God Matters but so does Religion

Many years ago when I was working as a priest I visited the home of an elderly man. Having seen my priestly collar he eyed me warily and hesitated before he let me in. After some patient encouragement he told me his story. He was ten years old in a Catholic school and had been hauled out in front of the entire class by an irate priest because he couldn’t properly answer a catechism question. For ten minutes the priest lambasted and humiliated him in front of his peers. As I watched him speak I knew from his eyes he was back there in that class, and the pain and humiliation was as raw now as it was then, well over seventy years ago. He finished his tale and told me bluntly that as soon as he was able he had never set foot inside a church ever again.

And here I was, inviting him to attend a week of church services! What could I say to him? How could I begin to apologise and acknowledge the wrong and the hurt that had been done to him? Acknowledge maybe – heal his hurt? No chance.

I’m old enough to remember the way the Catholic faith was taught back then and the awful lack of awareness, denial even, of basic human dignity and children’s development. I myself endured some bad experiences and was also hauled in front of a primary school class and publicly harangued – ironically not for a religious issue: looking back with adult hindsight, the teacher had unresolved anger issues and I – innocently – had lit her fuse. In many ways religion just mirrors wider societal mores, and it was a time of unquestioned authority and a black and white morality. Surely religion should be better than this?

Perhaps that’s why so many people today say things like:

          “I’m not anti God – I’m anti religion”;

          “I’m spiritual, but I don’t need to go to church”.

Many of these folk had religious upbringings and sadly, like the old man, had experienced traumas and the humanly negative and abusive ways that religion was presented and lived at that time – never mind the awful testimonies of those who were abused by ministers of religion. These attitudes against religion are therefore understandable but – I have to say – regrettable.

I say regrettable because faith in God is not and can not ever be a private matter. It is not a case of ‘me and God’, or even ‘God and me’ – rather it is ‘God and us’. If only for the need to pass on the faith to the next generation, we cannot be lone believers. If God’s will means anything to us then we should make the effort to discern what He expects of us. As a Christian, I know that Jesus founded a Church, and that this Church has to have a real and human manifestation as well as a spiritual heart. All relationships are meaningless if they are not celebrated and quality time given to each other.

God of course matters. But so does religion. Let’s define religion as ‘people worshipping God’, and wherever there are people there are good and bad elements. I lament many of the aspects of religion and of my own Catholic Church, but I still love the Church and leaving it is never the answer – rather, let us work to renew the Church because we are the Church!

I believe that God is calling us to church. Not necessarily the Catholic Church or even a Christian denomination – but let our faith be warm, vibrant and… shared!

I know that that old man is with God now, but how much more wonderful if, in his life, he had been given the encouragement to live his faith within a welcoming and inclusive Church,