I was born into the Catholic tribe. For all my moral failings and run-ins with Church authorities, I have remained a cheerful member of that tribe. About ten years ago I began to ask myself what I actually believed. What were the central, the defining beliefs of Catholicism, of Christianity? Did I think they were true? So I started to note down things that puzzled me, teachings that seemed to me dicey. But I also had to question myself; did I think there was a God: if I did, were there useful ways of thinking about such a figure, of describing such a reality?
The notes became more extensive, the folder of quotations became fuller. So at some point I decided I was following this subject in a more or less methodical way, and that I was writing a book. I suppose the book is what St Paul asked his Christians to give – ‘an account of the faith that is in you’. But with such an origin the book had to end up as a personal statement, even an idiosyncratic one. For a start it is certainly not comprehensive. For example, I don’t talk about the Virgin Mary, or grace, or transubstantiation, or the ordination of women, and much more – topics that are often mainstream Christian issues. This is not to downplay them as vital issues in the lives of many, if not most, believers. But they had just never been an irritant or a stimulus to my individual imagination, not make-it or break-it concerns for my own practice of the religion. And that too might well be another failing on my part...
The vital issue for me, however, was the reality and the meaning of Christ. So my book circles this figure, and in various ways I find him disconcerting. How attractive a person was he? What was the religious point of his death? What do we claim when we say he was God? Is there such a being in any case?
I’m neither a theologian nor a philosopher. Yet for all my puzzles I realised that elements of Christianity were strokes of genius. Above all the notion of the Incarnation; that human beings, with their seemingly inbuilt religious sense, had now been put in touch with a transcendent figure who was also flesh and blood, every bit as human as they were. Amongst other advantages this incarnate God has been a source of inspiration, and a subject for analysis, by a multitude of artists and writers. In a way not possible for followers of Judaism or Islam, whose God was never human, he could be portrayed and dissected century after century.
Humanity is of the essence of this religion. So I have stayed close to the human face of Christ’s church. In particular I’ve always been attracted to that rendition of it which is called ‘the communion of saints’. I’ve always experienced this as a strong tribal sense, of both living and dead. I certainly don’t think of it as meaning some congregation of the virtuous. This has had two implications for my book; being a fiction writer and occasional historian, I want to write about people, so I have found the book littered with stories that have moved or inspired me, and often amused me too. Individuals and anecdotes about them have forced their way into the text – priests, non-believers, Fijians, Frenchmen, Irishmen, Germans, the Devil.
The Devil in fact makes more than one appearance. There is no talking about Catholicism now without discussing the worldwide sexual abuse revelations. And I don’t believe that horror can be addressed without adverting also to ever ancient, ever new prejudices and bigotries, and the status of religion generally in our society.
I suppose this is an insider’s book. For seven years after I left school I was a Jesuit, well on my way to being a priest. But I didn’t persevere. So for most of my life I’ve been a layman, back in the pews, as well as a husband and a parent. I’ve kept ties with that official, hierarchical Church, and that’s sometimes been rocky; I wrote a commissioned history of a Jesuit school, but the school refused to allow it to be published. But otherwise I’ve treasured friendships with priests, with fellow Catholics, with lapsed Catholics, with a multitude of citizens of the secular and agnostic world. This book is anything but a polemic. My intention is to say that it’s rational and enriching to believe in Jesus Christ. And to disbelieve might be very rational too. Prejudice, scorn, invective, however, should be anathema to all sides.
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Gerard Windsor’s book The Tempest-Tossed Church, published by NewSouth on 1 April 2017.