Study Guide

Angela's Ashes Religion

By Frank McCourt


The rain drove us into the church – our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing though priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flowers and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1.6-7)

This seems like a pretty cynical statement to us, but maybe Frank's got a point. After all, we didn't see a whole lotta charity or compassion or forgiveness on the part of the Church in Angela's Ashes.

The sisters knew what was right and they knew what was wrong and any doubts could be resolved by the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (1.29)

The McNamara Sisters might use religion to mask their true intentions, and they don't really care about Angela or what's right or wrong. This passage shows the black-or-white way of thinking that McCourt thought characterized the Church. Things were right or they were wrong, no doubts allowed or allowances made for difficult circumstances.

There is a picture on the wall by the range of a man with long brown hair and sad eyes. He is pointing to his chest where there is a big heart with flames coming out of it. Mam tell us, That's the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I want to know why the man's heart is on fire and why doesn't He throw water on it? Grandma says, Don't these children know anything about their religion? and Mam tells her it's different in America. Grandma says the Sacred Heart is everywhere and there's no excuse for that kind of ignorance. (2.95)

With America's separation of church and state written into its constitution, it's hard to appreciate how much religion permeated Irish culture. Much education was religious education, and Catholic beliefs dictated laws of family life, e.g., birth control or divorce. Divorce was illegal in Ireland from 1921, when the country gained independence from Britain, until 1997. Sales of contraceptive devices were illegal from 1935-1980 (source).

Malachy says he's hungry and he wants some [communion wafers], too. Dad says, shush, that's Holy Communion, the body and blood of Our Lord.

But, Dad.

Shush, it's a mystery.

There's no use asking more questions. If you ask a question they tell you it's a mystery, you'll understand when you grow up, be a good boy, ask your mother, ask your father, for the love o'Jesus leave me alone, go out and play. (3.130-133)

The adults in Frank's life think that the way to get a kid to believe is to insist he believe. We think Frank might be a better Catholic if he got his questions answered. Strong faith can stand up to a few questions. Then maybe his First Holy Communion would seem like more than just a chance to get candy. It might actually mean something to him.

She worries Mikey might have the fit and die and go to hell if he has any class of a sin on his soul though everyone knows he's an angel out of heaven. Mikey tells her God is not going to afflict you with the fit and then boot you into hell on top of it. What kind of a God would do a thing like that? (4.12)

Mikey believes in a merciful God, not the fire and brimstone God the priests use to scare the boys. He doesn't know that much about Church teachings; it's just his child's common sense interpretation of what he thinks God is like. You can tell that Frank thinks Mikey has a point.

[…] You're here to learn the catechism and do what you're told. You're not to be asking questions. There are too many people wandering the world and asking questions and that's what has us in the state we're in and if I find any boy in this class asking questions I won't be responsible for what happens. (4.22)

Religion as it was taught to Frank is authoritarian and rigid. It was a lot of "thou shalt nots." You get the impression that Frank sees all this as burdensome, not enlightening, even for a boy who loves to learn. And no questions allowed.

I feel sorry for the beautiful Protestant girls, they're doomed. That's what the priests tell us. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Outside the Catholic Church there is nothing but doom. And I want to save them. Protestant girl, come with me to the True Church. You'll be saved and you won't have the doom. (7.18)

If you're not Catholic you're doomed. It's that simple. The residents of Limerick consider Protestants to be out-of-control drinkers and fornicators who think nothing of using birth control or getting divorces. It's all the fault of Henry VIII.

I wonder if the priest is asleep because he's very quiet till he says, My child, I sit here. I hear the sins of the poor. I assign the penance. I bestow absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet. Do you understand me, my child?

I tell him I do but I don't.

Go home child, pray for me. (7.142)

Frank's come to confess his sin of stealing fish and chips because he was hungry. The priest asked why he didn't ask his mother for something to eat and he explained that he was out in the street looking for his father in the pubs after his father drank up the money for baby Alphie. The priest is speechless. He's a priest who realizes he should be helping the poor and realizes the limitations of what he can do by absolution alone. Forgiving sins is great, but it doesn't keep people from starving. Unlike the wealthy priests who look down at the poor, this man knows he should be serving them as Jesus would have done.

And why does [The Virgin Mary] weep, boys? She weeps because of you and what you are doing to her Beloved Son. She weeps when she […] beholds in horror the spectacle of Limerick boys defiling themselves, polluting themselves, interfering with themselves, abusing themselves, soiling their young bodies […]. Oh, boys, the devil wants your souls. He wants you with him in hell and know this, that every time you interfere with yourselves, […] you not only nail Christ to the cross you take another step closer to hell itself. (13.80)

No comment.

Doom. That's the favorite word of every priest in Limerick. (14.17)

In case you didn't get the idea. That's what religion means to Frank. But despite the devil wanting his soul, he can't keep his hands off himself.

Theresa is a torment to me. […] every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me like an abscess and if I don't go to confession soon I'll be nothing but an abscess riding around on bicycle with people pointing and telling each other, there he is, Frankie McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell. (16.39)

At this point, Frank still believes that going to confession would help him deal with his guilt about Theresa, but he's afraid that the priest will throw him out. He figures he'll have to wait until he gets to America, where the priests are friendly like Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way.

He tells me God forgives me and I must forgive myself, that God loves me and I must love myself for only when you love God in yourself can you love all God's creatures. (17.69)

Frank finally can't take the guilt any longer and breaks down in tears in a Franciscan church. A priest hears him and offers to talk. Frank spills his life story. This passage jumps out at us because of how different it is when compared to the other passages on religion. This priest is nothing like most of the other priests we've encountered in Angela's Ashes. He's kind, compassionate, and most of all understanding. He gets that love and forgiveness are more powerful that guilt and blame.

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