I was born and raised an Irish Catholic. My baptismal certificate might say “Roman Catholic” but I prefer to think of myself as “Irish Catholic”. A subtle distinction perhaps, and one many people fail to recognise unless they have been on the wrong end of a dose of Catholic Irish guilt! We have a peculiar logic that almost defies reasoning; at times, we even find it difficult to understand it ourselves. I survived 12 years of Catholic Irish Convent School education and have lived to tell the tale, even if my therapists are still reaping the rewards!
Since I first left Ireland in 1990, I have managed to observe the weekly ritual of going to mass on Sundays. At first this religious observance was because I didn’t want to have to lie to my parents if they asked…even if I was living 6000 miles from home and long since an adult in the eyes of the law. But gradually, going to mass on Sundays became an established part of my life; a part of who I am. Sometimes, of course, it simply wasn’t possible to go. I’ve lived in places that only had visiting priests once a month; where avalanches closed the only road into town and snowstorms prevented planes landing. I’ve been on airplanes and trains when the bell for mass was ringing and I’ve also heard it from my sick bed. Sometimes, when I simply can’t find a church, I will spend an hour or so alone, in conversation with my God. Whatever works.
When I first moved to Budapest, I rented a flat in District V. Within a ten-minute walk from my front door, I had a choice of seven different Roman Catholic churches, each with mass at different times. This is one of the many perks of living in such a lovely city. I was spoiled for choice….mass on the hour every hour from 8am to 8pm. I had no excuse, nor did I need one. I’ve sat through mass in any number of languages and although the words may differ, the song is pretty much the same. The ritual, the observances, the protocol… it rarely changes. One irreligious friend of mine likened mass to an international aerobics class and, to the uninitiated, she may have a point. Truth be told, I quite like not being able to understand the sermons; it gives me a chance to make up my own!
But when it comes to confession, it’s a completely different story. In order to get absolution, the priest needs to understand what it is you’re confessing if for no other reason than to be sure that the penance fits the penitent. I would feel rather hard done by to receive three decades of the rosary for a sin that warranted no more than one Hail Mary!
A few years ago, in Rome, I had a very hard time finding confession in English. I could have recited my litany of sins in any number of languages but unlike many of my friends here in Hungary, my linguistics skills are minimal. In Budapest, the vast majority of Catholic services are in Hungarian…which is only to be expected. My Hungarian isn’t anywhere near the point where I could confidently confess: ‘én vétkem’ might start me off well but it wouldn’t take me very far! So on the rare occasion I go to a mass conducted in English, and find a second priest in the confessional hearing confession, it makes for a good day indeed.
One particular Sunday, I struck lucky. During the sermon, I slipped into the confessional, knelt down, and readied myself to begin. The priest drew back the screen and welcomed me. Through the mesh, I could see the unmistakable blue glow of a computer screen. I did a double take. Yes… there… plonked on his lap was a laptop. In confession! Well, I know the Hungarian Neumann János was around at the start of the computer age but this apparent ‘hotline to heaven’ was truly one for the books. Was the priest going to enter my sins in a global database which would then compute the appropriate penance? Or would he simply instant message heaven if he needed a second opinion? Either way, I knew I had to make this confession a good one.
Bless me Father, for I have sinned…
I have paid my taxes in full and on time… I have made my customers feel welcome and appreciated… I haven’t dodged one tram or bus fare this since my last confession…
This article was first published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2009