Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Catechism Test

One of the milestones of growing up in catholic Ireland is making your first communion. I know you might think that involves turning up in your best clothes, saying amen at the right parts of the mass and not dropping the host on the ground. If that's what you think is involved you never went to through what I did. I remember when I started first class. I was devastated that Mrs Feeney, who had taught me all of my school days, was not going to be my teacher any more. This grief was balanced with a tremendous pride in being in the big classes.

The thing that took me by surprise was the leap I was taking into the world of serous academia. Gone were the 'Tom and Jane' books which were the hight of literature up to that point. Mathematics became a quagmire of abstract concepts now that two plus four was no longer accompanied by pictures of apples and oranges. Little did I realise these were but baby steps in comparison to what was to come. The impending first communion introduced the dark days of catechism studies.

"Get out your catechism books," grumped the headmaster one day. A flurry of excited squeals erupted as the white books were retrieved from school bags. On the cover was a picture of a friendly looking man with a beard holding out his hand to a flock of sheep. I though he looked a bit like Benny Tobin the local mechanic. It turned out he was actually Jesus.

"This is the story of our Lord, when you make your first communion you will be entering into his eternal flock." the headmaster said. Even at this point I was confused. I was still looking at the sheep on the cover.

"Who can tell me what Holy Communion is?" asked the  headmaster.

"It's the body of Christ, Sir" said Amy Scott

"That's correct Amy. Do any of you know the story of the first Communion?" Silence followed. You have to remember we were only seven.

"At the last supper Jesus gathered disciples to him," boomed the headmaster in his best theatrical voice "where he shared bread and wine with them. He told the disciples I am the living bread that came down from heaven, this is my body, he who eats my flesh and drinks of my blood has eternal life." The headmaster gazed over his glasses with devotion burning bright in his eyes. I can't remember anything else the headmaster told us. That day I went home with one very clear thought in my mind. 'The disciples were all cannibals.'

In the months that followed I did my best to learn the catechism. I could not keep the names of the places and the people in my head. I thought the stories were great. What boy would not like those stories. Jesus was some man, with few scraps of bread and a half dozen mackerel he managed to feed more people than went to the county football final. Another time he changed water into wine. The man could walk on water for goodness sake. But my favourite story and the only one I remembered all the names for was Lazarus coming back from the dead.

The story went that Lazarus was in a bad way, his sister Martha sent for Jesus. It happened Jesus wasn't around, but had gone for a walk in the desert. By the time Jesus came back Lazarus had kicked the bucket. His sister, Martha, was well miffed at Jesus and said if he had come on time Lazarus would not be dead. Then Jesus did a mighty thing, he stood in front of the house and said "Lazarus come out!" Lo-and-behold, out lands Lazarus, large as life and twice as ugly. He scared the britches off everyone including Martha but after then Jesus was the man to call on when anyone was feeling rough.

The day Father Byrne came to the school, he asked us all questions from our catechism. I had my fingers crossed he would ask me the story of Lazarus, I had that one off by heart. Instead he asked me about the Feast of Cana. I had no idea what he was talking about. In the end it turned out he was asking me about the water and wine party. I wish the priest had said so, I knew that story as well. At the end of the class Father Byrne told me I would have to study harder or he would make me wait till next year to do my communion. He gave me another week to study and then would call to my house  to quiz me.

All week I studied and studied but could not make the names stick in my head. I was terrified by the following Friday waiting in my kitchen for the priest to call. It was only me and Mam waiting in the house. Dad had taken my brother and sister into town with him in the car. Just that day a local farmer had given Mom a young new cockerel to put to our chickens. The old cockerel did not like the new fella one bit and they stuck in each other the minute he was let loose in the chicken run.

"You'll have to get rid of that rooster Missus." said the farmer. "The only good place for him is the pot."

That comment sealed the fate of the old cockerel. Mam scoped him up and tucked him under her arm. With a flick of her wrist and a jerk of her thumb the birds neck was rung. At the same moment the priests car pulled into the gate of our little house.

"Here," said Mam passing me the body of the chicken, "put him somewhere the dog wont get at him while I say hello to Father Byrne."

With no idea what to do I took the still warm body of the chicken into the house and stowed it in the pantry off the kitchen. Father Byrne came in with my Mam an settled himself at our kitchen table. A pot of tea was served up in our best wear and a huge plate of biscuits. My mouth was watering looking at the biscuits, I had not even sniffed one since the Christmas.

"Have you been working hard at your Catechism young Harold?" he asked.
"I have Father very hard."
"I asked you about the Feast of Cana the last time, what can you tell me about that now?"

I recounted the story of the water into wine as best I could remember but the angry look on his big red head told me I had made mistakes. Just then out of the pantry came wobbling our old cock with his head dangling at an alarming angle.

"Sweet Devine!!! What is that Mrs McFinnigan?" demanded the priest as the nearly headless chicken strolled around the kitchen without a care in the world.

Spotting my opportunity I said "That's just our old cock, Lazarus, he is always doing that." I launched into the only catechism story I knew while my Mam and Father Byrne watched the old cockerel bump into things. Needless to say I made my First Communion along side everyone else in the class but poor old Lazarus ended up in a cooking pot the minute the priest was out the door.

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