Monday, November 07, 2005

Confirmation memories

The catechism of catholic doctrine – we kids called it the caddier. A weighty green book filled with questions and answers on a plethora of Catholic truths. Every 11 year-old had to know every question and answer off by heart for their confirmation day. Confirmation meant you were to be an adult Catholic – so knowledge of the caddier was crucial. After several years of preparation in learning hymns and intensive swotting of the caddier I was standing in St. Canice’s Church Finglas in 1966 for my confirmation. Like the rest of the boys I wore a dark suit with short trousers - chosen expertly by myself – no repeat of the cream communion suit likely! Nevertheless I was still nervous. We were told that the bishop could ask us a question from the caddier. There was a sense by most of us though – including our teacher - that there were too many of us in the church to get through everyone. It was more likely that some random sampling would occur for questions. Safe enough maybe.

The church was full with those to be confirmed, girls on the left, boys on the right. No parents or relatives in the church to protect us. The bishop with his entourage walked up the church in all his impressive robes and tall miter. Larger than life. The priests of the parish were figures of awe to us kids – but the priests were looking humble in the bishop’s wake. On reaching the altar the priest’s fluttered - including the parish priest - in alter-boy-like subservient activities around the great man. Was the bishop even human as we know it? This entity was powerful, 10 times more dangerous and scary than any priest alive. He was probably capable of sending us all to the fires of hell with one wave of his crozier. I was in a row about two thirds of the way down the church – gratefully distant from the altar. Even though I had classmates on either side of me, none of us dared speak a word. We had been warned by teachers. Eventually we noticed the unmistakable miter of the bishop moving slowly from left to right, then right to left amongst the boys near the top of the church. He was asking questions from the caddier. The awful truth slowly dawned on me and I broke out in a cold sweat. I had wondered why we were all in rows with every second row empty. The bishop and his entourage were passing between each row and quizzing the boys face to face. Wow! Surely he wouldn’t come this far down the church. Take too long.

Time ticked by endlessly. The bishop was sticking doggedly to his task. Going though every row of boys. The tall hat was getting closer. Eventually I could see the bishop’s face and the priests on either side of him. When he was a few rows from me I could see the pattern. The bishop had a well worn green caddier in his hand and was asking a question from it to every second boy. This pattern was very consistent, I was studying him with the heightened awareness of a drowning child. I did a desperate count of the number of boys ahead of me and came to the daunting calculation that the bishop would definitely be asking me a question. Closer and closer. I’m only eleven years old, too young for this terror. Then my throat dried in fear as I looked up into the face of the bishop – stationary and towering in front of me – the most powerful entity on Earth. The bishop was framed by two priests – one of them the parish priest. It looked like a firing squad. There was an eerie silence as the bishop selected a page in the green caddier. He called out a question. It did sound familiar, but I was almost frozen in fear. It was a question with a long answer. I struggled though it. Got mixed up with one sentence, made a bit of a mess of it. Too scared to think. The bishop paused. He wasn’t happy. He slowly flicked to other pages of the book. My heart was racing. He asked me another question. This one was better. Answer a bit shorter. I managed to get through it okay, but not quite perfectly. The bishop paused in silence. I avoided eye contact in fear of what anger his face might reveal. Then to my considerable relief the bishop and team slowly moved on to the next boy. I now ventured a glance up at the bishop’s face. He was staring back at me even as he moved, with disapproving eyes. The expression said to me – you really aren’t good enough, you barely scraped through. I wondered - what if I had messed up on the second question? Was I close to being marched out of the church, made an example of? What would my parents and friends think of me – a failure on this big moment in front of the bishop. Anyway, no point in dwelling too long. I was safe and the rest of the ceremony was a doddle after this.

I can laugh back at the confirmation catechism episode today. But it gives a flavour of how much in awe kids were at the time of priests, bishops, teachers and those in strong positions of authority. I can only imagine how easy it must have been for the deviant minority to get away with sexually abusing children and the horror it would have been for such kids. Fortunately I never experienced this, nor at the time did I hear of any who were. However, the irrational fear of those in strong authority lingered well into my adult life. Even today, as successful as I am and with my own company etc., there are still little traces left of fear of those in controlling positions.

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