By Dawn Foster in The Guardian, 6 September 2018:
Have you written a will?” my doctor asked, matter-of-factly, while taking my blood pressure last Saturday, in the same tone you’d use to ask someone whether it was raining outside. To a 30-year-old, outwardly healthy woman, the question felt odd. But I was leaning against the wall for support, having woken that morning crumpled in the well of my shower, choking on soapy water with no immediate memory of how I had got there, my head and ribcage feeling wrenched apart by an all-consuming pain. Speaking to paramedics over the phone had proved a challenge as my verbal skills were decimated, and holographic lights floated across my field of vision, turning the banal familiarity of my bathroom into an experience akin to a child’s kaleidoscope toy.
In the ambulance, the paramedics had pieced together that I’d had an epileptic seizure in the shower. In the hospital, the doctors told me I had suffered a particularly all-encompassing type of seizure that had left with me with hairline fractures to my skull and ribs. Asking if I had written a will wasn’t scaremongering: it was admin. The chances may be low, but I still could die at any moment.
Thrown together in part by the natural proximity between the pews, and seeing each other every week, or each day during Holy Week and Christmas, you meet far more people. The parish young adults’ group is particularly close, with familiarity wrought through many nights of cheese, wine and religious discussion (as well as an unblemished record as winners of a local pub quiz, to the chagrin of locals). I’ve become close to people I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to meet or become friends with – people with very different politics, who come from different schools or different countries, with utterly different backgrounds. The mechanics of this makeshift community are different to those of every other friendship group I’ve been involved in as an adult: we’re very local, committed to everyone’s welfare, and open rather than cliquish.
There are fewer people in Catholic congregations than ever before, but the connection, closeness and care bound up in them is something that could benefit society greatly. Standing in mass on Sundays with 500 other people, shaking hands with the people around you, catching the eye of small children, entertaining the prospect of causing a scene, to make them laugh, is an opportunity to feel part of something bigger than yourself, and rooted in your community.
And in these communities there is a deep sense of anger against the latest abuse crisis in the church, and the continued lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice, to allow victims the dignity of an apology, and prevent these crimes occurring again. The Catholic church is deeply hierarchical, and the past months have thrown the vicious politics of the Vatican into relief. Lives have been destroyed and the victims used as pawns: people have been utterly betrayed by those in whom a huge amount of trust has been placed, and the congregation – these unique communities that give so much to everyone involved – have been treated with little to no care, as squabbles over the next seat of Peter dominate.
Trying to pretend abuse hasn’t and doesn’t happen does nothing to improve the outward perception of the church. Acting decisively, and valuing those who have been raped or abused or lied to by the priests, bishops and cardinals, is far more important than superficial public relations strategies.
If the church is to survive it must put the laity front and centre. Faith is about offering emotional and practical help to your neighbours while expecting nothing in return: you do so simply because you think it’s needed. The communities within the church are its most fundamental and crucial element.
• Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist