Fair warning here, I started this thinking it would be one post. Then I hit 3000 words and thought I’d better split it! I’ve gone through it to see if there are any references to other parts that have now moved to another post, but apologies if I’ve missed any!! And for this first post, if you are Catholic, you can probably skip this one 🙂
I’ve been asked in different guises a few times lately about how to respectfully and non-appropriatively combine Catholicism and Paganism (and in particular in relation to Brigid). This is coming from both people who started out Catholic, moved to Paganism and now want to combine the two as well as people who either started as something other than Catholic and moved to Pagan or who were always Pagan and want to start looking at Catholicism. It’s an interesting one and not something for which I necessarily want to outline definitive answers. There’s so much of my practice that’s wrapped in both Catholicism and Paganism, it’s hard sometimes for me to separate. But there’s people interested, so here’s my attempt to outline what’s respectful and what’s not.
It’s important to note as well that the specifics of what I’m talking about are Irish focused. The Catholic Church is not homogenous in all things (although there are unfortunate aspects in which it seems to excel at homogeneity for some reason) Practices can and do vary from country to country. For example, no one in Ireland takes much notice of bare arms or lower legs in Ireland (I mean hot pants would probably raise an eyebrow or two, depending on the age of the wearer, but knee length or just above knee length skirts would be grand in most parishes) However, I know when I was in Rome, elbows and knees had to be covered on entering a church. Covering hair hasn’t been a requirement for Mass in Ireland for 70 yrs or more, but elsewhere I believe it still is. So, while what I’m saying here is applicable to most sacred spaces, I will outline what’s needed to stay respectful in Catholic churches and when dealing with Catholic entities.
I’ll start with the basics. This is for people who have never been Catholic (anyone who has been Catholic, you can probably skip most of this!) The Catholic Church is a monotheistic religion, believing there is One God. It also, as with a lot of other religions, believes only the adherents of the One God can get to Heaven and that the suffering we experience here on earth is part of the human experience and the more suffering here on earth, the less suffering after death before being allowed into Heaven. There are a few places you can end up in after death in Catholicism: Heaven and Hell are the most known ones, Purgatory is reasonably well known, Limbo has been put to bed so to speak in recent years. Heaven is where those who are in a state of grace and in friendship with God end up. Purgatory is for someone who is friendly with God, but not fully in a state of grace. (It’s assumed by most people who believe that they will spend a period of time in Purgatory, unless they manage to confess directly before death or receive Last Rites) Hell is for those who turn from God. Limbo was for those who died in a state of original sin (i.e. hadn’t been baptised, such as unbaptised babies) but the Church softened its stance on this about a decade ago and admitted that really, ours is a forgiving God and frankly, there are plenty of theological reasons why unbaptised babies can get to Heaven. The whole “we are worthless scum without the grace of God” thinking permeated Catholic thinking for centuries, although it was worded very differently, but has been changing for decades at least among the practitioners if not the leaders of the Church.
The One God is a triune God as well (cos why would it be simple!!) God the Father (or God), God the Son (Jesus Christ, who is the son of God and Mary) and God the Holy Spirit (who’s hard to pin down, but who is often mentioned as possessing various holy figures in the Bible) Catholicism is a patriarchal religion, with only men being allowed to be priests/ bishops/ archbishops/ cardinals/ pope/ people of power. This wasn’t the case in the early church, in the first few centuries of the church, there are plenty of documented powerful female figures, but that was changed at some point. We do have holy women, who live lives devoted to God, called nuns. They can be both wonderful and terrifying, sometimes at the same time. I mean, they’re human, come in all shapes and sizes, both physically and spiritually. Think of the episode of Family Guy where the battalions of nuns are the shock troops of the Vatican… And I say that having known some truly wonderful women who were also nuns. There are also groups of men who devote their lives to God but under similar guise as nuns, called monks. These are not priests. Honestly – google again. Try some of the official websites rather than Wikipedia. This is the Vatican website for a start: http://www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html There are orders of both nuns and monks, with different focuses in the world. Some look at education, which is where most of Ireland gets their first experience with them, health, prayer, seclusion from the world… the list goes on and on. And these orders can be rich and powerful, although most of the individual vows include some sort of poverty promise. Nuns and monks tend not to own much for themselves. Clothes, rosary beads, maybe some photos or a teddy or something. All else is owned in common with the order.
