The Moment I Gave up on the Catholic Church

Daily Telegraph
May 23, 2015

Worshippers pictured after receiving Christmas Day mass at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney. (Pic: Dan Himbrechts)

Sounds a bit bah-humbug, doesnít it?

Stick with me for a sec.

I love Midnight Mass, although Iím not a Catholic, and Iíve been going along for about 20 years at Christmas, although I always have to go by myself because nobody in the family will come. For me, itís not Christmas till Iíve sung Silent Night by candlelight.

The Catholics do it better than anyone. In my 20 years of solo Christmas Eve action, Iíve attended all kinds of denominations and churches for Christmas Eve services, and I must admit: thereís nothing like the Catholic St Maryís Cathedral in Sydney City for incense and Latin and blokes shuffling round in frocks ó all the essential ingredients for a real feeling of festivity.

I love the little families; Italians and Croats and Filipinos and Vietnamese, all crowded in to St Maryís, getting hotter and hotter as the evening progresses. I love the sleepy babies and the toddlers, wriggling and itching in their starchy new Christmas outfits. In the time Iíve been visiting, the Church has seen an incredible revival. 20 years ago, I could always find a seat.

Now, itís standing room only, with crowds spilling out onto College Street, from an hour before kick-off.

George Pell did that. Something about the Cardinalís American Eagle properness and insistence on the pillars of conservative Catholic thought resonated with people in this, our tolerant, egalitarian city.

I guess, like me, enough of them liked the incense and Latin. Maybe they thought Pellís certain conservatism was reassuring in an uncertain world. Maybe they believed, unlike his many detractors, that Pell was a fundamentally decent man who has been courageous in speaking up for the poor and the needy. Maybe they thought all the drama of Mass was OK as a symbol of the Churchís greatest qualities: charity, mercy, humanity.

Anyway, on this particular evening a few years ago, the Mass had been rumbling along for an hour or so when it came time for Pell and the other priests to make a grand procession of sorts up the aisle.

They were carrying jewelled crosses, swinging clouds of smoke from their censers, holding bibles. And then came one priest carrying, with great reverence and solemnity, a glittering pillow upon which wobbled a doll with rosy cheeks. It was supposed to be the baby Jesus. The baby doll looked like plaster, and it looked like it had been sprayed with gold paint. It was wearing some kind of loincloth, presumably also made of plaster.

It was absolutely ridiculous.

Suddenly, they all looked ludicrous, from Pell down. It was an Emperorís New Clothes moment. Here they were, a bunch of adult men standing six foot (or more, in Pellís case), commanding the captivated attention of a thousand beautiful (real) children and their patient parents, eager to hear the transformative and magical message of Jesus Christís birth for the salvation of all mankind ó and these blokes were parading a toy on a cushion.

I got up and walked out.

And I was struck by a feeling Iíve never been able to shake: this is the Catholic hierarchyís great limitation.

It is carrying on with the same arrogance itís been enjoying since the Middle Ages, when all the pomp was designed to terrify the paupers into behaving. For a thousand years, nobody dared to say: ďMate, you look stupid carrying that dolly around.Ē

Now plenty of people are saying it. Theyíre demanding to know why the Church isnít a proper legal entity that can be sued for the horrific wrongs some of its officials inflicted on innocent children. They want to know whatís happened to those messages of peace, kindness and charity when the Church is flapping around, wasting precious time trying to stop women being ordained, or gay people marrying. They want to know why itís apparently so quick to betray the principles Jesus taught us when it comes to confronting the hard truth about its own failings.

I want to know all that too.

But most of all I want to know this: if Cardinal Pell claims to be so willing to co-operate with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, why wasnít he on the first plane home from Rome to show the Commission and the victims some real respect?

How could he think a statement could possibly suffice?

Why, given he finds the abuse of children so abhorrent, wasnít he doing something about it in the 1980s?

Why hasnít he vowed to hunt down paedophiles wherever they lurk and expel them from the Church?

Why is he still allowing the good works of Catholics to be besmirched by criminal rock-spiders?

Because I, for one, can only cop the baby-doll antics if they really symbolise something meaningful: something I can really put my faith in.








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