'This book is an honest analysis of my experience of church over forty years of priesthood, but it is not an autobiography in the strict sense'. By Martin Tierney
PART ONE: THE ROAD TO PRIESTHOOD
1. The Historical Background
4. Light and Darkness
5. Learning Philosophy and Theology
6. Seminary Spirituality
PART TWO: ON BEING A PRIEST
8. Archbishop McQuaid
9. The Parish
10. The Dead and the Dying
11. Sex Abuse
90 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie
January 14th was dull and grey that Sunday morning in 2001. The Christmas frenzy had left people drained. Little was happening in the city. People slept late. Traffic lights changed futilely. While the city slumbered, in one church an elderly priest knelt before his bishop to be installed as Parish Priest of a parish in the southern suburbs of the Dublin. Now nearly forty years ordained, he was about 5 feet nine in height, of slim build, with the worry lines of years just beginning to crease his forehead. At sixty-two years of age, a time when most of his contemporaries had retired, he was about to accept a primary responsibility within the Catholic Church. It was twenty-two years since he had last worked in a parish (1). He was apprehensive. His misgivings were solidly grounded in the seismic changes that had happened since he last worked in a parish. A paradigm shift in the cultural and religious landscape of Ireland had left in its wake a puzzled, confused and uncertain congregation. The change was as great as the discovery by some primitive Amazonian tribe that a sophisticated world of technology existed beyond their tribal land.
He could remember that his feelings related comfortably to the little ‘whiskey priest,’ of Graham Green’s novel, The Power and the Glory:
He was a man who was supposed to save souls. It had seemed quite simple once, preaching at Benediction, organising the guilds, having coffee with elderly ladies behind barred windows, blessing new houses with a little incense, wearing black gloves. It was as easy as saving money: now it was a mystery. He was aware of his desperate inadequacy.
He was worried about his ability to work effectively in the changed environment.
The huge cavernous church, built to hold twelve hundred people, echoed as the bishop’s voice bounced off the large empty galleries. Thirty years previously it had been packed with people. They sweated in the heat of bodies pressed together. The bishop handed over the keys of the church intoning, ‘Receive these keys, guard and protect your church and watch over the flock that has been entrusted to you.’ The priest responded, ‘I undertake to work faithfully in the care of this parish and all its people, and to promote the best interests of the parishioners.’
The elderly congregation had seen priests come and ago. Why should this one be any different?. They too had lived through the glory days when an All-Ireland football final at Croke Park was preceded by the singing of Faith of Our Fathers. They had doffed their hats to priests and kissed bishops’ rings and fasted from midnight to receive the Eucharist. Now they were rocked at the collapse of a world that had comforted them. As the priest rose, the words of the bishop were still fresh, ‘At all times let your life be an example of Christ’s compassion and care for his people. Seek to know and cherish these brothers and sisters of the Lord.’ There was pathos about a scene that formerly would have been the focus of gossip within the community. ‘What is the new Parish Priest like?’ would have engaged the conversation of most of the parishioners. Now only a very small percentage of the people cared. Worse was still to come. Little did either bishop or priest know that a crisis, this time of clerical sex abuse, was about to break over the Catholic Church in Ireland like an unrestrained tidal wave. Both had coped reasonably well with the loss of power and respect. Neither the priest, nor the bishop, knew their breaking point. This is a story, not about me, although I will use the experiences and events of my life as scaffolding from which to explore the events that shaped the New Ireland from a religious perspective.
We had a childhood game that involved being blindfolded by companions. The blindfold was securely tightened to exclude every trace of light or possibility of vision. After being twirled around several times to ensure disorientation, the blindfolded one was let loose to try and identify a person in the room by feel and touch only. Ears, noses, lips and mouths, were sensitively probed for glimmers of a clue. Wild guesses were shouted out to shrieks of laughter, especially when gender was mistaken. Height was one big give-away. It was a twilight world of fun. I still live in the word of blind-man’s buff. Nothing is certain. Living by feel and touch, and probing for the truth, has become a way of life. At that time, sixty long years ago, the world of the blindfold was paradoxically a world of clarity. Everything had its place. Values and beliefs were rarely questioned or tested. There was innocence; some would call it naïvetè, about our stance towards life. But that was it.
My world then, in a grim post-war Ireland, was a world of turf and cod liver oil. It was a world of rules. No dancing after midnight. No meat on Fridays. No work on Sundays. No food before the Eucharist. No answering back. Don’t go into Protestant churches. The scrutinising of the minutiae of every action with a view to determining where it stood on the Richter scale of sinfulness was common. Hell, with the smell of burning flesh, was never far away. Arriving there was a distinct possibility. This was not to say that there wasn’t gaiety and fun. Of course there was. There were summers when the sun always shone. Tadpoles were collected in jam jars, and rickety tree houses were built as secret hideouts.
Note 1 of the Introduction.
1. His priestly ministry had varied from early parochial appointments in Glasnevin, Walkinstown and Swords, to a period of nearly twenty-five years in non-parochial appointments with The Charismatic Renewal, The Catholic Communications Institute and a variety of other positions, before returning now to parochial life.
