In the wake of the latest papal pronouncement there have been many words written about the church of Rome and how she connects with the rest of us. (As an aside, it does seem sad that one whose very title as "pontiff" establishes him as a bridge- person, uniting the disparate, seems currently intent on making his bridge a lifted draw-bridge, separating the chosen from the rest- but that's by the way...) I’ve neither the inclination nor the qualifications to say much about it in terms of ecclesiology (using the word is the closest I propose to get) but reading a post by Kate started me off on my own trail of memories…
From the age of 7, I was one of a handful of Anglicans in an RC Convent school, kept very aware of my second-class faith status. Like all the other girls, I was slightly afraid of the older nuns, who had strange names (Sister St Edmund, Sister Dominic) and wore traditional habits. Clearly they had no hair, but did they even have legs…or did they actually move on casters? I was seriously curious.
On the other hand, I adored the younger sisters, - specially Sister Stephanie, who was always laughing, and who shared my passion for animals. Her charges included Billy the Convent Cat (whose markings echoed the nuns’ habits, right down to a wimple under his chin), Jason the dog, an ever increasing family of guinea pigs (whose offspring were popular purchases at the annual Mission Sale) and any number of damaged birds. Together with my friends, I’d ask special permission to visit the higgledy-piggledy encampment of hutches and hen-runs behind the hedge near Our Lady’s grotto, certain that to be a nun would be the passport to a limitless family of pets and sisters (both equally attractive to an only child). I think, too, I was attracted by the genuine joy that seemed to surround Sister Stephanie. When she sang and played her guitar in chapel, her whole being was there in the music, and I recognised that she was focussed on something wonderful beyond my imaginings.
But, though I was fascinated by statues and holy pictures, and carried around my rosary like all my RC friends, looking on wistfully as they made their First Communions in full bridal splendour, I wasn’t really ripe for conversion. Aunty A, the Belfast Catholic who lived next door to us would tease my mother by referring to us as “Separated brethren” but I knew that, like Sister Theresa my form teacher and Sister St Francis who taught me French, she prayed regularly that we might recognise our errors and join the True Church.
Even then, I found that vaguely disturbing.
Of course, I didn’t want to go to hell….and there were enough stories of souls in torment to give me a very clear picture of what that might entail….but I liked my own church, where the incense and vestments were far more awe-inspiring than the guitars and Kum-bay-ah of the Convent chapel. If I’d been 10 years older, and grown up before Vatican 2, I might have seen things differently, but the reformed liturgy of the late 60s just didn’t hit the spot for me. I needed full liturgical drama, Mozart and mystery.
But one thing I’ve never forgotten from those First Friday Masses, squashed uncomfortably into the lower school pews, to the south of the altar.
“The Mass is ended. Go in peace” the priest would direct us, before departing himself, an imposing figure flanked by servers.
But the nuns sang on, so for a few minutes at least we went nowhere. Instead I would watch, week after week, as the vestry door opened and Father X, stripped of his gorgeous vestments, and now a pedestrian figure in clerical black, came quietly back into the chapel to kneel in a back pew.
Nobody ever told me what was happening, but I somehow knew that he was thanking God for the miracle he had just been a part of, and praying for grace and strength before he left that place…
At the end of the Eucharist now, I say a quick prayer with choristers and servers, and then head straight to the west door for the weekly ritual of handshakes, hugs and greetings which seems integral to maintaining our community. As an extrovert I love that, of course, but I know I miss out on something. The danger of plunging immediately into relationships at the porch is that I might just be seduced into thinking it’s all about me, and the wonder of the Eucharist is too easily overlaid by the joys and concerns I encounter straight afterwards. Of course, they too are part of the worship...but so is the pause, the recognition that something amazing has happened, the time aside to say thank you.