(What follows might seem a bit heavy – I might even delete it – it’s late on Sunday night – June 14th – and I’ve been doing a bit of thinking ….. Friday next sees the beginning of the “Year of The Priest” – requested by Pope Benedict XVI – maybe that’s what got me going)
Twenty-two years ago, June 14th 1987, I was ordained in St. Patrick’s Church, Gurteen. I have just looked at a video taken that day. Such changes have taken place. Many of them irreversible. People close to me who attended that day have died. Others for one reason or another weren’t there and it can never happen again. Certainly there are people I wish were there. My parents, thankfully still with me, have aged in those twenty-two years. My mother now has Alzheimers and I visited her last night and twice today. I never mentioned the day it was since days are just days to her now. It’s sad to see. The video reminds me of how happy she was that day. Like me, with me and for me, she looked forward to it. My father said, with deep emotion welled in his throat “this is my happiest day ever”. I’m glad I gave him that. Certainly he always did and still does his best for me. My brothers too, and family were with me and still are. Don’t always have the contact I’d like with all my nephews and nieces who were just babes in arms that day. Some of them weren’t born the day I was ordained but are a very central part of my life.
The video brought back faces of priests in our parish at the time – all dead now – Canon Paddy Towey, Fr James Flannery, Fr Charlie Doherty. Other men who were part of my life and regular visitors to the garage and kitchen at home, where coming to get the car serviced was often more social than mechanical! Dudley Filan, Martin McManus, Bishop Fergus, Canon Wims, Michael Giblin, Gerry Horan (knew him first as a solicitor and then as a classmate in Maynooth – ordained Easter Sunday 2007), Francy Cawley, Dermot Nash – they, and so many more, gone to their Eternal Reward.
Gone too my Godfather and uncle John who said he was there for my baptism, Communion and Confirmation – seeing to it they were all properly done “You’ll agree”, he said “he’s now properly ordained too”. Mai Callaghan – my Godmother. Alfie and Mel Gallagher. My cousin Kathleen “Feather” Gallagher, Gerry Dwyer and so many others. May they rest in peace.
Gone too, my hair! Added weight and years make me wonder who’s the man in the video?? Gone too, perhaps saddest of all – some of the joy that was around priesthood. It’s not that I’m not joyful but things have changed so much. Paddy Towey spoke of there being more rejoicing in Heaven over ninety-nine ordinations than one and hoped there would be others. John Geelan was ordained a year later – my Cloonloo neighbour – Oliver McDonagh, another Cloonloo man was ordained the week before me. Gerry Horan – the retired solicitor and widower from Mullaghroe was ordained a few months before us both. Four men from within a stone’s throw of each other ordained within months and none since. There was rejoicing in Gurteen, Cloonloo, Mullaghroe and Moygara – not ninety-nine admittedly but four. Why did the rejoicing stop? Paddy Towey’s prayer – what happened it?
I became a priest because I thought it was the best I could do with my life and somewhere, though there was never a dazzling light or booming voice, I felt God wanted me to do this. There were priests I admired who seemed to be good and decent people, well rounded, balanced, focused and at ease. To be like them seemed a not unattractive life choice. People like Charlie Doherty in Cloonloo, Tommy Johnston, Greg Hannan, Pat Lynch, Martin Jennings, Jimmy Colleran, Jim Finan – all in St. Nathy’s – Michael Giblin, Dudley Filan, John Walsh, John Doherty, Frank Gallagher (celebrated 70 years of priesthood this year) and many more spoke to me of priesthood without ever saying a word. There was much to look up to and much to imitate. Didn’t Jesus say “do this in memory of me”?
Have I encouraged anyone to become a priest? Seemingly not. What am I missing? I really don’t know. Priesthood isn’t that attractive to most people now. Is it do with celibacy? Is it the result of endlessly painful and horrific scandals? Is it because people have felt betrayed? There are as many answers as there are questions. Of course priesthood has been damaged by horrific revelations – no “revelations” is the wrong word, since it might suggest things would be okay if people didn’t know. It was wrong that wrong was done. Shamefully wrong. Morally wrong. Legally wrong. Wrong! Wrong and shameful. Yet there were all the while, mighty priests – good men, decent men, rounded men. Good priests.
Have I been a good priest? I’ve tried. Not without failure. Not without uncertainty and I know I’ve hurt people along the way. Never intentionally. I can honestly say that. I remember once visiting a dying priest who asked me for my blessing and I felt so guilty blessing him since, even in illness, he was a stronger and better priest than I and yet I blessed him. I hope he didn’t notice the quiver in the voice or slight tremble in the hand – no, maybe I don’t hope that since that was the honesty of the moment. It was my calling to offer a blessing to a dying man. Even if worthiness wasn’t uppermost in my mind. God, I believe, would have wanted me to make the Sign of Calvary and offer the fullness of Paradise to one nearing his end. I’ve tried to be a good priest – tried with varying degrees of success and failure but I’m glad to be a priest, even if I don’t always fully understand what it’s all about. Like I wish my mother and father hadn’t aged – like I wish I could have talked to her today about June 14th 1987, like I wish many of the absent friends weren’t absent with the passing of time, I wish I had done some things better, left others undone, prayed more, learned more, being more – but that’s all wishful thinking, reality is reality. There are many things in life – in priesthood – over which we are powerless. There are things we’d love to be different but their moment for being different may well have passed. Acceptance of reality, even flawed and frail reality may be as good as it can get.
I have met many people through priesthood and the vast majority of them enriched my life so much. Thanfully many of them became and remain my friends. I’ve had the chance to laugh with people and cry with people. The chance to celebrate and sympathise. The opportunity to teach and to learn. To heal and be healed. To forgive and be forgiven. To love and be loved. For now, twenty-two years on, I’m glad to be a priest. I’d love if my gladness were evident enough to encourage someone to make Paddy Towey’s prayer – his wish and the need of our time – come through!