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Man on a mission

The Interview
Typography
Fr Tom Murphy

Man on a mission

The Interview
Sean Rice


NO fanfare heralded the appointment of Fr Tommy Murphy as Superior General of the Columban Order whose 530-strong membership works the mission fields of the world. A quiet, simple celebration with his family and friends in Castlebar marked his appointment as leader of an order co-founded by another Mayoman, Fr John Blowick, 90 years ago.
Fr Blowick, of Belcarra, one of three brothers to join the priesthood - and whose other brother, Joe, founded the Clann na Talmhan political party - was then a professor in Maynooth. Appointed at 26, he was one of the youngest in the country. Together with Edward Galvin of Cork, John established the Columbans in 1916, known then as the Maynooth Mission to China.
They set up their first mission in China in 1920, and similar missions followed in the Philippines in 1929 and Korea in 1933. By the time Tommy Murphy joined, in 1967, the order had spread to many other countries across the world.
At St Gerald’s College in Castlebar, the seeds of Tommy’s vocation were sown. Son of the late Patrick and Kitty (Kitty Quinn from Drunach in Kilmeena) Murphy of Turlough Road, Tommy was influenced and encouraged by two local curates, Fr Tommy Shannon (now Monsignor and parish priest in Ballinrobe) and the late Fr Charles O’Malley. He had given thought to becoming a priest of the diocese, but his fascination for the Orient grew, and his preference changed, after a number of missionaries from around the area gave talks to the students about China.
Following studies at Dalgan Park, Fr Tommy set out for Korea, and his college mate Fr Willie Spicer of Westport – who is now on promotion work in Ireland - left for Japan at the same time.
It was a massive change, he said, but it was a real privilege to get to know people in a culture that was totally different to the west of Ireland. The language, and that of Taiwan, has “a lot of richness, a lot of insights and religious sensitivities different from our own, but which complements ours. We have learned not to be afraid of differences and that difference can actually contribute to a better world.”
Other cultures, he said, were nowadays flowing into Ireland. In Castlebar and around the west people had come from other countries to work and live, and it seemed to him that modern Ireland was having difficulty in accepting and seeing those people as equals. “There are questions about the quality of the welcome we are giving them. So to me the message of missionary coming back home is a relevant one for the situation here in Ireland.”
When he first arrived in Korea, a bishop had been jailed because he stood up to the government on behalf of oppressed people. The Church had become widely known for its defence of people’s rights, for being one of the few places that was safe to come to and speak about what sort of a country they did want. He did involve himself in demonstrations, but unlike some of his colleagues, particularly Koreans, he escaped prison.
He spent the first four of his 20 years on the missions in that country. The rest were in Taiwan, where the Columbans established a mission in the late seventies. They had been expelled from China when Mao Tse-tung came to power in the early fifties. In Taiwan, under a nationalist government, they found a new foothold in China.
The order is still banned there. Yet, paradoxically, the Catholic and Protestant churches are booming. Thousands of churches have opened in the last few years, and the Columbans have 16 priests and eight sisters back working in the country. Certain precedents have to be observed to remain there: you do not dress as a priest, nor lead a public service.
“They are scared of the Churches because there is a history in China of religious movements toppling governments. A couple of years ago our president, Mary McAleese, went to China and she asked us to help make arrangements for her to attend a public Mass, but she was not allowed to attend Mass … for ‘security reasons’ she was told. One of our priests said the Mass in the hotel for her in Shanghai.”
Fr Tommy tells of a popular Columban who died last year in Central China. Officials of the government had warned followers in local parishes not to attend his funeral. But 7,000 people did … at 8 o’clock in the morning. “That is the strength of loyalty and faith there. There are about 13 or 14 major seminaries in China now and all are pretty full of Chinese people being taught by Chinese.
“Seemingly, during the Cultural Revolution when the priests were put in jail and leading Catholics killed, they kept the faith alive in the houses. Whole villages remained Catholic, but had to be very careful because the children going to school were asked to report on any of their parents who held religious activities. So it was a very delicate line. They kept the faith underground, a bit like our own experience in the Penal times.”
For the past five years Tommy Murphy has been the leader of the Columbans in Ireland and before that was engaged in promotion work throughout the country. His new appointment as Superior General is for a six-year term. In that capacity he will work with three other men elected to the General Council. The Columbans are based in 13 countries, and Tommy and his team will be working with the leaders of each of those missions.
The striking development in Ireland just now, Fr Tommy believes, is the arrival of so many other cultures. And for a whole lot off reasons quite a lot of people were not as committed to the faith in the way people were 20 or 30 years ago.
There is a challenge there to engage with that reality as well. He finds some of those not going to church in Ireland expressing surprise that he is still a priest, as if asking ‘what are you hanging in there for with that crowd; aren’t they all gone’. But, he says, some of them ask very good questions and that is the challenge for the Church.
Growing up in Castlebar there were few not going to Mass. So they did not have to explain the faith, to explain why they were going to Mass. They all went together and talked about football or whatever. They never had to articulate the faith.
“In modern Ireland you have to be able to articulate your faith and I think the only way forward for the Church is that we get into the tradition as adults of being more articulate, learning, studying it more … almost like the Catechumenate.”
The disappointment about the Church scandals was huge among his colleagues. Some of the older men took it particularly hard. On the other hand there was now a whole purging and pruning. “Maybe we in the Church did become complacent. Certainly that’s gone now. No matter what institution there is now, the whole question of transparency is coming into it.”
Not all of the changes in the practice of the faith can be attributed to the scandals, he said. The change was evident long before the recent scandals came to light. In his first year in the seminary there were 33 in his class. The following year there were 18, and it has never gone above that figure since. This situation is replicated in all of the seminaries in Ireland.
When once asked about his mother tongue, Tommy replied that he was Irish but spoke English. “If that was your mother tongue then you are English,” he was told. The shock of that inference prompted him to take Irish lessons, and he now says Mass in Irish. “Not very good, but enough to enjoy and read some basic stuff.”
In his travels as head of the order, Tommy will renew acquaintances with many of his colleagues from his native county still working on the mission fields: Brendan Hoban of Castlebar in Korea; the Smith brothers, Paddy, Malachy and John from Straide; Martin Bourke in Seattle; Frank Nally of Belcarra, who is in charge of their house in London, and Padraic O’Loughlin from Castlebar, the procurator general of the society, who is in charge of their house in Rome.
His work over the next six years will take Tommy Murphy all over the world. But nowhere offers him the opportunity to relax like his native Castlebar. When the occasion arises he’ll be back … back to unwind, to climb Croagh Patrick and join in long walks with his friends and many of his old school pals. Back to where there is still a sense of belonging.