By Peter Duffy
Frank McCourt, who died on Sunday at age 78, was the most Catholic of authors.
The rites and rituals of Ireland’s Catholic Church of the 1930s and ’40s exist at the core of “Angela’s Ashes” (1996), his great Bildungsroman. That book’s hilarious and irreverent chapter on Mr. McCourt’s preparation for, and eventual ill-fated reception of, First Communion set down for all history what it was like to sit before an old Irish “master” named Mr. Benson in this case, and have very pre-Vatican II lessons pummeled (literally) into your pre-teenage brain.
“He tells us we have to know the catechism backwards, forwards and sideways, ” Mr. McCourt writes. “We have to know the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Virtues, Divine and Moral, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Deadly Sins. We have to know by heart all the prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Confiteor, the Apostles’ Creed, the Act of Contrition, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. . . . He tells us we’re hopeless, the worst class he ever had for First Communion but as sure as God made little apples he’ll make Catholics of us, he’ll beat the idler out of us and Sanctifying Grace into us.”
Mr. Benson, who inhabits the same spiritual rectory as the fiery Father Arnall in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” didn’t quite succeed in making an orthodox Catholic out of Frank McCourt. In fact, Mr. McCourt was one of the church’s principal public antagonists. He delighted in delivering bawdy riffs against what he saw as the church’s hypocrisy, cruelty and joylessness. “I was so angry for so long, I could hardly have a conversation without getting in an argument,” he once said.
“We’ve been tracking him for a number of years,” Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights told me on Tuesday.
After the New York Times published an excerpt from the First Communion chapter of “Angela’s Ashes” this week—in it Mr. McCourt describes how “God,” i.e. the sacred host, became glued to the roof of his mouth—Mr. Donahue issued a statement denouncing the newspaper. “During his lifetime, Frank McCourt made any number of insulting remarks about Catholicism, all to the applause of his sophomoric fans,” it read.
Somewhere Mr. McCourt, who loved to spar with critics, is smiling. “Anti-clericalism, they said about me,” he told a newspaper reporter in 2002, who noted that Mr. McCourt’s eyebrows arched with skepticism. “No. I just told the story that millions of other Catholics would tell about their own lives.” Referring to the clergy sexual-abuse, he said: “Maybe now people are beginning to realize that I was just a bit too early with the truth.”
Peter Quinn, the novelist and a practicing Catholic, wrote in an email that his friend was neither “contemptuous of believers in general nor Catholics in particular. On a trip we took together in 1998, he went to Mass with me on the Sunday morning that we landed. He respected the fact that I had reached my own peace with the Catholic Church. ‘It’s a good thing,’ he once told me, ‘that you’re raising your kids in the Catholic faith. At least they’ll have a map to follow or throw away. In either case, they’ll know where they are.’ ”
That’s what Mr. McCourt had. Even as he described suffering under its thumb, he developed an unbreakable affinity with the church’s history, traditions and literature. He writes in “Angela’s Ashes” about discovering Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” in the library on a rainy afternoon—“I don’t want to spend my life reading about saints but when I start I wish the rain would last forever.” He told an Irish television host in 1999: “I read the ’Lives of the Saints’ all the time. If you poke me in the middle of the night and say what are you reading, I’ll say, the ‘Lives of the Saints.’ ”
Readers will long benefit from his ability to evoke a Catholic milieu that will never exist again. To someone like me who grew up in the post-Vatican II church, it’s a fascinating glimpse of a lost world. “The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New York’s Eve,” he wrote of his childhood home of Limerick, Ireland. In just a few words, we are transported to a time when every schoolchild knew that said feast was celebrated on Jan. 1. The only picture that hung in the McCourt household, he writes, was of Pope Leo XIII in “a yellow skullcap and a black robe with cross on his chest.” How many families have framed portraits of Pope Benedict on the wall?
Mr. McCourt felt it was impossible to fully divorce himself from the church. So when he stood before Pope John Paul II in 2002, accompanying a delegation of 40 mayors from around the world, the little Irish-Catholic boy in him took over. He knelt, took the pontiff’s hand and kissed his ring.
“I got up and he’s looking at me with his dazzling blue Polish eyes and extraordinary complexion,” Mr. McCourt told the Commonwealth Club of California. “I had a feeling he knew. He knew what a fraud and a phony I was. Then I walked away. And I have to admit, as turbulent as my relationship with the church has been (although they don’t know it and they don’t care), I was walking on water practically. I was walking on air.”
Mr. Duffy is the author of The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland, available in paperback from Harper Perennial.