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Clerics cultivating ecumenism

The Interview
Two of Westport’s religious leaders will soon be preaching in new pastures

Clerics cultivating ecumenism

Two of Westport’s religious leaders will soon be preaching in new pastures

Áine RyanÁine Ryan

YOU COULD say that Church of Ireland rector, Archdeacon Gary Hastings and Catholic priest, Father Denis Carney both sing from the same hymn sheet. Certainly, in the practical world of daily ministry to their various parishioners they have a lot in common. In that spiritual world of services and blessings, rituals and rites they often stand side by side on the altar of ecumenical progress.
After all, they both worship the same God, albeit in separate churches. And, let’s be frank, in the busy mill of daily administration there is no time for navel-gazing about the figaries of Henry VIII or the minutiae of Canon Law.
Now, as summer approaches, they are both set to move from Westport on to new pastures – Gary to St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church in Galway city and Denis as Parish Priest of Balla.     
Belfast native, Gary Hastings was a late vocation. Already married to Caitríona and with two small children, that call, ‘that niggling feeling’, just wouldn’t go away
“I was ordained in Galway in 1993 and came here [to Westport] as a curate two years later in 1995. Most priests and clergy say that the call to ordination is like a niggling thing there in the pit of your stomach, at the back of your mind.
“I suppose I had that vaguely for a long time. My kids were aged about two and four when I went away to study. We have a Theology College at Trinity. A late vocation is still not easy. Or the fact that we can marry doesn’t really make it easier. When you come to a community, you are still never an ordinary Joe Soap. Married or celibate, rector or priest, you are still apart from the community on a certain level.”
Gary Hastings adds: “Celibacy or marriage has less to do with it than you might think.”
We are sitting in the living room of his home – The Rectory, on the Newport Road – for the last 14 years. It exudes an air of informality, of laid-back family life. We continue to chat for a while before walking across the Mall to meet Denis Carney in the more formal surroundings of the Catholic presbytery.
Gary compares the sprawling size of his vast parish to a Texan ranch. It is over 1,000 square miles and encompasses four churches in Turlough, Castlebar, Dugort and Westport.
“My patch covers Ballycroy, Achill, around Clew Bay to Leenane and then on to Ashleigh Falls and back the far side of Castlebar to Ballyvary. There are under 200 families, with the numbers having gone up slightly since my arrival. Because we are a minority church, the loyalty level is very high,” he muses.
Tiny inshore island, Inishbiggle, is a feature on this undulating, boggy map. In a poignant ceremony in 2003, Gary made history by permanently dedicating its Protestant church to the majority Catholic community. Once part of the 19th century evangelical Edward Nangle colony, Inishbiggle islanders led a long campaign, in recent times, for a cable-car service to Achill. However, due to a number of factors, monies ring-fenced by Minister Éamon Ó Cuív were diverted elsewhere. 
“The community was hard done by. If you look at the likes of Clare Island and Inishturk, they are thriving in comparison. Look at Turk, it’s way out in the ocean and there they were on a television documentary the other night [winning the inter islands football competition]. And Inishbiggle is just a spit from the mainland,” Gary observes.
He is almost blasé when this interviewer asks him to elaborate on the development of an ecumenical approach in Westport.
“Ecumenical goings-on happen because of the people on the ground. [Fathers] Tony King and Pádraig O’Connor, with my predecessors, had done a lot of the ground work. Then there was Michael Molloy and, of course Denis afterwards. When I came here first, Fr O’Connor minded me and marked my card as if I was one of their own.
“Ecumenism is about personalities – the right fellow in this church and the other one – more than about theological teaching. The fact that this town is very welcoming really helps. I’ve been in other towns – resort towns – where the locals view visitors as passers-by. Here in Westport, there is a lot of good nature.”
IT’S time to walk across the Carrowbeg River and catch-up with Denis Carney, who by now has had a chance for a bite of breakfast after 10am Mass. The sun is splintering through a candy-flossed sky, as Gary turns back to close the garage door. His wife, Caitríona – who recently published a book on the folklore from around Croagh Patrick – Ag Bun Na Cruaiche – is over at GMIT at her lecturing job, while ‘the kids’, Conn (23) and Caitlín (21) are away studying in Galway and Maynooth. 
