I caught the measles as well as the mumps, like most other kids in the forties. Colds were a regular occurrence. I found out only later that the germs were in the air we breathed, but I kept adding to them by sneezing without a handkerchief. I caught religion before any of these childhood ailments. It impregnated the house we lived in. I learned the Sign of the Cross before I learned to speak. I was too small to dip my fingers into the Holy Water stoop at the entrance to the bedroom I shared with one of my three brothers. I had thought that the food on the table was bought by Mum at Mr Pawley’s grocery store, but at Grace before Meals I learned that the porridge, the snags, the spuds and the baked beans were gifts of God. We had no candles permanently burning before a statue of Mary, as I once saw in Nanna O’Meara’s bedroom, but my parents’ had a picture of an effeminate Jesus over their double-bed, showing us His Sacred Heart crowned with thorns, and another of His Mum’s Assumption into Heaven. Each of us had his/her Missal handy for Sunday – and for me as an adolescent, daily – Mass, a prayer-book by our beds, as well as our personal collections of Holy Cards, which, unlike the cigarette-packs I collected, squashed and exchanged with mates at school, we kept for ourselves.
I have already explained earlier in both this Blog and my book, “From Illusions to Illumination”, that in spite of what must seem, to even Catholic readers today, a household and childhood drenched in religion, ours were not different from most other Catholic families. More important, contrary to the impression created by a Catholic family which had three of its four sons become priests, our parents never even hinted to any of us that we might have a “vocation”. They didn’t need to. The Catholic air we breathed was quite enough for that.
Daily immersion in the religious institutions which were our schools, where pietistic pollution proliferated, made religion the principal influence in our lives. The Nuns and Brothers were not only teachers but rôle-models. It is not surprising that after twelve years of Catholic schooling, I, like so many others of their post-WW2 graduates in Australia, entered a diocesan seminary or a Religious Order’s scholasticate, to prepare for the priesthood. Our homes and schools had been saturated with religion. My seminary had not just a religious atmosphere. It was a monastery, a friary, a veritable faith-factory with furnaces functioning fullblast and fulltime, forging fungible Franciscan future Mass-celebrants, confessors and preachers for the pulpits of Holy Mother Church.
I was ordained in 1961, the year before the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council, convened, as its pontifical creator expressed it, to open the Church’s windows to let in some fresh air. John XX111 had no premonition of the mighty winds he unleashed. For a while it seems that they would destroy the edifice over which he reigned as Vicar of Christ. The Church has survived, and will continue to do so, but that heavy religious atmosphere in the Catholic community has gone with the wind. For once a climate-change that is more than welcome.