RTÉ’s ‘last priests and nuns’ swings from sympathy to cynicism

RTÉ’s ‘last priests and nuns’ swings from sympathy to cynicism Cardinal Timothy Dolan meets with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, based in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

You know the way you sometimes get the impression that someone is trying to give you a hint, but you’re not quite sure. I felt that way when I saw two programmes flagged – about the last priests and nuns in Ireland – was this a nudge? Wishful thinking? An attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Last Priests in Ireland on RTÉ One last Monday night was the first, and it was interesting and well made. Presenter Ardal O’Hanlon is one of the few Irish comedians I like, so I was looking forward to it, though I’m not convinced that a comedian, and an agnostic one at that, was the best choice.

He presented from an abandoned looking Clonliffe. The tone varied from serious to flippant, from cynical to respectful. The best of it was when we heard contributions from priests currently serving their communities – their ongoing commitment was impressive.

We met a childhood neighbour of Ardal O’Hanlon, now ministering in Wales, an army chaplain who served for years on the missions, a young priest recently ordained and a young priest from abroad now ministering in Dublin, a vocations director with a challenging task. These will certainly not be the last priests in Ireland and they give hope for the future.

Much of the programme was predictable – old footage of full seminaries, plenty of liberal sentiments like celibacy and women priests, heavy emphasis on the decline of the Church in Ireland with little on the many green shoot initiatives, the obligatory shot of Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Galway.

I thought former priest and author Michael Harding was unfairly critical and dismissive of that pope. One thing that did surprise me was learning that Father Ted co-writer writer Arthur Matthews was a descendant of the 19th Century Cardinal Cullen!

The presenter seemed conflicted – at one stage he said he wasn’t making any value judgements, later he described the Church as “an organisation that is inherently sexist”. Towards the end he wondered if he was being a hypocrite or a coward – the agnostic getting his children baptised.

Certainly, he saw the value of a special person who supported people spiritually in times of crisis, “a professional empathiser”. It was good to hear of an upcoming vocations initiative – I hope it bears fruit, though I’m not sure what fruit was intended by this programme.

Then, last Tuesday night we got The Last Nuns in Ireland, also on RTÉ One. This time the presenter was journalist Dearbhail McDonald. She presented from an abandoned looking convent. I felt this was a warmer, more serious presentation. She had been educated by nuns and educated to be an independent and critical thinker. She valued the contribution of nuns to education and healthcare, especially when the state wasn’t adequately providing these services.

She declared up front that she had voted yes to same sex marriage and to repeal of the 8th Amendment. She was rightly angry at all the abuse scandals and the way State and Church treated children in these situations.

And yet, if she wanted to understand why such things happened despite the values the Church espoused, she could have asked herself how she could have supported the repeal of that pro-life clause in the Constitution – the effect, and purpose, of the repeal was to make it easier to end the lives of living unborn children. When we swap one cruelty for another, the moral high ground becomes very shaky.

Again, the best thing about the documentary was the contribution of the nuns she interviewed – bright, enthusiastic, selfless women who continue to serve God and society despite all the vilification some elements in that society have heaped on them. One sister described the distress many of them felt when, in relation to the controversy surrounding St Vincent’s Hospital, they heard of the effigies of nuns being burnt in street protests.

Finally, if you wanted an uplift, you could listen back to Liveline (RTE Radio 1), from Wednesday of last week. A caller, John, rang in to speak of a warning in Mayo about undrinkable water. It turned out that he was terminally ill, but his infectious positivity about life and death was an inspiration. One touching detail – he liked his Netflix, but because of his situation would only get into a mini-series, rather than a show with several seasons to catch up on!



EWTN Saturday January 20, 7.30pm
Hear from pro-life leaders and walk participants during EWTN’s live coverage of Walk For Life West Coast, San Francisco’s largest pro-life event, drawing thousands of marchers.


RTÉ Radio 1 Friday January 26, 10.05pm

Siobhán Garrigan returns with a new run of the topical religious affairs show.


EWTN Sunday January 21, 3.30pm also Friday January 26, 10.30am

Works covered by Joseph Pearce are The Waste Land, a poem by TS Eliot, Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy written by Sigrid Undset, and C, a novel by Maurice Baring.