A priest has published a memoir as a way of raising urgent truths about the Church he has served for 60 years, writes Helen O’Callaghan
HE can’t prove it, but Fr Jerry Daly thinks he was one of the first priests in the world to turn his altar around when word emerged from Vatican II that priests could now face the congregation. It was the 1960s and Fr Jerry was a missionary in Indonesia, catering to several villages in the Kai Islands.
“I never liked having my back to the people. It was bonkers. You can’t communicate with people when you’ve got your back to them.”
Back then, Fr Jerry — a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart — was at the cutting edge of change. Now 84 and living in the MSC retirement community in Cork, he’s still pushing for change. Only radical solutions will work, he believes, for a Church that’s “sleepwalking into the future”.
It’s why he has published his memoir, An Endangered Species, as a way of raising some urgent truths about the Church he has served for 60 years — a service that included ministering in “a very English parish” during and after Bloody Sunday, as well as witnessing the atrocities of apartheid while a missionary in South Africa.
Born on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, West Cork, Fr Jerry is unflinching about the Catholic Church’s decline in Ireland: Only 4,000 priests active, the vast majority aged over 50, many over 70.
“In 25 years, there will be fewer than 200 active priests for the whole country. Mass attendance is down to 40% nationally, to 2% in some Dublin parishes. A small older population is supporting the Church.”
On a recent Saturday, in a Cork parish where he says weekly Mass, there were 50 girls for First Communion.
“They were asked to come back for Sunday Mass. Only five or six came. That’s par for the course. First Communion has become a rite of passage.”
He lays much blame at the door of intransigent Church leaders, believing they’ve still got their backs to the people. He contrasts Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary’s honest appraisal of the crisis facing the Church (“on the very edge of Europe, we are hearing the last vestiges of Christendom in their death rattle”) with Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s assertion that “what we have to do is find worthy candidates who are able to live as celibate priests in the tradition [of] the Latin rite”.
For Fr Jerry, saying and doing nothing is no longer an option.
“We have to read the signs of the times, become realists and adjust the sails.”
This, he says, means listening to the most up-to-date human, scientific and technological developments and to the “instincts of the Church’s own members, to all people of good will”.
Clerical child sex abuse, he calls “the greatest scandal ever to happen in the Catholic Church”.
He cites both ignorance and cover up by the Church as huge contributing factors.
“[Church leaders] had no idea as to the nature of this perversity. Unfortunately, their first impulse was to save the good name of the institution.
”The Church, he believes, has done everything possible to ensure children are protected, but “we can never undo the past”.
He is scathing about the Church’s top-down authority structure, citing philosopher Bertrand Russell’s words about the failure of religion: “Any average selection of mankind, set apart and told that it excels the rest in virtue, must tend to sink below the average.”
In Confession — about matters like birth control — he says: “Conscience is personal and sacred. We talk about conscience being informed. Life itself informs conscience.”
He believes general absolution is “a practical solution for people who find going into a confessional box difficult”.
He sees “no scriptural or theological reason” why women can’t be priests and believes celibacy should be optional; in England, he worked with Anglican priests who defected to the Catholic Church and stayed married.
He thinks Pope Benedict’s translation of the Roman Missal is “gibberish and garbage”, citing, for example, the word “passion” that once meant “suffering”, but now means something completely different.
He believes the way forward for the Church is to ordain community elders, working alongside fulltime priests, not acting like clergy and not called clergy. These would have a leadership role – “people would look up to them as living the Christian life” – and they would gather the kind of small Christian communities so popular in Africa: “Ten or 20 people, living near each other, meeting weekly in one of their homes, reading scripture, singing hymns, praying for those needing prayers and helping neighbours in need of help. All these small communities would meet together on a Sunday whenever a priest was available for Eucharist.” He’s unsure though how to adapt it to our urban society.
Fr Jerry’s memoir — of an eventful life — is full of humanity. He recounts the pain of leaving for the missions in 1961, wondering would he ever see his mother again and how it “cut me to the heart” to see a small nephew’s tears.
There’s humour too. Singing isn’t his strong suit and he recalls his efforts met with stifled laughter by his music-loving Indonesian congregation. “One Sunday, when I turned to sing Dominus Vobiscum, there was an immediate response from a nearby cockerel: Cock-a-doodle-doo! There was pandemonium among the congregation.”
Fr Jerry is upbeat in his suggestions for Church renewal. At 80 plus, his belief in a God who loves him is stronger than ever.
“I see Him in the bits and pieces of life.”
An Endangered Species, Columba Press, €14.99.
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