Religious Themes in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes
by Tony Pellum
In Angela's Ashes, religion played a prominent role. Growing up in Ireland, Catholicism was the major religion. Limerick, the traditionally Catholic town where Frank McCourt grew up was considered by the residents as the Holiest City in the world because it contained the Arch Confraternity of the Holy Trinity. The residents were predominantly Catholic, shunned Protestants, and tried to raise their children in the same manner. Frank was baptized Catholic soon after his birth and was raised in somewhat of a dysfunctional Catholic home. He attended the Arch Confraternity and attended a Catholic school. Although he was surrounded by this religion, Frank didn't have any positive religious role models and didn't understand much of the religion he was being taught. Although he was often confused and disheartened by his traditionally Catholic upbringing, Frank did find solace in religion.
By attending both church and Catholic school, religion played an authoritarian role in Frank's life. They would try to keep the students in line and would punish the students when necessary. They would both impose threats and use guilt to demand obedience. When the church taught the students about adultery, they tried to make them feel bad saying, "The Virgin Mary turns her face away and weeps" at the sight of adultery. Adultery is defined by "impure thoughts and actions" so the students feel guilty whenever these thoughts occur. A prime example of this guilt that Frank feels is after the death of Theresa Carmody. Frank feels it was his actions that sent Theresa to Hell and Frank tries desperately to save her soul. He attends four masses, prays at every statue, fasts, performs stations at the cross and uses rosaries in begging God to have mercy on the soul of Theresa Carmody. This guilt is seen even clearer in Frank's plea, "How can a priest give absolution to someone like me?" The authoritarian role of religion imposed guilt on Frank, causing him to feel doomed to Hell.
As Frank grows older, he becomes annoyed by the behavior of the church. One year when the priests and nuns were telling the children that they needed to Lent, Frank becomes upset by their stern behavior and states, "What are we to give up when we have Lent all year long?" The church's lack of sympathy and concern for the poor annoys Frank. The church's attitude toward the lower class disgusted Frank and he knew it wasn't scriptually sound. When the church denies Frank of confession on the night before his sixteenth birthday because he was drunk, he has the door slammed in his face. Frank is upset by their behavior and realizes, "They are supposed to be like Our Lord, not walking around threatening peoples hands." The church's authority bothers Frank because he doesn't believe that they are acting as they should if they were truly like the Lord.
There is also a parallel between the authority of the church and the authority of Frank's father. Both are supposed to be caring and giving, but Frank is disappointed by both. Just as Frank's father continually let his family down by drinking the dole money, the church denied Frank of opportunities on multiple occasions. When Frank wanted to be an Alter boy, he was refused because of his social status and appearance. When he wanted to become a missionary to Africa with the White Feathers, the chruch wouldn't allow it. When he was encouraged to become a secondary school pupil, the church wouldn't allow the likes of him. The church was said to have "slammed the door in his face" on these numerous occasions just as his father essentially slammed the door in his family's face. The father is also compared to religion's role when Frank describes his father as being like the Holy Trinity. Frank says there are three people in his father. "The one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whisky and wants us to die of Ireland." Frank describes his father as someone who he loves, yet disappoints him. Although this quote emphasizes Frank's view of his father, it also suggests that religion let him down.
Religion also served as a source of ambivalence towards Frank. He rarely understands religious activities and celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. His misunderstanding comes from his not having explanations for why things are done. When his father takes Frank to mass on Christmas, Frank is told that Mary is sad because Baby Jesus has to grow up and die. Frank asks why Jesus must die and is told; "You can't ask questions like that." Ambivalence follows when Frank discusses the dream that night. In it he describes, "You fall asleep and dream about a pig standing in the crib at the Redemptorist church crying because he and the Baby Jesus and Cuchulain all have to grow up and die. Frank is neither described the explanation of Easter. He is told that everyone in the church is singing because they are happy Jesus has died for their sins. Frank asks "if the baby in the crib is dead and he says, no, He was thirty-three when he died and there he is hanging on the cross. I don't understand how he grew up so fast." Frank is commonly denied answers and stops asking questions especially involving religion for fear of being slapped on the hand or being told to go outside and play. Frank's ambivalence is seen most clearly in his composition that he wrote which placed him in the sixth class. In it, he compares Ancient Israel to Limerick, Ireland. He says it is a good thing Jesus wasn't born in Limerick because he would have died of the consumption. He also says he doesn't think it is fair that Mary got to chat away with the Lord while her sister Margaret had to do the dishes. These odd comparisons and attention to irrelevant detail illustrate Frank's ambivalence towards religion. He was refused explanation, which only manifested the confusion. Ambivalence is also seen in Frank's understanding of Faith. At school Frank describes the master as saying, "It's a glorious thing to die for Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there's anyone who would like us to live." Again Frank is not given explanations for why Faith is important and can not understand why it is stressed. When Frank reads about the Virgin Martyrs at the library, he learns of the great number which were killed for their refusal to deny the Lord. While the church sees this as a glorious act, Frank questions, "Why do Virgin Martyrs have to be so stubborn." His confusion towards these actions prove that religion and the church have not provided reasons for why he should feel certain ways toward faith and stress the ambivalence that Frank has toward religion.
Despite the ambivalence that Frank feels and being disheartened by the actions of the church, Frank finds hope and solace in religion. The priests that Frank confesses to provide the hope and comfort that all of the church should have offered. When Frank feels guilty for stealing a drunken man's fish and chips while searching for his father, he goes to confession while feeling guilty for what he has done. The priest asks why he stole the food. When Frank answers "Because I was hungry", the priest realized the hardships of the poor. The priest answers, "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." Although Frank is confused by the priest's answer, he is somewhat comforted by the priest's actions. He is also comforted in his final confession. When Frank is feeling guilty after Theresa's death for the numerous sins he had committed, Frank confesses to a priest. The priest doesn't condone his behavior, but explains that God's mercy is infinite. Frank explains the priest, "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." Frank begins to understand religion at this point. He realizes that the church's previous behavior was wrong and is told that Theresa is surely in heaven. Frank is relieved after the ambivalence and fear that he had felt for so long. Frank is also comforted by the Angel on the seventh step. Frank's father told him that there was an angel on the seventh step that delivered his brother. Frank finds comfort in talking to the angel. He can tell the Angel anything without worrying about getting hit. Frank's angel gave him the opportunity to free himself from what was worrying him. Unlike his parents and his school, which would punish him for asking questions or saying the wrong thing, the idea of the Angel allowed Frank comfort. The angel also helps Frank understand what is confusing him. When Frank was worried about first confession, the angel spoke to Frank. "Fear not said the voice" when Frank was still confused, the voice told him, "that means do not fear." Finally, Frank is comforted simply by knowing that the Angel is there. Frank knows that the Angel is there because the seventh step feels warmer that the others and there's a light in his head. Whether or not the Angel was real of not is irrelevant. The comfort that Frank felt gave him hope and understanding when the church and his parents would not offer solutions.
The hope and solace that the Angel on the seventh step and the priests at confession offered help Frank to understand religion. He was often confused by his life and his religion and, even though he was disheartened by most of the church's behavior, these comforted him. Religion served as an authoritarian and a source of ambivalence in Frank's childhood. Even though these negative factors upset him, Frank found certain aspects of faith that served to provide hope and solace.