Thoughts about priests in a priestless world

In college I knew priests who smoked pipes and shot pheasants, priests who would drink all night long, and chaplains who slept with teachers

Some clerics decided that to stay within the church was worth the effort, despite the catastrophe of child abuse and the convents full of weeping children

Some clerics decided that to stay within the church was worth the effort, despite the catastrophe of child abuse and the convents full of weeping children


I keep wondering where all the priests in Ireland have gone: the ones who used to appear at concerts to do the raffle, presided over weddings, spoke at public meetings in every parish hall, and sat on committees of the GAA. They used to smile from the altars as if they wanted to gather the world into their arms with lullabies of heavenly peace as comforting as a mother’s milk.

And you couldn’t miss them in the car park of a good hotel because they usually drove big cars, although I knew some Jesuits who occasionally waited for buses.

I often saw them eating dinner in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin, with their black coats on the backs of empty chairs; and wan creatures with umbrellas dangling from forearms as they browsed the shelves of bookshops along the quays or stood in the queue for tickets at the Savoy. They were all over the place.

Seminaries were stuffed to the gills with young men waiting to take their places in the great battalion that prayed their Masses on Sundays before enormous congregations and arranged their weekday Masses to suit old people who would have found it difficult to negotiate the ice on the church steps earlier than 10am on winter mornings. But nowadays it’s rare to see a cleric in uniform, and when I do I scrutinise his face in case I might have known him in the old days.


Prayer book

Last week I saw a man in black with grey hair crossing the street of a small village as I drove through, and he was clutching what I presumed was his prayer book.

He looked familiar, and I thought he might be someone I knew when I was in college, because I knew a lot of priests back then. I knew parish priests who smoked pipes and shot pheasants and I knew fat priests who found it difficult to get into their vestments and priests who would drink all night long and needed to hold on to the altar at morning Mass for fear of dizzy spells. I knew chaplains who slept with teachers and would douse themselves with aftershave in case some alert staff member might catch the scent of a woman on their hands when they were distributing Holy Communion. I knew young priests who couldn’t take their eyes off their own Volkswagen cars and who had golf clubs sticking out the back windows and I knew old priests who were once young priests and who always relished a good breakfast in the convent parlour.


Napalm on draft cards 

I knew priests who boasted that they hadn’t read a book since they were ordained, and I knew others who had books by Hans Kung and Germaine Greer on their shelves. I knew priests who came back from Brazil with ideas that made women in natural-family-planning groups blush and priests who had been in jail in the United States for pouring napalm on draft cards and priests who had worked with the poor in Recife.

I even knew some holy priests who had been to deep places in the human psyche and who looked out at the world with disappointed eyes.

There was no single type of priest back then, but they all wore black and they all prayed in little churches tucked away in quiet villages; or in the folds of some lovely valley; or up the mountains at the end of narrow, winding roads that it would be difficult to negotiate if you were in a large Volkswagen and happened to meet a big tractor.

Many of the priests I knew left the ministry disillusioned and are married with children. Others remained as serving clerics, weighing up the good they did for old people, the dying or those already bereaved, and in the balance deciding that to stay within the church was worth the effort, despite the catastrophe of child abuse and the convents full of weeping children.

So I was wondering as I slowed the Jeep to a halt on the street if this grey-haired man who crossed was once a friend of mine.

I opened my window intending to say “Good morning, Father” but then I realised that he was wearing a collar and tie.

“I thought you were a priest,” I joked, “when I saw your prayer book. You looked like someone heading to the nuns for a good breakfast.”

“Ah no,” he said, pointing to his book. “That’s my ledger. I’m just reading the electricity meters.”

We laughed, and on I drove, almost lighthearted then, in the priestless world.

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