Fr Kevin Hegarty
I like the RTÉ series ‘Reeling Back the Years’. I don’t recall a programme on 1981. I have, however, a clear memory of that year.
There were notable happenings on the Irish and world calendar - the Stardust disaster, Charles Haughey’s first general election as leader of Fianna Fáil, the Long Kesh hunger strike and the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. It was also the year of that memorable Harp advertisement of the lonely Irish engineer in the Middle East recalling how Sally O’Brien might look at him in the local pub.
In the summer, I and my classmates in the Diocese of Killala were ordained. The event merited no national headlines, only a few paragraphs of purple prose and a photograph in ‘The Western People’! It is only now when ordinations to the Catholic priesthood in Ireland are as rare as calling corncrakes in an Irish meadow field that they generate any national media interest.
A report in a recent Irish Times on the profession of Sr Karen Kent, the first woman to enter the Ursuline Order in Ireland in 14 years, had the awed tone one might expect in the recording of a rare sighting of an almost extinct creature.
I was asked to speak in Maynooth in June, at the Eucharist to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of our ordinations. It seemed to me that it was an opportunity to reflect on, give thanks for, and celebrate the ministry of the ordinary priest.
We are painfully aware of our fragilities and failures but, mostly, we try to do our best. Some years ago I read a book on leadership from which I remember just one thing. The author wrote of the need to catch people doing things right - an interesting inversion of the usual phrase. In my talk in Maynooth I applied it to the lives of ordinary priests.
We are the ones who, Sunday after Sunday, celebrate the Eucharist with our communities. We speak to them and try valiantly to make faith connections with their lives. We are the ones for whom the celebration of the sacraments is at the core of our ministry. We stand at baptismal fonts and share in the joy of new life. We participate in the exuberant happiness of weddings, communions and confirmations.
We are there for the funerals, and in the words of the poet Thomas Kinsella, try to give “discipline to shapeless sorrow”. We encounter regularly stories of human misery that match Job’s travails in the Old Testament and we try to respond.
We are the ones who, because of our inadequacies, wonder about the value of our presence, but we always turn up. At a time when the institutional Church in Ireland is in crisis we manage to rescue for it some shards of credibility.
It has not been easy. We have lived through trying times. We were ordained less than two years after the papal visit to Ireland. Some saw that occasion as a new dawn for Irish Catholicism. Now we know it was a golden twilight. There is a line in a John Lennon song that life is what happens when you are making other plans.
Since 1981 we have met with realities that were never predicted. We are witnessing the final decay of the old model of Catholicism in Ireland. We have failed, so far, to create a new model that resonates with the needs of our society in the 21st Century, and also challenges its consumerist mores. Since the 1990’s the dark litany of clerical sexual abuse cases has seriously undermined the image of the Catholic priesthood in Ireland.
In the circumstances all we could do is keep going. We remain committed to the vision that the Christian ideals of love, justice and peace are relevant to the communities we serve. The phrase ‘keeping going’ calls to mind a poem of that title that Seamus Heaney wrote to honour his brother. Some of his words we can make our own. We have often been at the end of our tether. We have wondered, “is this all?” Yet we have “good stamina”. We have stayed on “where it happens”.
We left Maynooth after our jubilee celebrations with some words of another Irish writer fermenting in our minds. Samuel Beckett once said, “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better”. We heard more idealistic things as we left Maynooth 25 years ago, but now it is a time for realism.