It’s just past 7:30am on a Sunday morning in the mid- to late-1970s, and our family is attending mass. The Roman Catholic church we attended in Montreal was usually full at every mass, but not so at this stupidly early one. In fact, there are so few worshippers present that the priest doesn’t use the main alter; instead, a board is placed across the baptismal font to the left of the church close by the organ, and it is from there that mass is said. We were pretty much the only family with school aged children present. For the rest there were, to my memory, only senior citizens. We stuck out like sore thumbs, which must have made our father pleased.
I don’t remember how long our family of six attended this first mass on a Sunday morning, but you can bet it was for as long as that mass was available. My age was still in single digits, so a super early Sunday morning wasn’t too bad for me, though I was bored stiff in every mass and never paid attention. My youngest brother is four years older than me, and bore through the mass much the same way I did, but it was worse for the two older brothers, eight and nine years older than me. The oldest brother in particular needed to be pried out of bed and, much to my father’s dismay, would return straight to bed after we came home from that mass. Looking back I can’t say I blame him.
What I remember is our stomachs growling, as we had not yet had breakfast. Catholic dogma dictates that one cannot eat one hour before receiving communion, but my ultra religious father never gave much credence to the Second Vatican Council, and wouldn’t let anyone eat at all before any morning mass. Even when that stupidly early mass was scrapped and we returned to attending the slightly more reasonable 9am mass (and later masses once we could get away with it, though my father always went to the Earliest Mass Possible) there was no eating beforehand. No compromise.
And there was no compromise on attending mass on any Holy Day of Obligation. None. It didn’t matter if you were an adult child, it didn’t matter if you no longer lived at home and were just visiting the parental abode, and it didn’t matter if you weren’t even my father’s child, as several cousins found out to their dismay over the years. If you were with my father on a Sunday you went to church. You had to be literally bedridden to get out of Sunday mass, and if that did happen he dragged you to the first weekday mass you were well enough to attend to “make up” for it.
And it went further. Much further. No meat on Fridays. No reading Ann Landers, who was “an instrument of the devil”. No going to movies, as “movie houses are bad places”. The same for concerts. No dates, and no being out “after dark”, which really did mean 4pm in December. No going out in the evenings during the summer months, either. No school dances. Everything we read and watched was monitored. Our father’s extreme religiousness affected every aspect of our lives. He reveled in it. Everything was in black and white. His word was law as the head of the household, and he could change his word whenever he felt like it. Every move he made was to show what a Good Catholic he was. No child was allowed to have a mind of their own, and must unquestioningly obey every authority figure.
It wasn’t a pleasant way to grow up.
I’m 48 years old, and only in the past few years have I come to realise that I never believed any of the Catholic dogma, or was Christian in general. Never was there any kind of relationship with God or Jesus, nor was I ever happy to praise the Lord in any religious context. Yet I clung on to some level of Christianity for years, and that reason was a fear of going to hell. That’s it. That one fear is the one legacy I had as a result of having my father’s idea of religion shoved down our throats. Nowadays I identify as Pagan, out of my own choice and quite happily so.
Our religious upbringing did stay with my youngest brother and J. Youngest brother attends mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, but knows better than to tell me I should be doing the same. J, well, he would bitch to me about having to take our father to mass whenever he stayed in Amsterdam with J, but I’m pretty certain he went every week by himself. Whether J got any comfort out of going to mass or religion in general is something we’ll never know, but we do know for certain that J also had a fear of what would happen to him in the afterlife.
About 10 years ago my father gave all four of his children the book Catechism of the Catholic Church for Christmas. My copy sat untouched on a bookcase shelf until I was certain my father wouldn’t be able to travel to England again to visit me, at which point it was promptly shoved in a charity shop collection bag and I thought no more about it.
When Youngest Brother was clearing out the personal items of J’s flat in September he told me that he’d noticed that J had bookmarked a page in his copy of the Catechism book. It marked the section relating to what happens to the soul after death.
J had the same fear of hell I had for so many years. And this fear looks to have played a role in the manner in which he committed suicide.
I’ll write up the details about J’s suicide at a later date. For now I’m setting the scene, as it helps me to contemplate on the horrible events more clearly.