“Your services are quite nice really,” said a surprised visitor to my parish the other day as she left the Church. “Your parishioners are really friendly,” said a non-Catholic friend visiting for a weekend.
I wonder what they expected? A gang of grim and po-faced papists? A bunch of happy-clappy Christians out to convert the globe? A weird world of mumbled Latin Masses and autocratic clerics telling their congregations exactly what to believe and how to behave?
Christianity – and especially Catholic Christianity – has moved on since then, but you can’t be surprised at such prejudices and stereotyping. I was trying to remember the practising Christians portrayed in the various soaps on telly. I can only think of Dot Cotton together with the odd wet vicar in Eastenders, and Harold Bishop and Mrs Mangel (now that’s going back a bit!) from Neighbours. We are portrayed, then, as bumbling and judgemental neurotics, not to be taken too seriously: hardly a positive presentation of the Christian community.
Recently I did a question and answer session with a group of ten year olds from a local school who were surprised to discover that, although a Catholic priest, I can still smoke (I don’t) and drink (I don’t anymore) and stay up past ten o’clock at night (I do quite a lot).
Their whole image of any organised religion was to define it from a negative viewpoint: religion is about what we can’t do, or at least about what we shouldn’t do.
I accept that Christianity is often portrayed in a “Thou Shalt Not” framework. The Ten Commandments are an obvious example. But the “No” of Christian ethics is always and only ever the reverse side of a much bigger “Yes”. It is the “No” said to the persistent moth about the electric light bulb: no, because without it the moth will kill itself by its frantic hitting against the burning bulb; no, because instead there is on offer a bright and sunny day to be explored and enjoyed.
The season of Easter for Christians is a reminder of the radical “Yes” that is at the heart of our religion. Having fasted for the forty days of Lent and celebrated the gruelling and terrible events of Calvary, Christians now bathe for fifty days in the reflected glory of the Resurrection.
Easter is overwhelmingly positive: it is about life’s victory over death, about the forgiveness of our sins, about a new beginning for each of us, and about our welcome into a vibrant and loving community which awaits the outpouring of God’s own Spirit at Pentecost.
Christianity, especially in this Easter season, should be a religion of enjoyment and laughter and life. It should be surprisingly fun. Our world is being transformed by Christ through us, but that positive message will never get across if we are content to play the stereotype: if we linger too long at the level of the gossipy, dour, and judgemental Mrs. Mangel.
BY SEAN CONNOLLY