November 11, 2002
A Letter to Cardinal Connell by Paul Durcan

First broadcast on The Pat Kenny Show on RTE Radio 1

My dear Desmond, Cardinar Archbishop of Dublin,

How are you on this November winter’s morning ? How are you doing ? Did you say mass at an early hour in your private chapel ? At 7 am alone or with members of your palace household in Drumcondra by theTolka.

When I was a boy of eleven years I used love cycling the empty Dublin streets in the pre-dawn darkness to serve 7 am mass in one of the tiny oratories at my Jesuit school in Ranelagh. There would be just the priest and myself in an oratory so tiny there was scarcely any space for the server. It was like saying mass in a secret cupboard in penal times. I loved serving mass. The different priests had their different ways of doing the same thing and I cherished each priest's style. One man would speak at a million miles per hour, another man would speak as slowly as a wheelbarrow. I loved handling the cruets of wine and water. I loved ringing the bells at the sanctus and the consecration and the communion. I loved watching the priest donning his vestments. Putting on the surplice over his rumpled shirt and worn baggy trousers. The alb of the liturgical day – green or red or violet or white. I loved the mixture of aromas. Of the red altar wine and the eucharistic wafers and of the musty carpet and of human night sweat. I loved cycling back to my mother’s kitchen in time for porridge and the sponsored programmes of Radio Eireann. Irish Christianity was the mother tongue of my soul and it remains the mother tongue of my soul in spite of the institution of the Irish Roman Catholic Church.

When you said mass this morning did you say it in Latin or in English or in Irish ? I try to imagine what it must be like for you in these terrible times to say mass in spite of all the public criticism that has been heaped on you. I see hovering over your head not the Paraclete – not the white dove of the Holy Spirit but the big black logo of the calamituous phrase ‘CHILD ABUSE’. I see and hear your spiritual concentration being broken into and entered at every turn of the mass and at every bend of the road of prayer. At the very moment of the consecration, the big black phrase ‘CHILD ABUSE’ runs rings around your soul like a rat on a roulette table. As you disrobe in the sacristy, I see lumps of a desolate melancholy flaking off you like bits of crust off a stale loaf.

But it is not about ‘Child Abuse’ that I am writing to you. In fact, of course, the phrase ‘child abuse’ is itself an abuse of language. The outrage is about child rape and child buggery and child terror. I am writing to you simply as a parishioner of the Archdiocese of Dublin who feels that apart from your problems with supervising and tending the sick and troubled members of your clergy, you have not, down these fourteen years of your ministry been a shepherd to your flock in any believable or rudimentary sense of the word shepherd. What were your feelings, I wonder, last Sunday at mass when you heard the first reading from Malachi : 1.14 ‘You have strayed from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your teaching’.

Three years ago RTE Radio 1 broadcast a series entitled ‘A Giant At My Shoulder’. Each contributor was invited to talk for thirty minutes about the person who had most influenced their lives. I found myself in the dilemma of being forced to choose between Mohammed Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, and John the 23rd, formerly, Angelo Roncalli. For both of these wonderful shepherds, human existence posed one fundamental problem; the existential problem of how to practice affection on a minute to minute basis, day in, day out. Can it be done ?

I chose to talk about John the 23rd and I began my broadcast by recalling that Tuesday night of the 28th of October 1958 when sitting on my mother’s bed listening to the wireless I heard the Radio Eireann commentator in Rome observe white smoke and an hour later an aged voice crying from the balcony of St. Peter’s: Annunciamamus gaudium magnum …Habemus Papam …Eminentissimum, Reverendissimum dominum – dominum Angelum Giuseppum Sante Romani Ecclesiae Cardinale RONCALI !

For the next five years even though I was a young Dubliner living under the Kremlin like rule of Archbishop McQuaid I watched in amazement and delight as John the 23rd with his mother hen personality went about practicing his message of affection and being a shepherd not only to his own flock but to all mankind. Last Sunday’s Letter from Paul to the Tessalonians was the voice of John the 23rd . Paul wrote ‘Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so devoted and protective towards you ….’

In the early 1960’s I was a student in UCD and I remember the sunlight and the breezes emanating from Pope John’s eyes and from his feet and from his lips. At that time, dear Desmond, Cardinal Archbishop, you were a lecturer in the Dept. of Philosophy in UCD. My impression of you as a philosopher was that you were hostile to the modern world, especially to the great modern philosophies and theologies of existentialism as represented by Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, Marcel, Kung, Schillebeeckxs, Baum, Boff and John the 23rd himself.

Since your elevation to Dublin in 1988, you have helped to empty not only the archdiocese of Dublin but the whole island of Ireland of the maternal spirit of John the 23rd. Instead , for fourteen years you have filled my soul with fear, despondency and loneliness. Watching you looming on the altar of the Pro-Cathedral or in a sermon droning, I feel as if I am in an airbus at 36,000 feet in the vicinity of the North Pole. Your countenance and your vocabulary constitute snow-white desolation, vast empty tundra, eternally wailing emptiness.

Today is the Feast of Leonard, patron saint of prisoners. In your celebration of mass this morning, did you pray for all of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Irish Christians who are prisoners of Irish church history ? In the fourteen years of your ministry, I do not recall one single affectionate gesture or homily or letter or pronouncement. All I recall is complaint. Of President McAleese for taking communion in the Church of Ireland. Of Bishop Walton Empey for not being a ‘high-flying’ theologian of Trinity College Dublin for not recognising you in the right way. Of homosexual people for being homosexual. Of Bishop Casey for being hetrosexual in the wrong way. Your peculiar attitudes to female sexuality and celibacy. (By the way, is it true that you have opposed the return to Ireland of tragic Eamon Casey ? ) If it be true, I must tell you that I do not comprehend such mercilessness not only towards Eamon Casey himself but towards the people of Galway. In the 1990’s you enabled Ireland to become not only the Celtic Tiger but also a merciless society.

My dear Desmond, Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin, I hope you are doing all right this morning in spite of everything. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill.

Your sincerely,

Paul Durcan

Posted by Colm at November 11, 2002 03:52 PM

I actually heard Paul Durcan reading this on the radio and thought it was brilliant.

Posted by: Liz Smith on November 16, 2002 11:54 AM


Posted by: Paul M on November 25, 2002 10:02 PM

Paul Durcan is one of my favourite poets and I think this letter is wonderful. well done paul Durcan.G

Posted by: G on December 11, 2002 06:11 PM

More than a grain of truth: en la tarde AMOR

Posted by: on January 22, 2003 09:08 PM
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