Fr Des Wilson tells Martin O’Brien why he has great optimism for the future Church
Sixty five years ordained and in his 90th year West Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson, once struck off the register of diocesan priests and ostracised by his bishop, has no doubt about what is the most crucial challenge confronting the Catholic Church today.
“I believe the biggest task facing the Church today, without equivocation, is to discuss and demonstrate why we believe in the existence of God. Once we understand that everything becomes clear and if we don’t discuss and understand that nothing becomes clear.”
Whether it stems from the wisdom of age or the serenity emanating from the sense of a life lived to the full, anchored in a deep faith in a community where he is loved – or appreciation of the support of the current Bishop of Down & Connor – there is no mistaking Fr Des’ upbeat mood about the Church’s future.
Nor has he lost the penchant for plain speaking or the intellectual rigour that once attracted admirers and critics, most notably perhaps from senior priests who sided with Bishop William Philbin in his dispute with Fr Wilson in the Seventies.
“I think the Church has a better opportunity now than at any time in my life for good, to say something important to the world.”
And that is saying something – born in July 1925, he has already lived during eight papacies and six episcopacies in Down & Connor beginning with the future Cardinal MacRory.
He recalls serving on the committee that organised Rosary Priest, Fr Patrick Peyton’s mission to Down & Connor in June 1954.
He was brought up in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast, trained at Maynooth and ordained by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1949.
Fr Wilson cites two major reasons for his optimism.
“First, the world around us is quite horrific and I believe it has found nothing and that mirrors the situation in Our Lord’s time when people were desperately searching for a way of life.
“Second, I think there is a vast amount of intellectual vigour waiting to be stirred up, the potential is enormous.”
Fr Wilson feels strongly that “the intellectual life of the Church is not being catered for in the way it should be and we should take our rightful place as important intellectual leaders in Europe, the talent is there but the courage is not”.
“In the Fifties and Sixties some of us tried [without success] to re-establish the word ‘intellectual’ as a responsible term in the Church. We were bombarded by what people were saying in Holland, France and Germany.
“We in Ireland were not taking our place and that was why Vatican II meant so little to us.”
Fr Wilson laments the loss of “some of the most intellectually gifted of our priests” [in Down and Connor] in the Sixties over how the Church should deal with the “the suffering of the people and explaining the Faith to the coming generations in universities”.
He could name at “least half a dozen priests” who departed but will refrain from naming names to “avoid any embarrassing publicity”.
He stresses these priests merely wanted changes “within Church structures”.
He himself, he says, while a curate in St John’s Parish, Falls Road in 1975 asked Bishop William Philbin for “retired status” so that priests such as himself who disagreed with diocesan policies could remain “without ceasing to be priests”.
He was unhappy because “we were creating a materialistic regime” and practices such as the manipulation of school management committees.
Bishop Philbin, he says, accused him of “threatening to destroy the Church” and denied him sustenance, access to churches “and never spoke to me again”.
Along with the hunger strikes it was one of the most painful periods in his life.
Fr Wilson was not rehabilitated until Bishop Cahal Daly arrived in 1983 by such time he had long embarked on the Springhill independent adult education and training project which had Dr Daly’s full support.
He continues to co-direct it with a dynamic team and it has transformed life prospects for thousands of people in West Belfast over the years.
Speaking in its premises at Springhill Community House in Ballymurphy Fr Wilson pays tribute to Bishop Noel Treanor “a very kind and friendly person who has been a breath of fresh air”.
Parallel to this education work has been Fr Wilson’s ministry as a writer and broadcaster. He estimates he has written more than 3,000 articles in numerous publications down the decades.
His weekly column in the Andersonstown News has run continually since the paper was founded in 1972, making him one of the longest running newspaper columnists anywhere.
Publisher Máirtín Ó Muilleoir says the paper “is blessed with his weekly dispatches”.
He adds: “Fr Des is the conscience of Ireland, with his incisive and searing commentary leavened with uplifting humour and faith in the heavens and humanity.”
Fr Wilson says “people in West Belfast were held down and all the inventiveness and creativity and joy of life was strictly confined but now there is release to a great extent and that creativity and inventiveness and entrepreneurship is waiting to burst out.”
He adds, tellingly: “There is a parallel with the Church.”
To reinforce the point he recalls that Féile an Phobail, the widely acclaimed and highly successful West Belfast Festival, which starts today, was founded in 1988 as a healthy alternative to the unruly commemoration of internment.
“If people can do that with a political event what could we not do with the Church?”
As a pacifist he rejects the argument that he should have told the IRA they were doing wrong, putting him at odds with his friend, Cardinal Cahal Daly, while not wishing to discuss their differences.
“The whole town was telling them [the IRA] that and it got us nowhere. The business of a Christian is to say and to show that there is a better way. Condemnation, as far as I can see in my whole life, never did a halfpenny worth of good.”
He has always believed in dialogue and saw the Sixties as a decade of “great hope because so many people were talking to each other, you had even Unionists in the Felons Club” and praises Ulster Television for hosting constructive discussions to which he often contributed.
Recalling the Unionists flying the Union Flag at half-mast at Belfast City Hall after the death of Pope St John XXIII in 1963, he interpreted that probably more as “a gesture of friendship to their Catholic neighbours” than actually honouring the life of the Pope.
“It was part of the atmosphere of the times.”
Regarding the future of the Church, Fr Wilson insists that change can only come “from the bottom up and not from the top”.
While Pope Francis “is very encouraging” the structures of the Church mean he “could be replaced by a high conservative” and the only safeguard against that “down the line” is “public opinion”.
When a priest is silenced, he says, the “most useful thing people can do is not to hammer on doors in high places but to invite them to speak in their local community”. He is looking forward to welcoming Fr Tony Flannery CSsR to the West Belfast Festival.
Change does come in the Church but “very gradually”, but as evidence he notes that the new Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults “is simply saying that the word transubstantiation has been used since the Middle Ages but it does not say we are committed to it or not”.
Asked, he says he absolutely believes in the Real Presence.
He also finds it interesting that there was “no upheaval of wonderment” when Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said recently that Hell “could be possible”.
Why has he stayed in the Church through thick and thin?
Fr Des says: “It’s because I believe in it [the Church]. I believe the Church has tremendous possibility for good.”
One senses he would have been like a fish out of water had he not “retired” and remained where he was in a conventional parish ministry nearly 40 years ago in 1975.
“I am very happy. The amount of conforming to practices that you believe are against the spirit of what you are doing, would have been very, very difficult.”