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
It was a world of obedience. Obey whatever the cost. Don’t argue. Father knows best. Do what you are told. Be seen but not heard. Believe without understanding. Elders are always right. They had the wisdom that would your ensure safety and security, or so we were told. Others did our thinking for us. Parents, church, teacher, were the arbiters of behaviour that brooked no opposition. The motto, like the Crimean volunteer, was, ‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’.
The fledgling state had contracted, as it were, a marriage de convenance, with the ‘bride of Christ’, the Roman Catholic Church. What seems strange to us now was then considered virtually of divine ordinance. A marriage made in heaven. It may even have been the church that wore the trousers! For the most part, for reasons of expediency, the arrangement worked to the advantage of both. The gombeen men of means also had a longterm flirtation with the church. They had the money, the church had the power, and they needed one another. Gerard O’Donovan brilliantly portrays this latter fact in the biographical novel, Father Ralph.
There were figures in my youth who didn’t obey. The Tailor and Ansty would never be etched in folklore had they not stepped out of line. Peadar O’Donnell, a fiery socialist, was always squaring up to the powerful pockets of vested interests. Dan Breen, the gnarled revolutionary gunman, stubbornly refused to be reconciled to the church. Noel Browne, a querulous dissident by nature, always made headlines. I even heard of a priest who had left the ministry, by the name of Boyd-Barrett. I also dimly remember the brouhaha over a play The Rose Tattoo and the arrest of its director Alan Simpson. These were exceptions. Arty people didn’t count as they had a licence to be different. Apart from these disturbing people, the Catholic Church reinforced the status quo in the national psyche. These people were heroes. Their rebellious or courageous streak placed them outside the pale of respectability. That’s the way they wanted it.
The church was a potent force in maintaining the status quo. At eighty years of age an old uncle of mine, born at the beginning of the twentieth century, recalled with sadness, hearing the name of a girl who was pregnant outside marriage, being read from the altar in the parish of Kilfenora. Such a pregnancy spelled banishment. The church had at its disposal a trained cadre of clerics who would maintain discipline and rigid orthodoxy. I lived unquestioning in this world for over half a lifetime. It’s gone. Was it a mirage? A world of illusion? Or was it ‘the good old days’ that we need to return to?
Over the years, in the leap from the ‘Emergency,’ as the Second World War was called in Ireland, to digital TV, the family began to change. It loosened up and became less hierarchical. Young people were listened to more and more. They became part of the family decision-making process. The nuclear family based on marriage was no longer the only acceptable form of family structure. Most profoundly the church changed. Paradoxically, it changed utterly and it remained obstinately the same. Janus-like it is facing in two directions at the same time, forward and backwards. This, in a way, is why I am still in the world of blind man’s buff. Still trying to feel the shape of things and make sense of them. To my understanding, the truth is not exclusively to be found under the cupola of St Peter’s. It may be there, but it is also within oneself. It is also within and without the community of believers. Who can put boundaries on the truth or where it is to be found?
This book is an honest analysis of my experience of church over forty years of priesthood, but it is not an autobiography in the strict sense. Perish the thought! I suppose it is chic to denigrate the past. Human nature doesn’t change that much. We can learn from our past especially from our mistakes. There are deep chasms of difference in the Roman Catholic Church today. It is not unlike Irish republicans, who split and split again, each group maintaining itself to be the sole inheritors of the legacy of the Second Dáil of 1922, which all claimed had never been properly dissolved.
That is not the way it was when I was born on 28 December 1938. My father, Martin, came from Caheramore near Kilfenora, Co Clare. My grandmother, Ellen, was a widow for fifty years and raised a family of nine on a small holding of poor land. She was probably illiterate. This didn’t exclude her from a depth of wisdom, especially in the manner in which she guided her family towards successful lives. My mother Joan, née Russell, came from Rathgar and a family of thirteen. It was said that her father had been, for a short time, secretary to Charles Stuart Parnell. She had two brother priests. One, the Parish Priest of Totnes in Devon, grew very close to Sean O’Casey in later years. The other, a Redemptorist, was Director of the Arch-Confraternity in Limerick. Another brother, Charles, was one of those responsible for the establishment of the Irish Air Corps and was in London ready to fly Collins home if the Treaty negotiations broke down in December 1921. During the Civil War, with Major McSwiney, he flew many reconnaissance missions against the Irregulars. One uncle, also a member of the Irish Air Corps in its early years, crashed in his plane and died. In a poem written in his memory, Oliver St John Gogarty captured his dashing character. I have three sisters, Hilda, Mary and Clare (deceased) and one brother John.
In my early youth, truth was handed down. Today it is searched for. I am on a journey of discovery. My views, which many readers will disagree with, are naturally coloured by my present position on that journey. I do not intend to look back all the time but, like the church, to look back and forward. What does the future hold? What resources spiritual and personal do we have to effect change? I try to use the experiences of my life to tease out the lessons I have learned. I hope they may be provocative, irritating, truthful, honest and helpful.