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Provocative, engaging and generous

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

I am sure that his many friends in Mayo will join with me in sending best wishes to Fr Enda McDonagh on his 90th birthday. Enda is a proud Mayo man who for over 30 years was Professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth. Some years ago, in a contribution to a book ‘Bekan: Portrait of an East Mayo Parish’, he wrote lovingly of his native place.
The passion for social justice that animates his theology has its roots in his childhood experience. In the article, he evoked how the trauma of emigration had affected Bekan. Of the 20 who were in his sixth class in 1943 only one remained in the parish.
As a moral theologian Enda has an international reputation. Up to the 1960s, Catholic moral theology was dominated by an oppressive legalism. Enda was among those who helped create a theology enriched by human experience, infused by compassion and based on the words and example of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.
His major concerns include the promotion of ecumenical dialogue between the different religious and political traditions in Ireland, the horror of modern warfare, the poverty of the Third World, Aids victims in Africa, climate change and the pastoral care of gay Christians.
A particular interest in recent years has been his exploration of the fruitful connections between art, literature and theology, while respecting the independence of each of the disciplines. He has written that contemplating the creative work of the artist may open one to the wonder of divine creation.
Literary critic Dorothy Van Ghent judged the authenticity of a novel on its depth of ‘felt reality’. There is a ‘felt reality’ about Enda’s theology that is both inspiring and challenging.
He has played a significant role in Irish public life. A close friend of former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, he advised him on church-state relations. It is a subject on which he is well informed, as he wrote a doctoral dissertation on it.
When Mary Robinson, another close friend, was President of Ireland, he was her official chaplain. In 2007, he was chosen as a canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the first Roman Catholic priest to take such a position since the Reformation. His appointment was an index of his commitment to ecumenical reconciliation in Ireland.
Enda is a provocative thinker, an engaging conversationalist and a generous host. He has a delightful sense of humour, tinged with self-deprecating irony. He is the soul of courtesy. One of his friends, sculptor Imogen Stuart, sums him up well:
“When I think of Enda McDonagh my inner eye sees somebody who radiates a deep joyfulness. This joy I imagine was a quality the early Irish monks had and kept through all their harsh and ascetic lives, and in their tumultuous years of raids and other disasters and which they retained. It shows a kind of spirituality you acquire through loving nature – seeing God all around you – seeing God in all living creatures and having an understanding of human frailty. All this is enveloped by Enda’s intelligence, or better said, wisdom.”
His radical thinking on moral issues has often disturbed Catholic church leaders. For a theologian of his perception and intellectual honesty, the institutional church during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was a bleak house. His co-diocesans honoured his stature by twice choosing him as their candidate for Archbishop of Tuam. Unfortunately, the Vatican failed to recognise the stirrings of the Holy Spirit among the clergy of Tuam.
Institutional suspicion of his ministry has not embittered him. He has written that ‘harbouring grudges is a human weakness which may become a destructive obsession’.
He once told me that if God granted him three wishes they would be, world peace and justice, full reconciliation between the Christian churches, and Mayo to win the Sam Maguire. The last may yet prove the most difficult to achieve!
Enda – ad multos annos.