Growing up in Ireland in the 1980’s and 90’s, the catholic church was the most powerful institution in the country. It had a vice like grip on it’s people with thousands flocking to the monolithic churches each and every Sunday morning for the weekly installment of Catholicism. Fast forward to today and the picture is very different.
As it transpires, a lot of bad stuff was going in the catholic church during this time. There has been countless cases come to light now that have highlighted the abuse suffered by many at the hands of priests and nuns up and down the country. Sexual, mental and physical abuse and everything in between. It turns out that many of the people who stood up on the altars across the land each and every Sunday, delivering powerful sermons and messages on how to live a good life, were not practicing what they preached.
With great power comes great responsibility but also great opportunity for abuse.
The manner in which the church have dealt with these abusers has been found very wanting. The common theme seems to be to move the perpetrators around to different locations and occasionally expelling one of them to send a message and have some examples to point to on how well they have dealt with these abuse claims. It has not been handled well. The redress schemes will continue and the church will continue to sell off it’s land and assets to pay down these schemes, all of which, again has a big impact on schools and communities everywhere.
Back in those days, when religion was booming and the churches were full for every mass, the church itself served a focal point for everyone in the community to meet, chat and engage with each other. It was more than just a church, it was the epicenter of a community. Inline with that status, the churches themselves were typically huge ornate and expensively decorated places, and remain so to this date.
This idea of the epicenter is really important. For some, this may have been the only human contact they may have had in the week. It also encouraged people to dress well as they knew they would be meeting their neighbours, which also helps to boost mood. It provided a ritual and routine to many. I recall watching my own Mum stay back after mass and talking to at least half a dozen people outside the church. She always arrived home smiling and content after this.
So when you add up all the constituent aspects of this experience – the dressing up + the routine of going to mass + the spiritual engagement + being part of something bigger than yourself + the social interactions + the human contact – there is alot of good stuff going on here that on their own have all been proven to be good for us but experienced together, provide real cement to our health and wellbeing foundations.
Fast forward to today, where participation in the ritual of mass is relegated (in the main) to the elderly, where religion itself is seen with disdain by many, where the subject of religion has been deemphasized in school curriculums, where today’s parents no longer go to mass or practice any kind of spirituality and as a consequence, their children lack training in this important aspect of good health.
Todays communities no longer have a focal point, the epicenter as it were, and I for one believe they are worse off for it. Yes some practitioners of the catholic church did unforgivable acts of abuse to people in their care and yes the church itself has failed on many levels to deal adequately with this but if you put that to the side and consider the beneficial aspects of this as outlined above, dropping the church, mass and all engagement with a spiritual practice is a very high cost for us to pay.
I have only anecdotal evidence of this but I suspect that no longer having a strong spiritual connection with a place, with people and with yourself is playing a subtle role in increasing rates of loneliness, depression, isolation and early mortality. It makes sense right? The less “connected” we are to each other, the more isolated we become over time. The church provided that space for neighbours to mix and mingle and become friends. Without it, we are worse off.
In the last 6-12 months, I am really not sure why but I feel a strong compulsion to return to the ritual of going to mass on a Sunday. Even beyond the Sunday, I have found myself wanting to visit churches whenever I can. I am finding great peace and contentment in this visits. Going to mass and being with others experiencing the sermon and, on a good day, the church choir is a really uplifting experience. Sitting in an empty church by yourself is an uplifting experience. It reminds me of just how big, the big picture really is and the enormous size of churches only serve to reinforce the idea that we are mere specks on the landscape of life. We are indeed part of something bigger than just ourselves, our material possessions, our houses, mortgages, bills and to do lists.
I shall continue to follow my curiosity here to see what has led me back to this practice but for now, I am 100% enjoying this odd return to a habit that I dropped nearly 20 years ago.