Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Being an Ex-Catholic Atheist at a Catholic Funeral

My gran died last Thursday. At 88 years old and of frail health, her increasingly common mental lapses meant that it wasn't unexpected when it happened, but nothing quite prepares you for that phonecall.

Her funeral was today, attended by the two generations behind her—probably the best turnout at a family gathering for many years. Religiously, my family is traditionally Catholic, at least in name. We traditionally only see the inside of a church at funerals, with weddings being secular affairs and not much interest in baptising our children. Still, if you were to ask my sisters, aunts, uncles or cousins what religious affiliation they belong to, it'd be Catholic.

As far as I know, I'm the only openly declared atheist. Before going on, the reason I left the church is simply because I couldn't reconcile my beliefs about how to live a good life with what I was reading and being taught. I have no stories about abusive priests, psychological trauma induced by images of hell, or any of the stuff that commonly makes it into the Reasons to Hate the Catholic Church™.

So the ceremony itself was a little weird. Having gone through Catholic education, I knew exactly what to say at what times, and when to stand, sit or kneel. It's slightly odd that I remembered the prayers: they must have been burned into my brain when I was a boy.

But, aside from standing and sitting and that shaking of hangs thing they do prior to communion, I didn't do any of it. I didn't recite or respond to the prayers, sing hymns, bless myself with water, bow my head or press my hands together in front of me. While the priest was asking people to honour god, I was instead remembering my gran.

When I was paying attention to what the priest was saying, the thing that generally struck me was the occasional reminder that we're born sinners, achieving grace only through Christ. There was even a dig at non-believers in the reading from the book of 'Wisdom', where we are collectively labelled as 'fools' for believing that death is the end of a persons life.

As a foolish non-believer, what I found very odd was the tinkling of bells by the altar boy when the priest blessed and raised the bread and wine, a process which—according to believers—transubstantiates them into the actual body of blood of Jesus Christ. The communion itself seemed similarly strange, with people treating these little, mass-produced flecks of unleavened bread with such incredible solemnity. Knowing that most of the congregation in front of him probably hadn't communed in years, and bearing in mind the Catholic no-no about taking communion with a sin-stained soul, the priest offered blessings to those who remembered enough of the dogma to stay away because of that.

With with mass almost at its end, all that remained was to sprinkle 'holy' water over the coffin and wreath it with smoke from burning incense. This done, the coffin was taken to the cemetery and interred alongside my granddad, laid to rest seventeen years earlier.

After all this, what I'm most shocked with is myself. For quite an extended period of time, I believed this stuff. I took part in the rites and rituals, saw value in the prayers and songs and material paraphernalia. And it wasn't even that long ago: I was a practising Catholic up until about ten years ago, a lapsed one for about five years after that, finally moving on to agnosticism and finally atheism over the course of the following two or three years. Not coincidentally, all of this happened alongside actually reading the bible, learning about its origins, learning about other religions, and seeing the harm inflicted by the church thanks to its views on contraception, sex education, and homosexuals.

How times change.

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