s no way you can stop being a Catholic. There’s no website where you can log in and revoke your membership. Even disbelieving in God doesn’t get you thrown out, you’d merely be thought a “bad Catholic”.
Considering my recent patchy attendance at mass, that’s probably what my poor Catholic parents are thinking right now, assuming they’re enjoying their heavenly reward. Either that or they’re turning in their Catholic graves at St Mary’s Catholic cemetery in that Catholic enclave of Salford.
And yet, despite years of self-analysis, flirtations with agnosticism and even atheism, I still think of myself, firmly and for ever, a Catholic. Even when I’m asked my religion, and that sheepish almost apologetic feeling of embarrassment overtakes me, I still hold true to the Church of Rome: “Yes, I’m Catholic. You know, one of them. That weird lot.”
It’s really not surprising the extent to which my cultural Catholicism stretches.
My early life revolved entirely around our parish, St Edmund’s. I was an altar boy and served mass twice a week. My school, De La Salle, was a Catholic boys’ school. I went on pilgrimage to Walsingham and even to Lourdes three times, I studied for a degree in theology, and was even accepted to train for the priesthood by the RC Salford Diocese in 1980. That particular avenue was closed permanently when I married four years later. My wife was something of an impediment to Catholic ordination.
Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I always felt different. Even in Salford, where nearly everyone I knew was a Catholic. This was the height of the murderous IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain. Catholicism was often talked about in the same breath as terrorism and a degree of suspicion would fall on any Catholic, especially ones of Irish heritage.
I guess this is how ordinary, British Muslims feel today when some awful atrocity is linked to Islamic extremism. No matter how opposed you are to violence, no matter how much you protest that you abhor all acts of terrorism, somehow you are lumped in with everything done in the name of your religion and you are viewed differently because of it.
Other than that, Catholic life in the 1970s was simple and almost normal. Admittedly, we had our fair share of sacred heart statues and holy water fonts scattered around the house, even a kitchen tile depicting Our Lady had been randomly cemented next to others showing onions and turnips, but to me that was all perfectly normal and acceptable. I lived in a Catholic world and did Catholic things every day without batting a Catholic eyelid.
The only Protestant I knew well during these Catholic of Catholic times was Debbie from next door, and even then, our conversations were never a shining example of post-Reformation thinking. Our theological discussions amounted to little more than: “Why don’t you say the ‘thine is the kingdom’ bit at the end of the Our Father?”
So, with all that excess Catholic baggage I’d been carrying around for years, how did I end up, several decades later, becoming an Anglican for most of the pandemic?
I’ve lived in Cornwall for 26 years. We moved here when my children were tiny. They’ve grown up here, gone to school here and feel completely Cornish. My eldest son even wrote Cornish as his ethnicity on the latest census. Not surprising, then, that he’d want to be married here.
Neither of my children were brought up as Catholics (I really hope Mum and Dad aren’t able to read this up there). So, when my eldest wanted to get married, two things were certain: one, it would have to be in Cornwall, and two, it wouldn’t be in a Catholic church.
Sadly, like many young people from this beautiful Celtic nation in the far southwest, finding work here and continuing to live here, is not always possible. At the age of 30, my son now lives and works in London. This presented him with a sizeable problem if he wanted to get married in his beloved Cornwall.
The Anglican church, linked as it is to the state, demands attendance at your chosen church on a least six occasions over the same number of months, to qualify for marriage. And all of that has to be completed three months before the wedding, so that the banns can be read. Given the distance between Cornwall and London, and the restrictions on movement during the pandemic, this was not going to be easy. Luckily, the law affords you a solution. You choose a proxy. Someone who can attend on your behalf. That someone was me.
With the attendance clock ticking, I joined the tiny Anglican parish church of St Just in Roseland, a beautiful and ancient church sitting right by the water on the Roseland peninsula. It’s often a Catholic complaint that the Anglicans have all the best churches, and by and large that’s true. St Just in Roseland, dating to 1261 and boasting an earlier Celtic foundation, is no exception. It even has a holy well nestling in by the waters’ edge. Hardly surprising I fell in love with it on sight, and why I couldn’t resist the sulky Catholic thought: “Well, it was ours originally anyway.”
Despite a fleeting feeling I wouldn’t fit in, the parish could not have been more welcoming towards this lapsed Catholic newcomer who seemed to cross himself every five minutes. From the vicar to the congregation, everyone made me feel part of their parish family. I even found I knew most of the responses during the weekly communion service — they still say things like “and also with you”, rather than the more recent Catholic mouthful “and with your spirit”.
To my surprise, my attendance rocketed from the required and legal once a month, to most weeks. And during lockdown, I was a regular on the weekly Zoom services, even reading the long Passion narrative for the online congregation on Good Friday.
What I discovered was not only acceptance and friendship, but also, over time, a renewal of my own spiritual and prayer life. I felt comfortable and comforted. I looked forward to attending and to sharing those reflective and communal moments at the weekly services. I felt part of their small community and was grateful for it.
To bring us up to date, my son finally married and the wedding was everything we and they had hoped for. I’m emotional even writing these words. The sun shone and the service was prayerful, serene and beautiful. I was honoured to read the Gospel and even used my mother’s Pope John Missal to do it. All was perfect. And for those brief moments in church, there was no Catholic and Anglican, there was no divide, just the sight of two people taking their vows, surrounded by family, in a beautiful and holy place.
I guess I’ll always be a Catholic, at least in name. In the end, it’s more about culture than belief. Five years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Pope Francis. As he shook my hand and gave me a rosary, I began to cry. It wasn’t just the moment of meeting a man I greatly admire; it was the thought of my long-dead parents and what they would have made of that encounter.
For them, the Pope was a symbol of the universal church, a person who made you feel like you were part of something bigger. I still hanker after that sense of belonging, but I recognise it’s partly nostalgia. What I learnt in the past few months is that human beings are far too fond of their labels. To my happy surprise, the bump start I needed to reboot my spiritual awareness came not from Rome, but from a tiny Anglican church where acceptance and friendship transcended all the pointless divisions of the past.
Leo Devine is journalist in residence at Plymouth Marjon University, and director of Devine Media. He was a BBC journalist and senior leader for 35 years