Thirteen years ago, not long before my 40th birthday, I decided to become a Roman Catholic. My mum, dad and brother, all atheists, were astonished and appalled in equal measure. I had always had a sense of God, but no church that suited me. Now I had been to mass with a friend and felt at home there. It was that simple. The congregation all seemed a bit like me somehow. And I was fascinated by all the coordinated standing, sitting, kneeling, responding, reciting and praying. I wanted to be part of it.
I bought a book called Catholicism for Dummies. Some of it I loved, much of it was bewildering, and a good bit I just plain disagreed with. I wondered more than once what on earth I was playing at, but still this feeling of being inexorably drawn towards it persisted. The friend who had taken me to mass in the first place suggested I speak to his favourite priest.
By now Father Ben was an old man and semi-retired. He smiled at me as I sat down and stammered out my story, showed him my Dummies book and told him I was learning about the sacraments. Eventually I ran out of steam and stopped blathering. What he said next will stay with me for ever. I can boil it down to three key points, using more or less his exact words.
Firstly, don’t worry yourself too much about all the stuff in that book: 90% of religion is only superstition anyway.
Secondly, don’t worry about not having had a Catholic upbringing: I’m not sure it helps anyway. It’s hard to find God through the church – you’re much more likely to find the church through God. This is what’s happening to you. It’s the Holy Spirit moving within you. (On this last point I had two emotional responses: 49% of me thought, “Frankly, what nonsense”, but 51% thought, “Well, yes, perhaps – why not?” And a feeling of great peace came over me.)
Lastly, I have always liked going into bookshops. When I was a young man, the mind, body and spirit section was tiny. But now it’s a whole wall in some shops. That’s what it’s all about – we all want the same thing. But forget about the books, the church and everything else for that matter. Just be still: all you have to do is be still and the truth will come to you. That’s all there is to it.
And that was me. A few months later, at Easter, I became a Catholic. I’ve spoken to countless Catholics since. Be they devout, furiously against the church or merely lapsed, there is invariably, for better or for worse, a good or bad priest at the heart of their stories. Father Benignus O’Rourke was my good priest. I write this now because he died last year and to my lasting regret, I never thanked him properly. During that chat in 2007 he made me promise I would be still for a little while every day from that day onwards. I was always too ashamed to confess to him that I only managed this about four times. I’m trying to rectify that this year in his memory. I hope he’s resting in peace. I strongly suspect he is.