In the last two weeks I went to a funeral and a christening. Opposite ends of the spectrum, per se. The funeral of my grandmother and the christening of my eldest cousin’s firstborn, the latest addition to the family clan, the first of the new generation.
This is the natural order. Both ceremonies are a celebration of life, lived and to be lived. They’re meant to offer welcoming, and closure. So why is it that the funeral left me feeling a “hell” of a lot better than the christening?
I was baptized as a baby into the Catholic Church, went to a convent school until I was 18 and went through all the rites of passage – Confession, Communion, Confirmation, etc. My parents never seemed particularly religious, but I got very “into it” during my early childhood and insisted that my dad take me to Mass every Sunday in the lead up to my Confirmation.
The Holy Spirit was to enter my soul or something along those lines, and I had to stand up with my 11 and 12 year old peers and “take the pledge” which was a vow to not drink alcohol until the legal age of 18. During the Mass I felt absolutely nothing so I mimed the prayer, renounced God and two years later was happily supping my first can of Heineken.
I put up with the prayers and the ceremonies for the rest of school life, most of which was pretty tame and was fueled more by a sense of community and faith than religious laws. Each occasion was marked by a Mass, and our choir regularly sang at local funerals and weddings, but it was never forced or resisted.
We enjoyed it, we knew our local priests and it was a warm, comforting environment. Most of the “religious” school activity was much more about spirituality than staunch, militant Catholicism.
One thing that was more on the militant end of things was the sex ed, or total lack thereof. What we had instead was Christian drama kids from Canada who would come and visit the school and teach us about abstinence and chastity.
I recall one particularly chipper group who performed a highly disturbing routine that involved one girl standing in the middle of the make-shift stage in our canteen holding a large red paper heart. One by one, the men in the troop would approach her and tear away a chunk of the heart to demonstrate the ripping apart of her soul every time she slept with a man outside of wedlock. We were 15 at the time. Ideal.
By the time we left school, there were very few practicing Catholics in our midst, and said practice became nothing more than a thing that we did in school and would revisit for milestones should our grandmothers still be alive and insisting upon it.
Baptism you don’t have much choice over because, traditionally, you cannot speak at the time and have minimal cognitive development being a baby. Confession is done at around six or seven years of age which usually involves drawing a picture to illustrate your sins (calling my brother names, not cleaning my room – mega important stuff) and then going into a dark box while trembling and nauseated to describe said sins to a priest who then instructs you to pray them away and never, ever do it again or you won’t go to heaven, etc.
Communion is wearing a white dress and getting to taste the little wafers that everyone else has in Mass, getting loads of money and having your picture taken 500 times – because what else could a seven-year-old possibly be more aware of at the time? Confirmation, as I mentioned, involves vowing not to drink and getting even more money. You have to give them tons of cash because how many 11 year olds do you know that are PUMPED to welcome the Holy Spirit into their souls?
They’ve just figured out Santa isn’t real. They know what’s up. They want to buy stuff.
You don’t have a choice in any of this if you’re in a Catholic school, unless you want to be left out of 90 percent of classroom activity in the months leading up to each ceremoney – sorry, I mean ceremony. And, honestly, if it was my kid I wouldn’t be rushing to exclude them from all of the pomp and excitement.
I still remember both days very fondly, even if the fondness is primarily of the cards full of money and the stellar outfits. But as religious schools in Ireland are slowly becoming a thing of the past, it seems this is becoming more of an optional pursuit. And, if I had the option, I would pass.
My grandmother was an incredibly religious woman. Mass every day, until she could no longer walk there. Prayers every day as long as she lived.
Even in her last moments, she appeared to be opening her arms to God, and was miming the Stations of the Cross, her hands running over imaginary rosary beads. A church funeral with flowers, prayers, and a ceremonious send-off was the only thing for her, and it was perfect. It was fitting, and exactly what she would have wanted.
The priest saying that she would be welcomed into the House of God was hugely comforting to us, not because we believed, but because we know that she did. That’s what is important.
A christening is simply missing that element of the individual actively wanting to be there. Babies yell their heads off when the holy water is poured on their soft little heads. The priest invites the godparents to renounce the devil and “all of his empty promises” and to wash the baby free of its sins. WHAT SINS?
Even the copy of the Mass provided to the congregation was copyright 1969, and it showed – all of the prayers read with male pronouns and the female option featured in brackets. “We welcome him (her) into the world.” We couldn’t even get one of these: “We welcome him/her into the world.” Thanks, God.
My concluding sentiments are that baptism and everything that follows should surely be when the individual is an adult, or at least old enough to inform themselves and choose a religion rather than being born into it without a say.
While that certainly hasn’t been the case in the past because religious parents obviously want their baby welcomed into their church – which I totally understand – my ponderings rest with the people of my generation who are not religious but would use the church for weddings and funerals.
Will we be christening our children too? What do we need to happen in the eyes of God, now that we no longer see?