It is hard to know quite what to make of those ambiguous footnotes attached to passages in Amoris Laetitia about whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be admitted to the Eucharist. Overall, I take Pope Francis’s point that it jars to see smug bon chic, bon genre Catholics file up for Holy Communion while it is denied to those who are often poor and troubled and driven by circumstance into chaotic lifestyles and irregular unions.
I am a child of an irregular union. My mother, raised in the Church of Scotland, studied music in Cologne in the 1920s and was so impressed by the Catholicism of the Rhineland that she became a Catholic when she returned to teach music at Edinburgh University in 1930. Three months later, she met my father, then the professor of fine art: he was married with a 10-year-old son.
They both resigned their posts and ran off to London. For my father, it was an escape from an unhappy marriage which he hoped would unlock his creativity as it did for Shelley or Gauguin. He did then write a novel, The Green Child, but the cost of providing for two families during the Depression without an academic salary took him to Grub Street rather than Lerici or Tahiti. In due course he prospered, working as a publisher and writing successful books on art.
At the start of World War II, he moved with my mother to the Arts and Craft house near Beaconsfield that he had built before going to Edinburgh. They had four children, of which I was the third. I was baptised by Mgr Smith who, a few years earlier, had given the Last Rites to GK Chesterton. We went to Mass every Sunday. One of my earliest memories is of the end of the brush that sprinkled holy water flying off its handle as the priest walked down the aisle and hitting a woman on her powdered nose.
In 1949, when I was eight, we moved to a lovely Queen Anne rectory at Stonegrave in North Yorkshire, three miles from the farm where my father had been born. Crucifixes and pious artefacts hung incongruously beside the modernist paintings on the walls. Again, we went to Mass every Sunday, always setting off late.
My mother never went to Communion: “Darling, I knew the rules.” Later, my sister was sent to board at a convent, while I, together with my two brothers, went to nearby Ampleforth, first as day boys then as boarders.
It was the proximity of Ampleforth that had induced my mother to move to Yorkshire. Far from being cold-shouldered by the Benedictines as an adulteress, my mother was welcomed by the community, playing the viola in the school orchestra, entertaining monks at Stonegrave, befriending in particular two musical monks, Dom Laurence Bevenot and Dom Austin Rennick. Fr Austin would accompany us on family holidays in place of my father, mistaken no doubt as an Anglican clergyman with his brood.
The proximity of my home contributed to my unhappiness at Ampleforth: why was I sleeping in a dormitory when I had my own cosy attic room at Stonegrave? Why was I being raised by a gloomy monk, my housemaster, instead of the father whom I adored? Life in an all-male public school in the 1950s was hateful compared with that in a home that was exhilarating, stimulating and filled with love.
But what of my half-brother John? He grew up in a flat in Edinburgh with an embittered mother who slowly went mad. She filled a room with empty cornflake packets and hissed out loud in the cinema when she saw a couple kissing on the screen. Serving in the Army during World War II, John was told by his commanding officer, “Your mother’s gone bonkers,” and given compassionate leave. When he returned to Edinburgh, she did not know who he was.
John went on to a successful career making documentaries on artists for the BBC, acknowledged towards the end of his life as a pioneer of the genre. His first marriage ended in divorce. He had no children. He came to stay at Stonegrave, but his presence reminded my parents of things they would rather forget: it was never his home. He knew nothing of the family happiness we enjoyed and, though good-natured and never resentful, showed the lack of confidence so common in children from broken homes.
Which brings me back to Amoris Laetitia. Certainly, Pope Francis talks of the suffering of children whose parents part, but the mercy he wishes to extend to the adults perhaps takes too lightly the suffering they cause to their children. In the past, social stigma was a deterrent that kept couples together; now, stigma is considered unkind, and little credit is given to those couples who remain together for the sake of the children.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer
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