There are a few established sacraments for Catholicism, some of which you go through once, some of which you do on the regular… Baptism is usually carried out as a baby in the Catholic Church and is usually only done once. It’s the sacrament through which you are welcomed into God’s family essentially. Confession (Sacrament of Penance) and Communion (Sacrament of the Eucharist) happen usually about 6-8yrs of age. Confirmation (sacrament of Confirmation) happens usually around 12-13 ish. Most Catholics go through these sacraments. First Confession precedes Communion, at the age when kids can tell right from wrong, so that you can receive Communion in a state of grace (i.e. free from sin). In Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation, that the bread and wine transforms through the sacrament of the Eucharist into the Body and Blood of Jesus, when consecrated by an ordained priest. It’s a reminder that Jesus gave his life to save us as well. Confirmation is when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are conferred on the young Catholic. (Have a google for the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit given at Confirmation). Marriage is also a sacrament and is the only sacrament where it is not conferred by a priest, although a priest usually facilitates the sacrament. The man and woman (yeah, the Catholic Church hasn’t gotten the letter on non-heterosexual partnerships yet!) confer the sacrament on each other. And, very strangely for those who know the Church, the appearance at least of consent is hugely important in this sacrament. Both parties are asked a few times, in different ways, do they consent to this marriage. Holy orders are conferred on men only when they become priests. Last Rites (or Extreme Unction) is for those who are looking at a serious illness. In modern times, we tend to associate this with people on the point of death, but that’s not correct. Old age or serious illness, as long as someone isn’t persevering in grave state of sin (that last bit of wording is a big dodgy in my opinion, but there are and have been priests who have refused this sacrament to people because they feel they are “obstinately persevering in manifest grace sin”… (“Code of Canon Law, canon 1007”. www.vatican.va) The eagle-eyed among you will have figured out that women can only receive six of the seven sacraments, seeing as how Holy Orders is for men only. Women aren’t consecrated as nuns essentially.
This isn’t even a brief overview of Catholicism, but it’s a start. Now, most people, if you’re looking to dip a toe into Catholicism, or dip a toe back into Catholicism, you’re going to encounter a church. Catholic churches comes in many shapes and sizes, but they tend to have a lot in common when you break things down to the basics. It’s a sacred place for a start. It will usually be quiet, peaceful and in the older stone churches, definitely cool. As in temperature. Great on a hot day, not so great in winter. The altar is the focus of the church and on the church the focus is the tabernacle, which is usually a very fancy looking locked box or cabinet in which the hosts (the bread that transforms into the body of Christ during Mass) are stored. The presence of the Body of Christ is indicated by a (usually red) lamp or light shining on the altar. It is common practice to genuflect to the altar (or more accurately to the host) on entry to the church or when you walk past the altar. Genuflecting is going down on the right knee for a second or more and getting back up again, usually accompanied by the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is where you take your right hand, lift it to your forehead, then to your heart (ish, somewhere on your lower chest/ sternum) then to your left shoulder, then to your right shoulder, as you say “In the name of the Father (touch forehead), and the Son (touch chest) and the Holy (touch left shoulder) Spirit (touch right shoulder) Amen”. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us can complete the sign of the cross can do this in about a second and usually with a final touch to the upper chest on the line between the two shoulders. So describing both genuflection and the sign of the cross takes so much longer than it actually does to complete these actions. If genuflection isn’t possible or you don’t want to, you can also bow, usually with hands clasped at the chest for a brief second. The point is to show respect to the host, the Body of Christ, in the tabernacle on the altar or behind the altar.
On either side of the altar there are usually a few statues, to the Virgin Mary (mother of Christ and very important in the Catholic Church), sometimes to Joseph (Jesus’ foster father to all intents and purposes) or to the saint(s) to whom the church is dedicated. Usually, but not always, there are banks of candles here. Lighting candles to saints is a big practice in most Catholic communities. There is usually a charge for this to allow the church to continue supplying said candles, but it’s usually on the honour system as well. People usually wouldn’t light a candle without dropping something in the offering box, but really, if you’re in a position where you have nothing, go ahead. Most of us throw in extra when we have it, or when we have no change. You don’t blow out a candle that’s already lighting, nor do you replace it. Place your candle in an empty slot, say your prayers and off you go. Sometimes, beside the candle banks, there are posters or writings to outline suggested prayers. One of my favourites for Mary is the Memorare:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but gracefully hear and answer me. Amen
There’s a modern version of the prayer as well, with none of the thees and thous, but that the version I learned and it’s the one that comes most easily to my tongue.
