Compassion is it
She told me she had given birth in a country convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary on 5 July 1952. She was 18 when she met a young man who bought her a toffee apple on a warm autumn evening at the county fair. “I had just left convent school,” she said with an air of wistful regret. “I went in there when my mother died, when I was six and a half, and I left at 18 not knowing a thing about the facts of life. I didn’t know where babies came from … ” When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had Philomena “put away” with the nuns.
But after that blissful start, things didn’t go so well for Philomena.
After her baby, Anthony, was born, the mother superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her “guilty secret”…Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Catholic church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children…After giving birth, the girls were allowed to leave the convent only if they or their family could pay the nuns £100. It was a substantial sum, and those who couldn’t afford it – the vast majority – were kept in the convent for three years, working in kitchens, greenhouses and laundries or making rosary beads and religious artefacts, while the church kept the profits from their labour.
In other words they were arrested, imprisoned, and enslaved by the Catholic church. This is not news, of course, but it’s always useful to be reminded of it. Especially in a world where we keep getting told and told and told by Karen Armstrong and her fans that ‘compassion is at the heart of every great religion.’ If that were even a little bit true, the savage unrelenting brutality of the Irish catholic church would have been impossible.
Even crueller than the work was the fact that mothers had to care for their children, developing maternal ties and affection that were to be torn asunder at the end of their three-year sentence. Like all the other girls, Philomena Lee was made to sign a renunciation document agreeing to give up her three-year-old son and swearing on oath: “I relinquish full claim for ever to my child and surrender him to Sister Barbara.”…Philomena says she fought against signing the terrible undertaking. “Oh God, my heart. I didn’t want him to go. I just craved and begged them to please let me keep him. None of us wanted to give our babies up, none of us. But what else could we do? They just said, ‘You have to sign these papers.'”
Compassion is at the heart of every great religion.
Philomena embarked on a lonely, desperate search to find him. She went back to the convent in Roscrea several times between 1956 and 1989 and asked the nuns to help her. Each time they refused, brandishing her sworn undertaking that she would “never attempt to see” her child…Early on in the search I realised that the Irish Catholic hierarchy had been engaged in what amounted to an illicit baby trade. From the end of the second world war until the 1970s, it considered the thousands of souls born in its care to be the church’s own property. With or without the agreement of their mothers, it sold them to the highest bidder…[H]e was haunted by half-remembered visions of his first three years in Ireland and by a lifelong yearning to find his mother. Separated by fate, mother and child spent decades looking for each other, repeatedly thwarted by the refusal of the nuns to reveal information, each of them unaware that the other was also yearning and searching.
There’s no happy ending. Read the whole thing. Meditate on compassion.