Identity and Belonging
I don’t think you could really say that I had any great teenage rebellion. I tried to do the ‘normal’ things of clubbing mid-week, largely because it was half the price of the weekend rates. More than once I put a sachet of hair dye back on the shelf at Boots fearing that my auburn hair might combine with the dye to make something truly awful. My stating of who I was came in a slightly different form: I started going to daily Mass. I don’t remember paying particular attention to the words. I just liked being there. There were a handful of daily Mass goers and we formed a kind of unspoken community. We never spoke to each other. I’m pretty intuitive by temperament and often the atmosphere is all I need.
I began to notice that the daily Mass goers had huge leather bound books that weren’t Bibles. Those books were Breviaries. I didn’t feel quite in this league and so my prayer before Mass largely took the form of ‘wasting time’ with God. These daily Mass goers were also part of the growing charismatic prayer group. I was curious. One evening after Mass someone invited me along to the prayer group. There was a queue to get into the hall.
What I found here was truly a fusion of a whole new way of praying with many of the traditional elements of Catholicism. The prayer meeting used the full Rosary as its framework, with prophecies and singing between the decades. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything similar. There was a power in that room that I had never experienced before. Somehow it didn’t matter that I was the only 17 yr old there.
I was more or less oblivious to the dynamics of the core group and how weight was assigned to the prophecies that we heard. There were rumours of cures and many stories of people slain in the Spirit. I sat rather lightly to these phenomena preferring instead the readings from Scripture and the medleys of hymns that swelled the hall. The 12 string guitar was very much in favour and the sound of four guitarists plucking a melody seemed to transport me to a place of deep peace. The group had produced its own hymn book, with many hymns written by prayer group leader Fr Ciaran McDonnell. a former member of a rock band. Here was the fruit of his prayer and engagement with Scripture set to vibrant music. I treasured that hymn book.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing in the parish of the Holy Rosary: the charismatic phenomenon aroused suspicion and was easily stereotyped. There was a general feeling that long charismatic homilies weren’t a great idea. It was a fair point really as a lengthy teaching in a prayer group setting is wholly different to the homily at a Eucharist, even if both take Scripture as their beginning and end.
But there was another issue which was to bring a deeper unrest in the parish: the Medjugorje Apparitions. 1981 saw the beginning of these apparitions to Ivan, Ivanka, Jakov, Marija, Mirjana and Vicka. Members of the prayer group were captivated by the stories and part of each prayer meeting involved some sharing of the message. I was very familiar with Lourdes and Fatima and assumed that Medjugorje would be something similar. It wasn’t straight forward at all. The messages to my ears painted a very black and white worldview and a strong message of the power of Satan. I was uneasy in a way that I couldn’t explain. And yet I wanted so much to belong to the prayer group.
I don’t think I really had the capacity to name the issues and to face them head on. In the end I didn’t have to because in 1984 I headed to London to study theology and my world was about to be turned upside down.
I share my experience because I think it shows that the categories ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ don’t really fit my experience of Catholicism in the North East in the 70s and 80s. I knew only my small corner where devotional life and charismatic renewal could blend in some ways but not in others. I wouldn’t have been able compare and contrast liturgy styles in the parishes of Sunderland, much less make a judgement on whether they were traditional or progressive. I’d only ever been to Mass in 3 of the 11 parishes in Sunderland. So defined was the parish model that it wouldn’t cross my mind to go another church.