Matt Talbot's canonisation would be a sign of hope to addicts


EMMET Oliver is a freelance journalist who presented his views on the implications of the canonisation of Matt Talbot in this column last month. Unfortunately, his contribution was littered with factual errors, distortions and shallowness.

He told us that Mall Talbot was born in Rutland Street and that he had chains embedded in his flesh when he died. He mentioned the 1954 biography of the Dublin workman, Matt Talbot and his Times, but apparently did not read it carefully. Had he done so, he would have learned that Mall Talbot was born in Aldborough Court and did not have chains embedded in his body when he collapsed. If he wishes to research this point further, he should read the sworn evidence of Sister M. Ignatius and others at the Ordinary Process. Her observations may be read in our diocesan archives.

The cult of Mall Talbot was initiated by the poor of the inner city visiting and praying at his grave. Emmet Oliver contends that it was fostered by an oppressive church to continue "a subtle form of subjugation" of its members. "It is no wonder that Archbishop McQuaid wrote the preface to the man's biography in 1954," he writes, adding "no other figure has been more associated with the powerful, dictatorial and puritanical church of his time."

THAT outburst reveals Mr Oliver's real attitude, particularly to readers who know that Archbishop McQuaid commissioned the late Mary Purcell to write that book out of a deep personal devotion to Mall Talbot. It is worth noting that Mall Talbot was well known long before Dr McQuaid was appointed archbishop in 1940. An earlier biography by Joseph Glynn had been translated into 13 European languages by 1929.

It would be impractical to deal with all the points in Mr Oliver's article. However, I was amused by his reference to "one pamphlet about Mall Talbot" in which he informs us that a comparison is made with Tim Severin, the explorer.

He then condemns the author on the grounds that "particular emphasis is placed on his Irish nationality, which no doubt makes him a more wholesome cause for committees in the US who have championed his cause." This pamphlet deals exclusively with Mall Talbot's spirituality and places no emphasis on his nationality. I know because I wrote it: The Mystery of Matt Talbot (Irish Messenger Publications).

"You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," Christ told His followers. When Mall Talbot found sobriety through prayer and spiritual guidance, his desire for drink was replaced by a desire for Christian perfection.

There are many ways to this goal. He turned to Monsignor Michael Hickey, an experienced spiritual director, for advice. He chose a programme closely resembling the rule of the early Irish monasteries, which moulded the great saints of the fifth and sixth centuries. Monsignor Hickey judged that Mall Talbot was an exceptional person who was physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of following their way to God. They met weekly for many years to monitor Matt's progress.

THE principal elements in the rule of the monasteries were prayer, fasting, penance, work, study, devotion to Our Lady and missionary drive. The Mystery of Matt Talbot examines how and why a Dublin woman lived this rule in our own century.

It is doubtful if Mr Oliver read this pamphlet with any depth. Had he done so, he would have discovered that there was one notable exception to the rule in the case of Mall Talbot. While some early Irish monks engaged in self flagellation, that was never part of his programme.

Matt Talbot developed a deep devotion to Our Lady and was impressed by Louis Marie de Montfort's book, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The future saint stated that anyone who practised this devotion broke the chain of sin and assumed the chain of love. He suggested that such a person should wear a light chain, a bracelet, as a symbol. Mall Talbot did not settle for a bracelet. With the permission of his spiritual director, he wore chains wrapped around his body on special occasions.

Mall Talbot's ascetic practices have to be viewed against the historical selling of his time (1856-1925). There is no foundation to Emmet Oliver's opinion that they constituted "extreme self abuse." Dr Feichin O'Doherty, professor of psychology in UCD, dealt with this question in a 1977 RTE documentary and concluded that self abuse did not arise.

Mall Talbot's neighbours and workmates had no idea that he was living by a strict monastic rule. To them, he was a happy, kind, prayerful and generous man. Few knew that he was a recovered alcoholic, a former addict. He "kicked the habit" by the grace of God. His higher power was the God and faith of his childhood.

Our present Pope believes that God in his providence has raised Mall Talbot as a sign of hope for addicts. This view is shared by 50,000 members of the Mall Talbot Retreat Movement of the US.

All are recovering alcoholics. They attend regular enclosed retreats - including the many who do not share the Catholic faith - and learn that while no one is expected to emulate the ascetic life of their patron, a spiritual dimension is essential for their rehabilitation programme. As retreatant said to me once: "If Talbot can do it by the grace of God, I can do it."

Emmet Oliver wonders what the canonisation of Mall Talbot would say. The answer is found in the petition sent to Pope John Paul II on behalf of the 50,000 members requesting his beatification.

It is found also in the hundreds of reports of favours from individuals and families which I have received from many parts of the world. His canonisation would speak of a caring, compassionate church. It would give hope to addicts.