Philip O’Rawe is a freelance IT consultant, a trade union representative and a member of the choir Cappella Caeciliana.
Tell me about your background.
I am 56 and I have lived in Belfast for all of my life. I am married to Clare and we have a son aged 22 and a daughter aged 17. I am the eldest of a family of four, with two sisters and one brother. I studied computer science at Queen’s University and I have worked in the IT industry ever since then, currently on a freelance basis. I am also a keen singer, being a member of my parish choir (St Bernadette’s, Belfast) and also singing in the choir Cappella Caeciliana, which performs sacred music in both concert and religious settings.
How and when did you come to faith?
Faith was passed down from my parents, Gerry and Patricia, who were both teachers, and it was also developed by attending Catholic schools, including St Malachy’s College. I found many of the priests and other teachers there inspiring and very good role models. I have also found sacred music to be a means of strengthening my faith — both listening to it and performing it.
Does this faith play a real part in your life or is it only for Sundays?
I am a strong believer in ‘good works’ as being necessary to demonstrate Christian belief. In the Catholic tradition that I am part of, there is strong teaching around social justice and the ‘common good’ which is scripture-based but interprets biblical teaching for the modern world. This includes the right to life and dignity (including the dignity of work and participation in society), care for the environment, a focus on the poor and vulnerable, and the importance of peace and social justice.
I try to put these into practice to the best of my ability. For example, in my role as a trade union representative where I try to ensure people are treated properly at work, as well as support those who have problems or are mistreated.
Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
I wouldn’t say ‘crisis’, but certainly doubt — or perhaps, more accurately, questioning — is frequent.
Have you ever been angry with God?
No. I am quite philosophical when things go wrong, believing that they happen for a reason and that the main thing is to learn from things and put them into perspective where possible.
Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
Yes. I think that most churches have exhibited bad behaviour over the centuries, especially around treatment of people who did not conform to their or society’s norms at the time.
It is good that this is coming to light — and being addressed where possible — even though it is long overdue.
The Catholic church certainly has a bad record, with abuse of trust having been compounded by a culture of ‘closing ranks’ and ‘protecting the institution’ (something that is present to a greater or lesser extent in many organisations, including businesses and public sector entities).
A culture of blindly accepting authority has also been very damaging, but thankfully this is now changing.
On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the many good things that the churches have done over the years, not least in getting people educated and in trying to instil a strong moral compass.
Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
I am afraid only from the practical point of view of the impact on my family, particularly if I were to die before old age. Like everyone, I guess, I am afraid of a slow and painful death.
Are you afraid of ‘hellfire’?
No. I believe in a loving and just God, not a vindictive one.
Do you believe in a resurrection, and if so, what will it be like?
I believe in it, but I don’t know what it will be like.
What about people of other denominations and other faiths?
Anyone who has a strong conviction (of any sort, not just religious) should have respect shown to their beliefs, as long as they are tolerant and understanding of people with different views. However, I don’t have much time for people who are intolerant or believe that they have a monopoly on truth.
Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn from other people?
Most definitely. I have friends and colleagues from many faiths and none. All have attributes, experiences and approaches that I can learn from.
Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
Yes, to a reasonable extent, but they are on the back foot given the changes in society. Most churches are trying to adapt.
Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
Churches have lost trust in many cases, and many people now find so much satisfaction in material things that they don’t think about the wider picture of what life is actually for. I think churches also alienate a lot of people by being intolerant (eg of those who are LGBT or divorced) — although this is slowly improving.
Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
The abuse of religion, and using religion as a proxy for centuries-old cultural divides, has certainly hindered our society. I don’t think genuinely religious people have been a major contributor to our problems.
Some personal preferences — favourite film, book, music?
Film: The Shawshank Redemption, which is a great portrayal of humanity in the face of adversity. Book: the Rough Guide for the country or city I hope to visit next (I am a keen traveller). Music: anything by Bach, a true genius.
Where do you feel closest to God?
In St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which I have visited a few times. This is a really uplifting place with a direct link right back to the very early days of Christianity. I find it particularly spiritual when music is being sung.
The inscription on your gravestone?
Nothing fancy, just my name and dates.
Finally, any major regrets?
The Cappella Caeciliana choir is performing a Miserere concert of sacred music for Palm Sunday, at Clonard Monastery from 7pm.