With sanctimonious dignity and war-coloured dress,
the bishop made for the altar, a small squad of robed
sky pilots following behind. One held a gold cross aloft,
another swung a censer from side to side, permeating
the church with stern, pious perfume. The moan of an organ
surged slowly amid the pews. At the altar,
His Grace stood as a flame stands, a Trinitarian inferno,
smokeless and oppressively tall, eyes darker
than coal washed in bathwater, bloated by iron bifocals.
His mitre was a pointed talon, fangs of light leapt from
his crosier, his cassock seethed in red, papal polish -
I watched him in petrified awe, glimpsing hell
amid heaven’s regalia. Above me, the Church
of the Guardian Angels was an edifice of concrete brick,
a cooper-roofed hulk rinsed with stained light.
A frowning archangel spread its robed arms
in the entrance window, the angriest custodian
a boy could hope to see. The sacristan’s bell
dragged us to our feet to repeat their lingo of shame,
drizzly, apostolic slang, to munch timidly on force-
fed guilt. Another Novena, another hymn sung
without melody, or the fervour of conversion.
Flanked by godparents, we marched to the altar
in our school uniforms, Coins of cardboard bread
were slotted onto obedient tongues.
I handed over
whatever faith I had in the droning, rehearsed utterance
of the phrase: “Peace be with you.” His Grace intoned
the same to every boy and girl who kneeled, grovellingly,
to kiss his ring - as if peace could only be attained
by trusting in the papal myth we were made believe
was an inheritance. Blonde fangs of light chewed
through stained glass, tingeing the alabaster dove
outstretched above us, shattering the stainless
metalwork of faith, and nearly claiming the names
of my classmates for their own. While he fumed
New Testament clichés, the church’s alabaster
enormity silenced me, the final Novena hazed
God into a mirage, and fear quelled the afternoon.
That was long before the dirt of priestly legacies
was smeared daily in the papers, before I read
his name with cruel regularity in broadsheet editorials,
before the cancer of secrecy he helped keep alive
was lanced by the civic glare.
Before my voice broke, and my face bristled,
roughened out by the necessary torture tools
of adolescence, I had the canting ritual he rounded
us up for discerned. Like a scornful mark burnt
into a convict’s flesh, my own memories
do not leave me. The symptoms of silence:
children whose tears were erased from reports,
state-protected pederasts moved from parish
to far-flung parish, and the coals of myriad
childhoods snuffed down to profane cinders.
Faith was a dream none of us could realise,
fortified by ritual, the tedium of scripture.
Faith is now a beacon that laughs at anyone
who holds it up against the darkness it professes
to pierce, from whose subtle gravity they pray
to escape. And where’s religion? Cowering
in the doorway of every church built in its honour,
behind pillars of chiselled marble, at the feet seraphic
statues where candles drown in their own wax,
eroding winged statues that posture and pose
on lined plinths, swallowing the rain in throbbed sips,
as naked, as raw-boned as you could expect to be
in this logical century, when candles of piety
are no longer lit, when a pilgrim’s horse pants
beneath the aged sun after trudging through
the sepia desert, or funeral refrains gather moss,
while martyr and heretic alike dance around see-
through bonfires. But it’s not the age of darkness,
nor of enlightenment, just another fraught chapter
in the codex of self-blinded eyes and gutless
reverence. And now that I am cut loose of both,
without locust or honey to eat, I will leave you to
carry the heavy atonements of secrecy and abuse
through this venal country where no prayers are heard.
Author’s Note: I made my confirmation at the age of twelve, in April 2004. The man who confirmed me, Martin Drennan, was later named in the 2009 Murphy Report as harbouring known child molesters among the clergy during his tenure as an auxiliary bishop in the Dublin diocese between 1997-2005. Of the five bishops named in the report, he was the only one who did not resign from his post as Bishop of Galway, despite numerous calls from both the media and general public that he do so.