Peter Quinn, the novelist and a practicing Catholic, wrote in an email that his friend was neither “contemptuous of believers in general nor Catholics in particular. On a trip we took together in 1998, he went to Mass with me on the Sunday morning that we landed. He respected the fact that I had reached my own peace with the Catholic Church. ”˜It’s a good thing,’ he once told me, ”˜that you’re raising your kids in the Catholic faith. At least they’ll have a map to follow or throw away. In either case, they’ll know where they are.’”‰”
That’s what Mr. McCourt had. Even as he described suffering under its thumb, he developed an unbreakable affinity with the church’s history, traditions and literature. He writes in “Angela’s Ashes” about discovering Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” in the library on a rainy afternoon””“I don’t want to spend my life reading about saints but when I start I wish the rain would last forever.” He told an Irish television host in 1999: “I read the ”˜Lives of the Saints’ all the time. If you poke me in the middle of the night and say what are you reading, I’ll say, the ”˜Lives of the Saints.’”‰”
Readers will long benefit from his ability to evoke a Catholic milieu that will never exist again. To someone like me who grew up in the post-Vatican II church, it’s a fascinating glimpse of a lost world. “The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New York’s Eve,” he wrote of his childhood home of Limerick, Ireland. In just a few words, we are transported to a time when every schoolchild knew that said feast was celebrated on Jan. 1. The only picture that hung in the McCourt household, he writes, was of Pope Leo XIII in “a yellow skullcap and a black robe with cross on his chest.” How many families have framed portraits of Pope Benedict on the wall?