A painting by Tom's grandfather, in "a family that was Catholic as far back as anyone cared to remember"Patrick McDonald

There is a sound, a smell and a sight that can transport me back to my past. Burning incense, I am eight years old holding my hand out for my first communion; a consecration bell ringing, I am taking the name Stephen in my Holy Confirmation; a wooden cross hanging from a ceiling, cold water is washing away my sins.

As my childhood was so immersed in the Catholic faith - with Catholic school, Mass each week, and a family who was Catholic as far back as anyone cared to remember - you might assume that faith was something I was given as a birthright. You might think that faith is something that I’ve always had without really trying. To be honest, I would absolutely forgive you for making that assumption because, deep down, I wish it were true. But, in reality, no part of having faith is easy. When you take the Eucharist, you don’t suddenly feel the Holy Spirit flooding your body. Faith is illusive and complex, and I find mine hard to understand.

"To me, faith is an unending, undying, unforgiving struggle"

Ironically, I felt most connected to my faith when it was most frequently challenged. In my early teens, I left my small Catholic school to go to a school much bigger, much scarier and much more aggressive. It was here that I met a group of unpleasant boys who saw it as their mission to destroy my faith. This group’s tireless attempts to make me miserable reminded me of the very same blind religious zealots that they hate; it felt like they were evangelists for atheism. 

The number and aggression of these bullies left me with a question: why? Why did they care what I believed? Why did it seem to offend them so personally? There seemed to be three answers.

Firstly, there were those taught to hate religion, often by parents who had rebelled against their own religious upbringing. They weren’t particularly aggressive, only repeating back to me the dinner-time rants of their mothers and fathers.

Others targeted my faith not because of what the Catholic Church represented to them but rather what it represented to me. Because being Catholic was part of my identity, to undermine the Church was to humiliate me.

But the people who would sink the lowest and hurt the most, who would target any weak spot I showed in my faith and mercilessly attack it, were, I believe, motivated by fear and envy. Mortality, purpose and existence are all very scary concepts. Perhaps this group hated faith so much because they saw it as a way out of natural, existential dread - a golden ticket which could stave off fear of your own mortality.


Mountain View

Life in Cambridge as an LGBT+ Catholic

Although their campaign to convert me was horrible, there was one upside. As I was always defending my faith from other people, it never came under attack by its most dangerous poison: my personal doubt. This doubt struck for the first time in years when I was walking home with a close friend of mine. He said something which shocked me: ‘You know, Tom, I’m quite jealous of you. I wish I had faith that there was something more out there.’ I felt slightly sick. In that moment, I realised that, in all the years I had been defending my faith, I had never checked if it was really there.

Did I really and truly believe there was a God? And, if I believed in that God, did I love or fear them? 

Since then, I have begun to look at my faith differently. To me, faith is an unending, undying, unforgiving struggle; I believe that this journey is one paved with thorns. Perhaps this is a very dour and Catholic view of faith, but this is what makes sense to me. 

"In all the years I had been defending my faith, I had never checked if it was really there"

The story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel helps me to understand my struggle with faith. Just as the Angel ‘failed to prevail against Jacob’, so must my fear and doubt fail to prevail over me. And just as Jacob is blessed for holding the Angel down until daybreak, so too I hope to be blessed for holding onto my faith.

One day, I hope that if I hold onto the angel of faith for long enough, wrestle my faith to the ground and keep it there, it will not only be protected from the slings and arrows of others, but also its worst enemy. I hope it will be protected from my own weakness.