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Pilgrims walk with shadow of Church abuse

  • 07 August 2013
Warning: Article contains references to sexual abuse.   I grew up in outback WA, where there was no church, or neighbour, within easy driving distance. Stories were what we had, and they were sacred. Some were poems — 'The Owl and the Pussycat' may be responsible for my wanderlust, forever seeking that land of bong-trees. Some were from the Yamiji people — they instilled reverence for this land over which we stomp. Some were Bible stories — angels, miracles, water to wine and dead men walking. Those stories helped form my wish to live an honourable life. To 'do unto others'.

Later, at convent school, while I resented not being allowed to serve on the altar, I did love the rituals and the rosary's mantra. I also loved one Q and A from catechism:

Q: What is God? A: God is love.

As I grew, I reassessed. My mother insisted I make my own choices on morality, faith and ethics. I was not to parrot inherited stances, but to form opinions based on experience and listening.

I've always had a pull toward the numinous, and felt a wish to serve, but through my teen years discord grew between those yearnings and the Catholic Church. It said it welcomed everyone equally, and yet treated me differently to my brother. Why, I wondered, were women not able to be priests, or take leadership positions in Catholic hierarchy? Why were gay friends not welcomed fully? Why was it that men who wanted to serve as priests couldn't have partners or families if they wished?

So much seemed punishing. Unequal.

By my 20s, I felt that my moral framework made it impossible for me to align myself with the Church of my childhood. Ironic, when that framework had been, in part, formed by Catholicism.

Fast forward to 2010 when I hear a call. 'Walk with sin!'

The premise of my book Sinning Across Spain is that in medieval times, a pilgrim could be paid to carry the sins of another to a holy place, and on arriving, the stay-at-home would receive absolution.

That may sound like hocus-pocus. But it was also a call for empathy, for shouldering the burdens of others, and for re-examining my beliefs. I asked people to donate sins. They did, and I walked with them.

One sin I carried was anger. I met it many times during that 1300km slog, in myself mostly. The most potent occasion was in company with a Spanish man.