A renewed Fr Brian D’Arcy speaks with Martin O’Brien
As Fr Brian D’Arcy CP prepared for the start this week-end of his 25th Fermanagh Novena of Hope, Ireland’s best known priest appeared to be in a markedly better place than he was not that long ago.
“I am full of hope and I am clearly not broken”, he assures me at St Gabriel’s Retreat, The Graan, near Enniskillen where he is completing his seventh and, he says, his final spell as rector.
It soon becomes obvious that Fr D’Arcy (68), pastor, broadcaster, author, and one of the most gifted Catholic communicators in the English speaking world is also “feeling safer” despite his continuing censure by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The inspirer of Dermot Morgan’s Father Brian Trendy, the precursor of Father Ted, attributes this to “the completely new atmosphere” created by Pope Francis.
However, “canonically not-hing has changed” in relation to the censure. Five other Irish priests are also under canonical sanction. “If they come after me they’ll have to come after the Pope as well because Francis has attacked the evils of clericalism even more strongly than I have.”
This writer recalls Fr D’Arcy in a pastoral setting perhaps 10 years ago contrasting the fullness of a grace-filled theology with one based on laws.
The now bestsellingEvangelii Gaudium warns about what happens “….when we speak more about law than about grace…”
The Novena of Hope which Fr Brian founded at Mount Argus in 1978 will attract more than 2,000 over two daily sessions until its closing services which will be addressed by Dr Brendan Comiskey SSCC on March 31.
Even larger crowds , some of whom travel from as far away as Cork – filling local B&Bs – will converge on the church on the two Sundays when there are four Masses.
Five of the nine preachers are lay persons including two women.
“Lay preachers including women were a very radical move back in 1978.”
In October 2012 Fr D’Arcy bared his soul in a penetrating BBC Northern Ireland TV documentary The Turbulent Priest: “I am pathetically sad at the moment.”
“I felt an outcast in the Church to which I have given my life to.”
The film recalled how he had been formally censured by the CDF after complaints about a small number of his weekly columns in Sunday World now in their 38th year.
Fr Brian described it in his latest book Food for the Soul as “the most devastating faith-crisis of my life”.
After a painful discernment he decided to remain a priest, the third time he has agonised over staying in the priesthood, “because the people I’m called to serve see me as an authentic voice of compassion and positive criticism”.
He had also been affirmed by a “healing” letter from Cardinal Brady pointing out the contribution the cardinal believed Fr Brian had still to make to the Church through his media work.
The CDF accused him of having been “a source of great scandal to the faithful” and issued “a formal canonical warning to cease being critical of the Vatican”.
Punishment for disobedience can range from losing the status of being “a priest in good standing” by being silenced and forbidden to publicly preach or celebrate the sacraments to the ultimate sanction of excommunication.
He insists he “has always been at pains not to contradict the formal teachings of the Catholic Church”.
The CDF went through his Superior General in Rome “as you become a non-person not worthy of being dealt with directly”.
He had been living with the ignominy of censure in secret for 14 months “doing my best to deal with it” before the story broke in April 2012.
Those who know the normally irrepressible Fr Brian were shocked by his tear-stained face, low spirits and by how generally terrible he looked in the film.
They included this reporter, fellow Fermanagh man and former fellow parishioner of Arney where both of us were brought up within a few miles of each other a decade apart and one who feels privileged to consider Brian a friend.
“I hardly recognised myself watching it on my own in the Graan for the first time. I see my spirit is broken, I am physically an old man crouched, humpy, limping and sick.”
The documentary was beautifully crafted by its maker, Natalie Maynes but its title The Turbulent Priest, however effective from a marketing point of view, did not ring true in the eyes of those who know him.
Brian D’Arcy, whose two heroes are Blessed John XXIII “the most spiritual Pope of all time” and the “so inspiring” Thomas Merton, does not ‘do’ turbulence.
His folksy down-to-earth informality can at first conceal deep theological insights and a profound faith rooted in his Passionist charism “to share the compassion of Jesus with those who are broken”.
It is difficult to convey the extent to which Fr Brian’s spirit was crushed by the censure though the pain was eased by 4,500 letters of support. In a sense it was his Passion.
“The breach of trust, that you cannot be trusted to tell the truth, the sense of rejection is just soul destroying.”
Having been sexually abused by a religious brother and a priest at the age of 10 and 18 Fr Brian felt that the CDF “without intending to do so” had “re-abused” him setting in train again the effects of the original sex abuse.
These included “freezing my emotional development until I un-freezed it again, shattering my confidence, blaming myself for everything, and [enduring] the inability to talk about it because of the secrecy”.
“Abuse of whatever kind is a misuse of power and it stirred up in me again all the distrust and insecurity of [the sexual] abuse.”
He is not sure the wounds will ever heal: “Healing can only take place in the context of a new mutual relationship based on trust.”
“The CDF should be concerned with real issues rather than a country priest on the periphery of Europe who is doing his best to hold people who because of the way the Church has been mismanaged don’t trust it anymore.”
“I am trying to paint a picture of Jesus for those people. He does not abandon people like them.”
Hope springs eternal, however. For Fr Brian it came with “the miracle of Pope Benedict’s resignation and then the election of Francis which was beyond everybody’s belief”.
“Francis has reinstated Vatican II as a valid plan for the future of the Church.”
He stresses he was not “anti-Benedict” but that Benedict’s “extraordinary decision” showed that “the Holy Spirit is in charge and that gave me new hope”.
It is not lost on him that the Vatican has never contested reported comments by Francis to Latin American and Caribbean religious that they should “not worry” too much about a letter from the CDF.
Many priests have never forgiven him for his famous exchange with Cardinal Cahal Daly onThe Late Late Show in 1995 but he had “no choice” but to intervene at Gay Byrne’s invitation in order to protect the cardinal from “booing and foot stamping”.
He says that he has never sought to appear on TV or radio programmes or in the papers himself and has only time to accept 20% of media requests.
“There are no TV cameras there when I visit the sick very late at night.”
An avid sports fan he uses football parlance to describe his current canonical situation in the light of his undertaking to “speak the truth in a more prudent way”.
“If I am on a yellow card I make sure to play as hard as I can but I don’t commit the same tackle that caused me to have the first yellow card.”
He confirms his health has suffered during the trials of recent years and says that his term as Rector is scheduled to end in 2016 when he would be 71 “if I live”.
Fr Brian repeats a line from the TV documentary that both his father and only brother died when they were 70 and says he’s “in the last phase of life”.
It is a life Fr Brian D’Arcy will continue to live to the full loved by his flock and as soon as this Novena of Hope is over he’ll shortly begin planning the next one.