If you’re wanting to engage with a Catholic saint or the Virgin Mary or even Jesus himself, lighting a candle (whether in a church or not) and saying a prayer is no bad way to start.
I was asked as well how I use the rosary in my practice. The Virgin Mary, Mother Mary, Mary the Mother of Christ has appeared to many of the faithful over the years and one of the things she always says is to pray the rosary. The rosary consists of sets of prayers called decades: 1 x Our Father, 10 x Hail Marys, 1 x Glory Bes. For each decade of the rosary (one round of the prayers above), you’re meant to focus on one of the 15 Mysteries and the idea would be that each mystery would help you reap the fruit mentioned below. I have to admit, most of the time when I’m praying the rosary, I don’t have the mysteries in my head and I’d be hard pushed to recite them off like a good Catholic should, but they’re an important part of the rosary. Not the only part and I like to believe (massive UPG alert here!!) that one of the reasons Mary constantly highlights the rosary is that it is essentially a prayer to her, in the midst of a very patriarchal religion. She is the closest we have to a Divine Feminine in Catholicism, although some would now own Mary Magdalene in that role as well. Mary Magdalene would require a few posts on her own, so let’s put her to one side for now. Although if you Google her, check the sources. There’s a lot of crap out there as well.
Here’s a list of the Mysteries from Wikipedia:
- The Annunciation. Fruit of the Mystery: Humility
- The Visitation. Fruit of the Mystery: Love of Neighbour
- The Nativity. Fruit of the Mystery: Poverty, Detachment from the things of the world, Contempt of Riches, Love of the Poor
- The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: Gift of Wisdom and Purity of mind and body (Obedience)
- The Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: True Conversion (Piety, Joy of Finding Jesus)
- The Agony in the Garden. Fruit of the Mystery: Sorrow for Sin, Uniformity with the Will of God
- The Scourging at the Pillar. Fruit of the Mystery: Mortification (Purity)
- The Crowning with Thorns. Fruit of the Mystery: Contempt of the World (Moral Courage)
- The Carrying of the Cross. Fruit of the Mystery: Patience
- The Crucifixion and Death of our Lord. Fruit of the Mystery: Perseverance in Faith, Grace for a Holy Death (Forgiveness)
- The Resurrection. Fruit of the Mystery: Faith
- The Ascension. Fruit of the Mystery: Hope, Desire to Ascend to Heaven
- The Descent of the Holy Spirit. Fruit of the Mystery: Love of God, Holy Wisdom to know the truth and share it with everyone, Divine Charity, Worship of the Holy Spirit
- The Assumption of Mary. Fruit of the Mystery: Union with Mary and True Devotion to Mary
- The Coronation of the Virgin. Fruit of the Mystery: Perseverance and an Increase in Virtue (Trust in Mary’s Intercession)
Pope John Paul II added in the Luminous Mysteries, apparently, something I was surprised to find out! Anyway here there are:
- The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Fruit of the Mystery: Openness to the Holy Spirit, the Healer.
- The Wedding at Cana. Fruit of the Mystery: To Jesus through Mary, Understanding of the ability to manifest-through faith.
- Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Fruit of the Mystery: Trust in God (Call of Conversion to the Messiah)
- The Transfiguration. Fruit of the Mystery: Desire for Holiness.
- The Institution of the Eucharist. Fruit of the Mystery: Adoration.
There would usually be a fair few decades of the rosary said at a wake for example, and they would usually come from the Sorrowful Mysteries. Also in Ireland, in my family at least, it is common to say the rosary as Gaeilge, particularly if the deceased was someone who loved the Irish language. That is the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be beome the Ár n-Athair, Sé do bheatha, Mhuire agus Glór don Athair. Funnily enough, one of the ways to refer to the rosary in Irish is as an Choróin Mhuire, the crown of Mary. (Mary transalted into Máire in Irish means a normal person, Mary translated into Muire in Irish always refers to the Virgin Mary)
The rosary, and the veneration of Mary as the Mother of God is one of the things that sets Catholicism apart from most of the Protestant religions (I didn’t say all here, before people start yelling!!)