Meanwhile, Denis Carney is nowhere to be found, according to a busy presbytery secretary. Minutes later though he appears, with a broad grin on his face. Armed with coffee and chocolate biscuits we retire to the crisp formality of a large reception room.
But before getting down to business, Denis and I regale Gary with a few (off the record) yarns about his first ceremony in his very first parish of Clare Island. He was officiating at the christening of my daughter Bébhinn in the Summer of 1983 with Father Pat O’Brien. Put it like this, it was the festivities afterwards that caused the culture shock for the newly-ordained, teetotaler priest!     
Islandeady native, Denis Carney came to Westport as a curate in 1997, after spending four years on Clare Island and a decade in Claremorris  and Taugheen.
“I spent five years as a curate in Westport and then was appointed Administrator in 2002. My whole time in Westport has been very positive and I don’t say that glibly. A lot of things have changed. When I came here there were four priests in Westport, one in Lecanvey and one on Clare Island. Now it has been reduced to two here.
“In 2002, when Clare Island and Westport lost a priest, people thought it was a big change. Now, it seems not so significant as further big changes are happening. There is a whole new church being energised where the role of parish councils and the community is central,” observes Denis.
He cites as an example the fact that on Thursday next, May 7, Westport and Drummin will hold a celebration night for all involved in the ministry.
“We’ve sent out 370 invitations between Westport and Drummin. That’s about one-tenth of our regular mass-goers. People are becoming more aware of their rightful role in ministry, the parish and the church. A sizable number of parents are involved in the children’s Good News Club, which meets every Sunday after 12 o’clock Mass. It’s like Sunday school.”
Denis adds that while ‘it’s certainly a time of great challenge, it is also a time of great opportunity’.
Questioned about past exclusion of the laity, he concedes: “To a certain extent, it is our own fault. We did the work ourselves and we didn’t welcome participation, partly because we did it more quickly ourselves. Interestingly, the eucharistic ministers this year all came forward themselves, we didn’t have to pursue them.”
Reflecting on the 12 years spent in the parish, there are two things that stand out
“I suppose our biggest challenge was the refurbishment of the church. It cost €1.9 million and was cleared within a year, which was a tremendous achievement. The refurbishment certainly did a lot for the parish spirit. Visitors are amazed by the church and always very impressed.
“Thanks to Gary, ecumenism also found a very practical expression with the interim use of the Church of the Holy Trinity. After all, there is an awful lot that unites our community – we have one God and one gospel. It would have been very difficult for us if the church wasn’t made available. We would have had to hold masses in a hall.”
Smirking, Gary interjects: “Your crowd liked our church more, they didn’t want to leave.”
I then ask Denis about leaving, about uprooting and starting a new life.
“The roots you put down over a 12-year period – the friendships – you don’t lose them automatically, but you do move on. You move into a new area – I’ve been appointed parish priest of Balla and Belcarra – and I’m going to replace two men, Francis McMyler in Balla and Michael Murphy in Belcarra. It’s a big challenge.
“I’m moving into a new house, into a new church, there will be different structure and you need time to become accustomed to all this. There are four primary schools, one post-primary school and a thousand families in the new parish.”
 He also reveals that there is always ‘a moment of fear’ when you learn that you are being moved.
“Obviously, when you move you are always anxious. You are conscious that the people you are replacing had their own gifts and talents. But then you hope you bring your own experience.”
One thing the two  friends have had a lot of experience at is officiating at blessings together.
“We’ve done a lot of blessings together and – okay – we did have a good laugh when we blessed the sewerage works.”
They are both smirking. Not quite devilishly.

The CVs
Gary Hastings
Born Belfast
Reads Books on Buddhism
Happiest when Playing flute at a session in Matt Molloy’s pub

Denis Carney
Born Islandeady
Don’t mention The bad back
Pastime Walking because of the bad back