Issue Date: November 12, 2004
Wet ink, origami and the Catholic fold
By MICHAEL McGIRR
People cannot call themselves Catholics until they have done their share of folding. It starts in primary school where we learn to make origami nativity scenes. Our teacher told us that the original origamist only folded the paper, never cut or tore it. He said he was going to write a book called origami without tears. It took me years to get the joke. By that stage, I had folded tablecloths after parish picnics. I had folded tents after outdoor Masses. I had folded items of altar linen and priestly apparel of which I knew neither the name nor the purpose.
I folded thousands of the raffle tickets on which our church was built. In all those raffles, our family only won one thing. The sixth prize in the parish fete of 1975 was a guitar. My father looked at it disdainfully before handing it over to the nun who had recently arrived to organize what used to be called Mass but was now called liturgy. Dad was glad that Vatican II had brought him at least one benefit. It was now easier to dispose of unwanted guitars to Catholic homes.
The real folding is called collation. You cant call yourself a Catholic until you have been involved in the painful production of some kind of homespun publication or other. There were working bees before Christmas to make sure every home in the neighborhood was letterboxed with the festive Mass times. Priests often added a printed version of one of their sermons to the flyer and so pages had to be collated. This business of providing samples of what the unwashed might expect to hear in church always struck me as a dubious tactic. It was showing a weak hand too early.
Catholic education was developed around two fundamental principles. These were the Fordigraph and the Gestetner. Lessons, assignments, exams, Mass sheets, the words of prayers and the lyrics of hymns were cranked through these machines in astonishing numbers. No teacher was ever happier than when running off a new class set on the Fordigraph. They were probably high on the smell of the ink. And, after the running off, those on detention would be required to fold and collate the material. There were boys in my year who developed folders finger, a swelling of the index finger, which made it difficult for the victim to pick his nose.
In 1989, I was a young teacher in a Catholic school when the boss decided it was time for the last Gestetner to go. We had photocopiers now. The whole staff room stood in stunned silence as reams of the hairy foolscap paper needed to absorb the wet ink were loaded onto a skip. It was the fall of the Berlin Wall.
All these memories came to mind recently as our parish faced an unexpected crisis.
Our Mass sheets come from a publisher that prints the readings and prayers of the day on one side, leaving the other side for the parish to customize with its own messages and announcements. They had always been folded so that the official part faced outwards and the local part faced inwards. But a new priest came along and started to have them folded the other way, so that our parish details and activities were now turned outwards and thus given greater prominence. There was a lot of feeling on this issue and eventually it came before the parish council. After lengthy discussion, it was decided that the sheets would be put out unfolded and parishioners could fold them according to their own taste. It was the kind of fruitless discussion that makes you grateful for Jesus reassurance that the church itself would never fold.
But there was an important issue lurking even in such triviality. The folding of the Mass sheets highlights two quite different ways of being Catholic. For some, the experience of faith starts with an external formal authority, represented by the finely printed readings and responses that we bring in from afar and that look official. For others, it starts locally, in a more personal experience, represented in this case by news of the meals roster for helping the elderly and requests for prayers for the sick, the deceased, the newly wed and the newly born. As far as I can tell, about half the parish is folding their sheet one way and half the other. The boy in front of us folds his into a paper plane.
Michael McGirr lives in Australia. His travel comedy, Things You Get For Free, is published in the United States by Grove Atlantic.
National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004
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