Back to the church building. If you meet a man dressed in black with a white collar, he’ll be the priest. I’ve put a pic of the collar (sometimes and slightly disrespectfully in an affectionate way, called a “dog collar”) below, since it’s the single easiest way to identify them. The respectful way to address a priest is as “Father”. Don’t need to know his name, Father does the job. Some of them in more modern times, as they get to know you, might invite you to address them with their name, but at times and places and circumstances when respect is fully due, Father is always best. It’s meant to indicate the priest is as a father to his flock (or congregation) As any cursory google search will tell you, this hasn’t always been the case, and the abuses conducted and condoned by priests and other religious authority all over the world are myriad and unfortunately common. But I have also known some good, conscientious, hard working and caring men who are truly hurt by the actions of their brethren and superiors. That doesn’t excuse the institution, mind, but I suppose #notallpriests?
If you meet a nun, the correct form of address is “Sister”. There’s no sure way to identify them I’m afraid. The robes and massive crosses of the past are no longer ubiquitous and many orders allow modern dress these days. I mean, it’d be hugely unusual to see a nun in a bikini, but skirts, blouses, cardigans, low heeled or flat shoes…. Usually grey or navy, depending on the colours of the order, but even that isn’t a given. Honestly, unless someone tells you they’re a nun or someone close to them tells you, it’s nearly impossible to be sure. It’s a similar case for monks and friars (a monk is a religious person who lives in a self sufficient community with other monks, a friar is more likely to live and work among lay or non-religious people). The friars more often have the robes to identify them when they want to be identified, otherwise we’re back to the same problem as with the nuns. They don’t have giant haloes or special inbuilt signs to identify them. Unless they tell you, or someone close to them tells you, there’s no way to know for sure. If someone is introduced to you as Sister Jane or Brother David, best to address them as Sister/Brother. Otherwise, first names as you usually would address a layperson would be grand.
A last paragraph on the basics then: angels and saints. I’ve written elsewhere that Catholics are known as the “communion of saints”. It caused some trouble, since there are blatantly plenty Catholics out there that couldn’t be considered saints by any measure. I’ll try and explain better here. Calling the Catholic community a “communion of saints” is meant to indicate the aim of all Catholics to get to Heaven. Simply put, anyone who gets to Heaven is a saint. I said up above, most practicing Catholics expect to spend some time in Purgatory before going to Heaven, to atone for sins not accounted for on earth. But once that time is done, Heaven it is. We venerate those people who we’re fairly certain reached Heaven – and I’ve discussed that in a previous post, how it works and the changes over the millennia. But this is why I feel no bother in asking my grandparents for help, since I feel certain they’re in Heaven and would be closer to God than I am. It’s not ancestor worship, it’s more ancestor – helpdesk. Kinda.
Angels are different. Angels are pure spirits created by God. They’re not human. Not traditionally anyway. Also, they are usually used as messengers by God – think of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to tell her a) she was pregnant and b) God was the father of the child. Poor Mary. In fact, apparently the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible have words that translate to “messenger” for where we have “angels” in English. I think the Greek version is “angelos” but I’m not 100% sure and Wikipedia is the only source I can find for it this morning! This is obviously very different to the modern actions and beliefs around angels, but in the Catholic Church, this is what angels are.
So that’s the Catholic part of it. Now, how to respectfully engage in a Pagan Catholic practice. It’s hard. It’s easier as an Irish person, to be honest, because as I’ve said elsewhere, Catholicism in Ireland is a thin veneer over pagan practices. Much of the attitude of farmers for example, would be of respect to the land and the living made off the land. The Sí are a real presence in this land and disruption to their abodes or frequented places is viewed as pure daft, cos they will get you back. Bad luck will only follow you for engaging in this sort of thing. Even our saints, Brigid in particular, can sometimes be linked back to pre-Christian entities. But as pagans, how can we engage with Catholicism or Christianity?
I might do that on the next post, since we’re nearly at 4000 words here now!!