We have recently been discussing the pros and cons of changing from a straightforward clear cut expression of our religion into the complexities, arguments and uncertainties which accompany any up to date attempts at understanding.
So I look back and try to recall some instances in my Catholic education. I went to my first boarding school, run by the Jesuits, in 1943 – when I was about to have my eighth birthday. So here are some memories.
I had been told that my First Communion was to be a wonderful experience, so I expected ecstasy. But nothing happened – no flashing lights, no sign of my guardian angel, and certainly no sense of spiritual elevation. In fact my most vivid memory was being kissed on the cheek by my class mistress because of my holy innocence. The sense of ‘yuk’ still remains in my mind today – although I have had rather more pleasant experiences of being kissed since then. I don’t know how you explain to a child that something wonderful is going to happen – but that it simply won’t feel wonderful
Another association with Communion is a memory of trying to clean my teeth in the shared washroom without swallowing any water. This was apparently necessary to avoid breaking my fast. It dis not occur to me then that God might not be too concerned about such a details, and the clear threat that, in getting it wrong, I would end up in Hell for all eternity was something that I simply accepted without question. A year or two later we were asked to discuss in the classroom whether, if we had popped a chocolate into the mouth a second or more before midnight, we would be able to swallow it after midnight and still go to Communion the following morning. (The answer, our Jesuit class master explained, was that the process of eating had started before midnight so the fast was not broken.)
You may say that I had distorted or misunderstood the teaching of the good Jesuits. But I can document it from the night prayers we all said together. They came from The Manual of Prayers for Youth (1935 edition). Here is a passage: “Death is often nearer than you imagine; and many, who have promised themselves a long life, have suddenly been cut off in their sins. Are you so ready that, if death should come tonight, you would not be surprised? Do not live in a state in which you dare not die.”
“You can only die once, and if you die ill the loss is irreparable. If anyone from hell could return to life, how would he prepare himself for death? Let the misery of others be an instruction to you.” Good advice, no doubt, but perhaps a little strong for an eight-year-old when composing himself for sleep.
In fact, that preoccupation with mortal sin and sudden death was a leitmotif of all my education. In the teenage years I would note the daily queues of boys waiting to be absolved from sins of the flesh, just in case they died in the night. I remember my relief when a boy who was drowned in a boating accident was reported as having received communion that morning – and so could be assumed to have been in a ‘state of grace’ – that welcome, if almost accidental, condition. I learned, only recently, that self abuse was regarded as trivial in the early Church, and only a serious sin in those who had taken vows of chastity. That was to change. Indeed, by my time, to invite even an impure thought was matter for mortal sin. As I was to confess many years later, speaking at an Old Boys dinner, I did not so much welcome impure thoughts, as invite them in for the weekend. The loud laughter at my remark showed me that I had not been alone in my experience.
Lest you should think that my experience was not the norm you might like to look at the ‘official’ line. The atmosphere is well captured by this quote from Father Henry Davis SJ; his four volume work on moral theology was a standard. This is taken from the 1958 edition:
The Catholic Church insists therefore, in season and out of season, on the religious education of the child, explicit, dogmatic, determinate moral education in a religious atmosphere, thus giving him something to cling to against the time of vehement temptation. It indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature. It does not wait until the passions have grown strong then to offer the youth the free choice of religious dogmas or moral antidotes. It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.
Much of this would be regarded as grotesque by an adult convert – largely because it was grotesque. I know this because I married a convert who found it mysterious. Having started life in the Church of Scotland her active conscience was still intact, while mine had atrophied. Indeed for many years I put put my moral questions to her, as I recognised that her unprogrammed judgment was better than mine.
Did I get over all this distortion? At a level of rational understanding I most certainly did. But at the emotional level the nagging possibility that Hell might be no further than the next careless crossing of the road still remains. Even my father’s view – that the English could never focus the mind sufficiently to meet the conditions for committing mortal sin – could exorcise it.
I am interested in whether my experiences sound an echo in other ‘born’ Catholics of around my generation. Were they affected in the same way, or were they left unscathed? And how about later generations – perhaps those who were educated after Vatican II? What was it like for converts? Were they taught much the same, and did it have the same effect?
Is it possible that the uncompromising, clearcut, teaching of my youth was valuable in keeping us within the Church, if only through fear? How should we teach the young today?