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Remembering Enda

Second Reading

BRILLIANT INTELLECT Fr Enda McDonagh, RIP.


Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

I first talked to Fr Enda McDonagh in January 1995. I had been removed from the editorship of ‘Intercom’ by the Irish Catholic hierarchy because I promoted, in its pages, discussion on women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood and the need to renew and reform the theology of sexuality.
Enda rang to offer support and encouragement. I deeply appreciated his call, as he also had been through the mill of episcopal disapproval. So began a friendship that lasted until his death on February 24 and will continue for me in rich memory of time spent together.
Enda was a proud Mayo man who for well over 30 years was Professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth. Some years ago in a contribution to ‘Bekan: Portrait of an East Mayo Parish’ he wrote lovingly of his native place where he was born in 1930.
The passion for social justice that animated his theology had its roots in his childhood experience in the article he noted 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 into adulthood.
Enda was ordained a priest in 1955. Blessed with a brilliant intellect, after studies in Maynooth, Rome and Munich, he was appointed to the Maynooth staff in 1958 at the young age of 28.
His early years in the academic profession coincided with the Second Vatican Council. Enda embraced its reforms enthusiastically. Up to then, 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.
He is the author of several books and articles. His major concerns included the promotion of ecumenical dialogue between the different religious and political traditions in Ireland, the poverty of the ‘Third World’, the horror of modern warfare Aids victims in Africa, climate change and the pastoral care of gay Christians.
A particular interest in recent years was the 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 the divine.
The literary critic Dorothy Van Ghent judged the authenticity of a ‘felt reality’. There is a ‘felt reality’ about the best of Enda’s theology that is inspiring and challenging. The distinguished American theologian, Charles E Curran has offered the following positive assessment of Enda’s contribution:
“Enda McDonagh has provided the pilgrim community of the disciples of Jesus with an all-inclusive Catholic understanding, a resolutely theological approach to life and society, a corrective Christian vision and praxis from the margins, and perceptive insights of what Church and society need in our times.”
Enda played a significant role in Irish public life. A close friend of former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald he advised him on Church-State relations, a subject on which he had written a doctoral dissertation. When Mary Robinson, another close friend, was President of Ireland, he was her official chaplain. He served as chairperson of the Governing Body of UCC. In 2007 he was appointed a Canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the first Roman Catholic priest to hold such a position since the Reformation. The appointment was an index of his commitment to ecumenical reconciliations in Ireland.
Enda was a proactive thinker, an engaging conversationalist and a generous host. He had a delightful sense of humour, tinged with self-deprecating irony. He exemplified the truth of Hilaire Belloc’s words that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.
There was about Enda a breadth of vision, a spaciousness of mind, a warmth of genius. His friend, the sculptor, Imogen Stuart, summed him up well:
“When I think of Enda McDonagh my inner eye sees somebody who radiates a deep joyfulness. 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.”
His radical thinking, especially in the sphere of sexual morality disturbed Catholic leaders and denied him promotion to the presidency of Maynooth University – a position for which he was eminently suited. 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. Institutional suspicion of his ministry did not embitter him. He wrote 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 Christians Churches; and Mayo to win the Sam Maguire. I joked him that the last might be the most difficult to achieve. Now that he has entered into eternal life I like to think that he has a definitive timetable for the fulfilment of his wishes.