Being a priest is handy, but it's beside the point

 

He had travelled to 64 countries making programmes for Radharc prior to that meeting with the two ladies in 1982. He had survived a bad crash in the South Pacific, an attack by a spearwielding witch doctor in Nigeria, the attentions of the military authorities in Brazil, anti-aircraft fire in Biafra. He had even survived a brush with his boss, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who in 1970 exiled him to Athy, Co Kildare, in the south-westernmost part of the Dublin archdiocese, because of programmes he had made about delays in implementing Vatican II recommendations in Ireland.

But none of this had prepared Father Dermod McCarthy for that query from those two inner-city Dublin women as they stood there on the steps of the ProCathedral in Dublin, where he had been appointed a curate weeks beforehand. "Father," they wanted to know, "do Padre Pio's mittens cure asthma?"

But his wide experience of a troubled world had taught him one thing: how to think fast on his feet. "They cure everything," he replied, and with such speed as to dispel all doubt. "There y'are now," said one of the women to her friend. "And you said they were only good for headaches." Father McCarthy is now head of religious programmes on RTE television, but it is safe to say the reason he holds that post has less to do with his knowledge of the efficacy of various relics, as it has with his experience as a producer and director with Radharc, the very first independent TV production company in Ireland. He became involved with the Radharc team in 1965 while still a seminarian in Clonliffe College, Dublin. From Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, he was ordained in 1966. In 1969 he began to work fulltime on Radharc, along with Fathers Des Forristal, Joe Dunn and Peter Lemass, while also acting as a hospital chaplain. The Convent Walls are Falling in 1971 was to prove his own downfall however. Two programmes on the tardiness of the Irish church in implementing Vatican II reforms where nuns were concerned did not please his betters; so he was dispatched as a curate to Athy - where, despite the circumstances of his going, he was to spend almost "two very happy years".

Then Dr Dermot Ryan was made Archbishop and Father McCarthy was recalled to Radharc. Some of the more memorable programmes he was involved with include Mother of the Kennedys (1973), with Rose Kennedy; New Day in Brazil (1977), dealing with the" very vibrant, energetic, creative Church there which moved me deeply"; and For People and Power (1978) about a hydro-electric scheme in the Mindanao area of the Philippines which threated to wipe out the livelihood of local people. In 1982 Dr Ryan asked him to go to the Pro-Cathedral as a curate and he did, in some shock at first, before adjusting, and then discovering the remarkable "resilence, courage, and patience" of the women in that parish, whose wit he thoroughly enjoyed.

In 1991 he was approached by RTE to take up a newly created position: editor of religious programmes. Apart from Radharc he feels his administrative experience at the ProCathedral, where he was responsible for over 40 people, may have been a factor in RTE's thinking at the time. The current Archbishop, Dr Connell, agreed to allow him take up the post.

He is responsible for 105 hours of television a year, which as well as including church services, involves documentaries, information programmes and short reflective spots. In 1993 he was appointed chairman of the EBU's Religious Broadcasting Committee, a position he held until last October.

The fact that he is a priest in such a post is "beside the point", he says. It is not why he is there, though it does help to have theological training and a sensibility that is open to matters religious. Nor is he paranoid about RTE, though some people insist on sympathising with him - as though he were alone in a pool full of piranha. He has experienced no hostility there, either as a priest or as a programmer.

The same criterion applies to him as to everyone else, and that comes down simply to excellence in the standard of the programmes produced. His business is to remind people of the presence of God in society, he says - "it is the business of the churches to actually lead people into His presence."

Unofficially though, as the only priest in RTE, he finds himself carrying on all sorts of pastoral duties for staff. Indeed this extends far beyond RTE, as Father McCarthy is increasingly becoming evident as pastor to a wider parish, taking in the media and arts in Dublin, as more and more people in both seek out his services.