Testimony: Phelim Kennedy

17 April 2020


I was raised in a Catholic household with a strong sense of morality and have benefited greatly from the presence of devout siblings in my life.

Our parents were deeply involved in the founding of a L’Arche community – a community for those with and without learning disabilities to live together – and established a particular passion in me for the sanctity of every life and for how we treat others.

As I grew up I held onto my Catholic faith, and church and religious activity were important. However, what was lacking in catechises and religious education during school meant that, by Sixth Form and, having surrounded myself with friends of no faith, I could not defend my theology.

It was around that time my siblings were involved in Youth 2000 events and brought me along to a few. There was Eucharistic Adoration and talks by people who knew the faith and had been fundamentally moved by the faith. It was all important to see and, for a time, was enough to keep me going.

But I struggled to engage for two reasons.

A large element of these events was charismatic. This is something I am far more comfortable with now, but when I was beginning to have doubts in my faith it made it even harder seeing crowds of people having an emotional response. No matter how much I wanted it, I never had the same.

The other thing was that lots of people knew me through my siblings, but I didn’t know them. As an incredibly introverted character, and at the time struggling with social anxiety, I felt I had to try to engage with people, who were doing their best to include me, which brought me away from being able to listen to God.

When I went to University, I was finally able to do things on my own terms - to see what I really believed and what I was just clinging to from my family.

I found myself in a friendship group where my beliefs were challenged. I was the only Catholic and only a couple of Christians with several agnostics and a couple staunch atheists. I found myself happy to discuss difficult topics at the best of times, but even more so after a few drinks, so over the first year I had made many of my opinions on morality clear and had found myself having difficulty with others’ responses.

By the end of the year I was still Catholic, but I didn’t have a good reason why.

What made a person moral appeared to have been completely deconstructed, was I really condemning all my friends to hell? My personal prayer life had never gone much beyond Mass and even that was beginning to wane.

Starting second year I decided I would get to the bottom of it, not to teach myself the answers but to genuinely see what was true and what wasn’t. I continued to talk to my friends and formed my own opinions on a range of topics through conversations. But I couldn’t get over my lack of faith.

In third year at the start of Lent, I finally pulled the plug.

I stopped going to church and told my family I was no longer Catholic.

Looking back I feel I left the Church in a position people tend not to talk about. Most of the time I hear people leave because they disagree with something or that they simply drifted away. When I left, it was at a point of agreeing more and more with the Church’s moral teaching and I fought hard internally to stick with it despite other doubts. I left because my 'Catholic morality' valued truth and, truthfully, I didn’t believe there was a God.

It wasn’t a “no good God would do this” or “God isn’t necessary” argument; I just knew that if God existed for me, I wouldn’t live like I lived.

In the months that followed, I tried to come to terms with what this meant. I followed the path where Godlessness led. I became nihilistic, and not the “nothing matters so you may as well have fun” type. I accepted moral relativism but tried to at least argue for relative consistency. If you believe subjectively that something is right, you can’t argue it is right sometimes but not others. By this line of thought at least I never fell too far. Whenever I tried to accept a moral structure other than the Church it worked where it was easy but fell apart when you went too deep. The morality of Catholicism was hard but at least it worked.

Three and a half months later I had my final exam and visited home for a long weekend while my friends finished theirs. It was an especially convenient weekend to visit because the whole family was about, which rarely happens outside of Christmas nowadays. One niece was being baptised and three others (from a different sibling) were having their First Holy Communion. It was also my first experience of the Latin Mass.

I hold that I had no emotional response that weekend and there was no conscious experience of the divine. I often hear people say they had a moment that they felt God calling them but, much like at Youth 2000 years ago, I felt no such sign. On the train back to university, once my phone was out of power and I had no more distractions, all I got was the uncomfortable thought that only the saints lived a morally consistent life.

I tried to think of anyone else even remotely comparable but found they all fell short. Sure, there may have been smarter people, or better off people, or more successful people, but I would never be one of them, and I didn’t want to be.

I still knew I didn’t believe in God but, for the sake of consistency, I had to act like I did. I had to admit that, even assuming there is no one on the other end of the line, prayer was healthy; even without God it helps you process your own thoughts and spend some time away from the busyness of life.

I had to go to church; even without God it brings you into community with other people different to yourself.

Finally, and most painfully, I had to go to confession; especially as a man, even without God, it is good to admit my faults to another and to ask for forgiveness, to humble myself and to shine a light on my inconsistencies.

The last thing to say here is that, more than a realisation that God does exist, I have felt that God’s existence to be true regardless of my belief in it.

So what does it mean for me to be a Catholic and a man? That we ought to know our faith, defend our faith and live our faith.

My fiancée and I met at an event at a Catholic retreat centre we both used to work at (after my return to the Church). One night, before we really knew each other, I got into a conversation with a mutual friend and had to defend the Catholic position on pro-life issues. She happened to observe this. The following day, in the first words she ever said to me, she commended my defence of women and the compassion I showed for all life.

I don’t share this to be big-headed, because I realised that, given everything I was trying to do in my life, that was the last thing I could say about myself.

Over the following couple of months, before we started dating, I did all I could to get myself in order.

I know that a husband and wife are called to bring each other to God. This was a desire I saw in her and something I wanted to be for her. I knew that I needed a woman like her to help me be the best man I could be, and I wouldn't be the best man I could be if I couldn’t help her to be the best woman she could be.

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