stories worth a thousand words #23



Written : November 23, 2004

Fr Cormac McBride had clearly put a lot of thought into how he was going to approach his Fifth Year Religion class.

Since he went on to become principal of the entire school after I left, I assume he was keen to achieve the seemingly impossible by somehow finding a way for a Catholic priest to identify with a room full of Irish teenagers in the 80’s.

With that he set off on his opening monologue, cleverly using the achievements of Bob Geldof in his Live Aid project to help explain the work he himself had recently done out on the “missions” in Africa. Among his other ditties to try to “be one of us” was one about a girlfriend he had when he was our age, and I think he even cleverly inserted the word “sex” at strategic points throughout his speech.

Whatever his precise words, they were definitely enough to hold the attention of the “Religion Class”, which by then was little more than an extra 45-minute period during which we could either study or do the homework which was due for the rest of the day. It wasn’t so much an anti-religious statement on our part; rather it was more of a practical utilization of extra time on account of there not being a Leaving Certificate paper on the topic. Normally a teacher would just come in and bang on for the duration, allowing those who so wished to get on with their work while the few who actually wanted to receive religious instruction could do so.

Where this priest failed in his preparation, however, was when he decided to allow questions from the group after his diatribe. He would probably been better served by asking us his own questions, thus retaining control of the topic at hand. Instead, possibly still blinded by his desire to connect, he told us we could ask him anything we wished on the topic of religion. “And I mean ANYTHING!!! I don’t profess to be the world’s leading expert on the subject, but I’ve been around enough to be able to hopefully give you all meaningful answers!!!” is more or less what he said.

And so I put up my hand. “Yes, there, down the back”; Fr McBride was glad that the ball was rolling quickly.

“If there was no death, would there be religion?”

I’m not sure which was loudest; the oohs, the aahs, or the hums…but for sure there was a sea of turning heads before me as the rest of the class wanted to get a glimpse of my face, as the seemingly sarcastic nature of my question clearly led them to expect a smirk of some kind. In actual fact, this was something I really wanted to know. I wasn’t simply trying to catch the priest out. My interest was genuine, so much so that I had actually forgotten to start the maths homework I was meant to be doing!

The rambling answer that followed ended something like “….so without doubt there would always be some sort of communication between man and his creator”, but I can clearly remember that he was knocked off balance a bit by my question. He went on to prove this by seeking me out in the common room later that day and saying me something like: “That was a very interesting question you asked in there, Mr Pagano!”. It was said in such a way that it conjured up an image of him in a comfortable chair stroking a white cat as he planned to take over the known universe, and thus I was stunned to silence. He never received an answer, and to my great relief left me alone.

Even at the tender age of sixteen I was aware that the whole concept of religion simply came from a desire for an explanation of what happens to us when we die. I worked this out myself, mostly out of curiosity as to why there were several different religions in the world. It did not appear to make sense that all I had been told was for real, for if it was, why were we such a minority on the global stage? And being generally ambivalent to the written word, there was little anyone could do to convince me that just because something was considered “holy scripture” then all contained therein could be taken as, well, gospel!!!

Probably my earliest religious curiosity was piqued after the death of my Uncle Christopher when I was 8. As my grandmother sat sobbing in an armchair, I approached her with the query: “Why are you so sad, Grandma?”

“Because I’ll never see my son again!” she replied through her tears.

“But won’t you see him in heaven?”

“Oh, Jeffrey, that’s beautiful, I must tell Maura what you just said!”, and with that she went to find her daughter.

I was left wondering why she never answered my question, for it seemed pretty straightforward to me. I had been receiving one-on-one instruction from a Brother Liam from Willow Park School; he would come to our home once a week to go over the Catechism book with me. My uncle had died, but we all die, so naturally we would all one day meet in this beautiful place called "Heaven". The grown-ups’ reaction to my question planted a seed of doubt in my head that was in full bloom by the time I was making theological enquiries in Fifth Year.

Today I suppose I have finally managed to piece together something resembling a “faith”, but it is one based in the here and now rather than in the supposed afterlife. I believe our existence throws us enough obstacles and challenges that we can be getting on with without squabbling over what happens when we die. I still feel it’s important, however, for my children to receive at least a basic grounding in the Catholic faith. Maybe then they can teach me a thing or two!

© JL Pagano 2004

NEXT, #24 : 1000 WORDS ON…MY EX


Buffalo said…
That was a damned good question, Jeff. Double damned good because it came from a 16 year old. Well done.
Heidi said…
have to agree with buffalo on that one. WOW! I can only imagine the looks on the faces of your classmates and teacher... Might have looked something like the one on mine as I read it! LOL

Excellent story! Can't wait to read the next on your Ex. :)
shandi said…
Lord knows I've asked my share of questions always resulting in the typical: " is not for us to as WHY?"

We have heard so many stories of "born-again" christians finding their way out of sin... into the light... and finding God. I have my own story: slow progression out of Christianity through a series of unanswered questions.

My children are also Catholic. I'm fine with that. However, they know they can depend on me to bring a little reality into their faith.... and it's OK to ask "WHY?"

Great post!!

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