‘Read, read and listen’

Catholics need to rediscover the treasure of the Bible, Fr Albert McNally tells Martin O’Brien

Distinguished biblical scholar Fr Albert McNally is one of those people you could spend hours on end with and be sorry when it is time to go home.

Visiting him in his home in Dunloy, Co. Antrim just days after the publication of his latest book Gathered in my Name: Praying With Saint Matthew (Shanway Press) one is struck by many things. Just how learned he is. His deep encyclopaedic knowledge of Scripture, the passion he brings to the Gospel, his forthright views on aspects of the Church today and not least his gentle humour. 

The Queen’s University-  and Maynooth-educated  78-year-old, who was ordained by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid before Vatican II in 1960,  says he was “given a great lift” by the election of Pope Francis when he was completing the Matthew book earlier this year. 

“Francis immediately began as a student of Matthew would want to be. He wants a simple Church of the poor cutting out the finery, the fur capes and stuff and the limousines.”

Humble people

“Matthew says don’t give yourselves airs and graces. Don’t be puffing yourself up. The leaders of the Church should be the servants of the Church, humble people.

“And don’t be giving yourselves titles. One of the scandals of the Church has been how we have all given ourselves titles all down those years.”

He points out that with Paul VI dispensing with the triple tiara and now with Francis’ changes the Popes have simplified their dress. (He clearly doesn’t expect a future Pope to undo this).

But the cardinals and the bishops “have not dressed down and they’ll only change when they are dragged kicking and screaming”.

When bishops are appointed “they go to Rome to get their expensive clobber and it will take a very strong man to say I am not wearing that clobber”.

Sharing power

He’s all for Pope Francis, his support for collegiality or sharing power with the bishops, his  simplicity  and his exhortation to pastors to “get the smell of their sheep”.

“He is a great blessing, a great blessing.”

But does he not think that Francis may have some difficulty resisting those conservative elements in the Curia, the type of guys he thinks frustrated the decentralisation that should have flowed more freely after Vatican II. May they try to rein Francis in?

“I pray every day that the Lord gives Pope Francis courage and strength to carry out the plans he has in his head and may the Holy Spirit guide him.”

He warmly welcomes the Council of [eight] Cardinals Pope Francis has set up to radically review the governance of the Church  pointing out that this sort of initiative in collegiality was talked about at Vatican II but nothing happened.

One senses that Fr McNally feels that at last a serious attempt is being made to untap the potential of Vatican II.

He is a great fan of Vatican II, “a total joy for me”.

 “My gratitude to the council is [because] it set the Scriptures free from the conservatism of 500 years since [the Council of] Trent.”

For centuries before the council “a suspicious Church did not trust people with the Bible”.

Ordinary folk

The role of the ordinary folk in the pews was “to pray, pay and obey” in the famous cliché.

“They said if you want to know what’s in the Bible ask me and I’ll tell you.”

As a result people like his father who was a voracious reader “read everything except the Bible”.

Fr McNally is reading the mammoth 1,100 page My Journal of the Council by Yves Congar OP (Dominican Publications) which he says confirms the insignificant contributions of the Irish bishops at the Council.

Unlike the Church in France, Belgium and Germany the Irish Church was deeply conservative “unreconstituted” (as was the English Church) and the Catechetical Renewal which preceded the Council had not reached these shores.

The renewal

The renewal revolutionised the teaching of religion but “only with the council could the renewal begin to colonise Ireland”.

In this situation in the late Sixties two fellow priests with a pioneering vision, Fr Colum McCaughan and Fr Donal Kelly, still happily with us, persuaded a dubious Bishop William Philbin to send Fr McNally, then a teacher of Classics and Religion in grammar schools, to Rome where he would study for his Licentiates in Theology and Sacred Scripture at the Angelicum and the Pontifical Biblical Institute respectively.

On his return he was appointed lecturer in the religion department of St Mary’s Teacher Training College, later St Mary’s University College, where he offered courses in theology, Bible studies and catechetics from 1971 until 1993.

After that he served as parish priest first in Glenariffe, Co. Antrim and later in Newcastle, Co. Down until he retired in 2010 but still does cover for holidays and sickness in several parishes from his native Dunloy.


Fr McNally brings the Gospel alive and one can see why a former pupil, now a priest in Down and Connor, describes him as “a charismatic teacher who enthralled his students at a very human level”.

The Matthew book published for the Year of Matthew (Year A in the lectionary) is his third in a series on the Synoptic Gospels after Praying With Saint Luke (2009) and Praying With Saint Mark (2011) both published by Columba.

“They are mainly used by clergy, religious and teachers”, he says, “but are usable by lay groups for Lectio Divina or by individuals.”

Fr McNally  explains that Bishop Noel Treanor has asked him and  Canon Sean Connolly, another retired priest like himself, to try to popularise Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) throughout the diocese as part of the Diocesan Pastoral  Plan unveiled at the Down and Connor Congress in September.

“We have already held courses in four Vicariates and a number of successful groups have been set up. We will be offering more courses soon.”


It is riveting to hear Fr McNally talk about Matthew.

He recalls Matthew 9:9-13 where the Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. 

Jesus says: “Go and find out what this means: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.”

In other words, says Fr McNally, Jesus is saying you are wasting your time if you offer 100 bulls and still not have compassion and love.


Asked for guidance on how to approach the Bible Fr McNally says “Read, read and listen” and not to try and start at the beginning and read it through.

He recommends reading a Gospel text “slowly and attentively, believing that it is God’s word speaking to us, listening carefully to what the text is saying about Jesus or his mission (allowing God to have the first word!).”

It means “listening to what the words are saying to us now, allowing the message to sink in, responding to the words with our own prayers, (praise, thanks, and petitions).”


It means asking “what we might be challenged to be, or to do, as a result, deciding to be that kind of person, or do that thing to the best of our ability, remembering the text with gratitude, keeping it as a friend.”

This method, he says, “engages our eyes and ears, our minds and our wills.”

Fr McNally, in Gathered in my Name: Praying with Saint Matthew describes Matthew’s as “a challenging Gospel, in its content and in the demands it puts before us” and that the Church has often ignored sections of it “which are really not convenient!”

He explains the title Gathered in My Name comes from Matthew 18.20 “For where two are three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Words that are as profound as any you will find in the entire Bible.