Keeping the regulations

Dec 9th, 2007 | By | Category: Ministry

The church’s capacity to cause hurt to people was almost limitless. Of course, it was never our intention to hurt anyone, we were simply upholding church regulations and canon law. We were simply people obeying orders.

One lady told me of her baby being born prematurely at her little cottage miles out of the town. The baby was stillborn. When the ambulance arrived, she was made to walk out of the house, still haemorrhaging, and her husband was left to gather up the body of the only child they would have. They made a little grave in their garden; there being no-one who cared enough to give them any support, they buried their baby themselves. No clergyman said any prayer, nor, I suspect, would he even if he had been asked.

Another man told me of his little son, being born at a similar time in the 1960s. It was their only child. The little boy was born in hospital and lived for two days before his heart gave up. The hospital authorities wanted rid of the body and the man was told to make the necessary arrangements. His wife was unfit to leave the hospital and no clergy wanted to know about the little boy who had not been baptized. So with a coffin from a local undertaker and having made arrangements with a local cemetery, the man collected his baby son and went and placed him in the grave, alone. No ceremony, no ritual, no acknowledgment on the part of anyone that this human being had ever existed.

It became fashionable in the 1990s to denigrate the Roman Catholic Church, it becoming an easy target after being beset by sexual abuse scandals, but it had no monopoly on causing hurt and pain.

There are plenty of stories like that of the man in his late 40s who still bore hurt from his childhood days when at every parish occasion the clergyman refused to use the boy’s surname because the clergyman did not recognize the boy’s mother’s relationship with the boy’s father. When it came to any roll call, prizegiving or party, when every other child was called by forename and surname, the little boy was simply a forename. There are stories of Presbyterian and Methodist church members who were told that they could not be Godparents at the baptisms of nephews and nieces and who were told that they could not receive Holy Communion because they had not been confirmed by a bishop.

Perhaps the latter stories are in a different category from our complete failure towards grieving parents, but in close knit, conservative rural communities they were sources of decades long hurt and resentment.

Given our capacity for inflicting pain, perhaps what is remarkable is not how few people now go to church , but how many still go.

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  1. Ian, one of my siblings born three years before me survived only five hours. I often heard my mother talk about my father and an uncle taking a small white coffin to the graveyard very early in the morning for burial in the space between two graves. Superstition was that a grave opened for a baby or young child would be opened again within twelve months for an adult.

  2. Grannymar,

    I’m not sure I could even begin to imagine the pain of such experiences. The churches were complicit in the process in failing to declare that these little babies were human beings, to be remembered with love.

  3. I’m flabbergasted that these stories are as recent as the 60’s. My mother was a midwife and in the event of the death of a newborn or a stillborn baby, the clergy were always called. In fact even though on many occasions the baby was little more than a foetus it was still often baptised, the birth registered and a death certificate issued. I’m sure you see more of this at the coalface Ian, but in my experience, the clergy have been very forgiving under such circumstances and ready to help the little soul’s passage to wherever. Lets hope times are a changing. Then again, the Catholic Church in Australia is considered renegade . . the previous Pope didn’t like us much. God forbid, we want priests and nuns to marry, women to be ordained and gay’s made welcome . . it wil be interesting to see what our latest ‘head’ thinks when he comes to the World Catholic Youth Conference in the new year!

  4. Baino,

    Those two stories were from people whom I knew who chose to tell me, I suspect there were many other people I knew who may have had similar experiences, but said nothing about them. I also fear that such things may have continued until the 1980s.

  5. Ian,
    Thank God my premature baby lived. He was
    born in 1953.He weighed only 2 lbs.12oz.
    and was not expected to survive.

    The day after he was born I had a visit in my
    room from a Jewish nurse who was present at
    the delivery. She had come to tell me that
    SHE had baptised my baby and that I was not
    to worry about that aspect; just pray for
    his survival, as she was.

    When my husband and I took Stephen to church
    four months later,to be baptised by the priest,
    we were told by the Priest that he would only
    bless the baby because he had already been
    baptised at the hospital.

    This made us feel very grateful to both the nurse and the priest. It assured us that if our baby had died, he would have died baptised……The Church
    did recognize the baptism performed under
    dire conditions by that thoughtful nurse.

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