I remember being prepared for First Confession and the dreaded Sixth Commandment. Its prohibition of adultery was explained as ‘doing rude actions and saying bad words’. I confessed rude actions and bad words on a regular basis. I was occasionally asked ‘alone or with others?’. This apparently compounded the sin. My rude actions consisted of sticking my tongue out to my teacher behind her back and saying words like ‘bottom’. It sounds funny now, but it wasn’t at the time.
I was tortured by the realisation that I couldn’t receive Holy Communion without compounding my guilt with sacrilege. I became an altar server. I would pester the priest to hear my confession before Mass so that I could receive Communion, or I would suffer the further shame of not receiving Communion in front of a church full of people. Sweat ran off me as I knelt squirming with fright at the enormity of the choice. No one ever said to me: ‘This is silly. God does not want to put you through this.’
Many people of my generation walked away from the oppression of this system. I did the opposite and became a priest. Ironically, the child-abuse scandal, especially in Ireland, has set many people free. I have grown up, too, and am determined that children today are not subjected to the same spiritual abuse as I was.
On Sunday 20 January we hear the story of the marriage feast at Cana. Six jars of water are turned into wine. This water was ready for ritual cleansing – after menstruation, nocturnal emission, sexual intercourse. And for washing bodies prior to burial. Sexuality was coupled with death, dirt, shame and darkness. Jesus takes the water of sin and death and changes it into the wine of rejoicing. He celebrates marriage and sexuality as life-enhancing. It’s his first miracle.