More Relaxed as a Northern Irish Catholic

I recently participated in a Catholic liberation workshop, in Manchester, England, led by Joanne Bray, the International Liberation Reference Person for Catholics.

Since the workshop I feel more reassured and have more “ground beneath my feet” about my goodness as a person. And I feel that my thinking might just be useful and my life choices just fine.

This is a good destination for any Catholic to arrive at and journey on from. All our young lives we were told about sin, having to confess, and not being near enough to God. As teenage girls we were told that it was our fault if boys acted thoughtlessly or aggressively in a sexual way.

After two workshops with Joanne, I finally have a more relaxed attitude toward the “Catholic” label. It is quite wonderful to arrive at where I can say that I am Catholic, be happy about it, and know that it has richness and appropriateness for this world’s challenges.

I should mention that I am a Northern Irish Catholic, which brings a dual identity. The Indigenous people of Ireland are largely Catholic, and we were the target of colonisation and genocide by the British, our next-door neighbours. It is hard to separate one identity from the other, and each brings its unique challenges and positive attributes.

Catholicism gave me a social conscience, long before I knew what that was, and allowed me to apply it to the conflict and political upheaval. We learned to care for neighbours, notice and help those in difficulty, and raise our heads to international problems too. We learned that when all else was hopeless, we still could hope and pray, and that no one could take that from us.

Now I know that that attitude is not just some foolish helpfulness but rather what is needed to change the world for the better. As Patty Wipfler (a former International Liberation Reference Person for Parents) pointed out, we will need to bring the generosity of spirit we have with our children out into the world to leaven the work of wide world change.

My parents did their best in difficult times. I have many happy memories of us seven children gathered around my mother and father in a farm kitchen, saying the Rosary [a series of prayers said while moving the fingers along a set of beads] every evening. All those in need got a mention and a prayer.

As an Indigenous and colonised person, at times I can hardly raise my head because of the long-ago-absorbed ridiculing and demeaning. We were dismissed as second-rate citizens, not to be trusted, and were literally targeted for destruction. Simply being Catholic in Northern Ireland was enough to be shot and killed (more so for men than for women), and we were seen as expendable, financially and socially, in many business and community settings.

We lived with and survived that and are in a much better place now that we are achieving political peace. But although things have gotten better since the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998, the oppression still lies deep in our souls. I often look at people at Mass and think that they are there not because of a deep and connected religious faith but rather because of an age-old habit of huddling together to get away from the colonial oppression.

The oppression and fear of being killed have put national liberation at the top of the change agenda in Ireland. A big problem for me, as an Irish Catholic woman, is that it has superseded the awareness of and efforts to end sexism. The well-being of children was also overlooked in the old-fashioned, limited view of the “Irish liberation” struggle.

Unlike the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, the Church in Ireland never truly joined the opposition to the political oppression. It kept itself safe, lest it lose its place with the powers in the country. This, too, has affected our relationship with our religion.

Considering my dual experience here in Northern Ireland, I am reassured that my understanding of the world, as formed in a Catholic home with three generations of wide-world activism sewn in, is just right. The decisions I have made in life are good, and I will not reprimand myself for them. They include marrying a Protestant, getting divorced, being a single parent, not having any Catholic religious symbols in my Irish home, and going to Mass on my terms. I now consider myself a good Catholic, and I’m able to say that, even in a political setting. I also have the confidence to share my understanding of society with my family and in RC.

I should add that my feelings of strength come from the relationships I have built in our small RC Region. Four other Catholics from Northern Ireland accompanied me to the workshop. We are all in a Catholic support group in Belfast. Pascal McCulla has led this group for many years. He persists, makes sure nobody is left behind, and demonstrates the depth of relationship building necessary to keep a “post conflict” RC Community together.

Joanne made sure that we addressed language liberation right from the first evening of the workshop. When we set aside our “English first” language supremacy and listen to people who speak other languages, we get to know them. It was also an invitation to reclaim my own “lost language” of Irish. I discovered that “oppression” in Irish translates as “a foot on your stomach.” The riches to be discovered in our languages!

It was a great workshop for me and my people. Joanne, you should be well pleased with what you achieved in Manchester.

Sheila Fairon

Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of Catholics

(Present Time 185, October 2016)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00