Easter was early this year and brought singer Tom Jones to Bluesfest at Byron Bay. When I was a child it marked the end of Lent which started on Ash Wednesday. We went to mass and Father smudged a cross on our foreheads with soot. The soot symbolised the dust we came from or penance for sins. It stayed there until our baths that night. Then Palm Sunday, for which we wove little crosses out of blessed palm fronds that represented the palms waved as Jesus rode triumphant into Jerusalem a week before he died - this year's palm fronds were burned to make next year's soot. Holy Thursday, the last supper, and in fancier churches than ours, the priest washed the altar boys' feet, to show he was as humble as Jesus. The altar was stripped for Good Friday, that terrible death by crucifixion – the nails through His hands and feet. Easter Sunday was His glorious resurrection, and the Easter bunny.
I conflate my first parish priest with Tom Jones who my mother liked. Father had a big head, wavy black hair and a first name of Tom although that’s probably where the similarity ended. Girls at school took turns to get his vestments ready for mass. Although I spent time in the vestry with him, he ignored me altogether and never to my knowledge hurt children. After a terrible car accident one weekday morning, he knelt on the bloody asphalt in tears to pray for the souls of the mother and three small children who were gone – I saw the picture in the next day’s paper.
I remember the Easter of my first communion we’d been told not to touch the sacred host – the wafer of communion bread – which had to go from Father’s consecrated hands to our tongues, extended for the purpose. On the way back to my seat, I sneaked my finger to the roof of my mouth where the host had adhered itself, gave it a good poke. I don’t know what I thought might happen, but not the nothing that did. The rules changed soon after. We received the host in our hands, held one on top of the other.
A priest who followed Father Tom at the parish I grew up in, and the priest at the parish we lived in next, and another priest who visited my high school, have been convicted of sexual crimes against children since then. I think they are still in prison.
Although I know it does me no good, I sat for four days last month and watched the leader of the Church in Australia, Cardinal Pell, explain what he did and mostly didn't do to respond to children abused on his watch. This is the church I grew up in, the church so many of us grew up in, and it's failed fundamentally. It's harmed children terribly. That's the truth. It's the church that's done the harm, not a few aberrant priests. There are the abusers and then the many more who protected them, who protect them still.
When I stopped going to mass in my twenties, as many of us did, I missed the songs, God of Mercy and Compassion, later Earthen Vessels and Be not Afraid by the St Louis Jesuits It’s hard to describe what it feels like knowing the church that formed you is rotten to its very human core. I still miss the songs.