Fr Peter McVerry: The priesthood should not be reserved only for males

How to be a Man: Patrick Freyne talks to the social justice campaigner about gender equality, masculinity and the masks we wear

Peter McVerry the Jesuit priest known for his work with the homeless, vulnerable young people and drug users in Dublin over the last 40 years, speaks to Patrick Freyne about masculinity. Video: Bryan O'Brien


How to be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the new challenges facing men in Ireland today. If you would like to add your voice to this series email

What did “being a man” look like when you were younger?

A real man was the one who brought in the money. That was the way in my family. My father had very little to do with the upbringing of the children. My mother, who was a stay at home mother, she did all that. So it was very defined … The roles were very, very clearly delineated.

Was the priesthood seen as a very manly vocation?

I didn’t reflect on it in those terms... I had been at a boarding school. My father sent me to a boarding school because he had been to that boarding school himself. The Jesuit noviceship was just an extension of a boarding school. You were again with all male companions and you were in a very regulated and regimented routine. It didn’t strike me as anything odd or anything unusual.

How does being in all male environments affect you?

I don’t know. I think it’s far healthier to be in a mixed environment... Certainly our contact with girls was very limited... it was just during your holidays which were only three times a year, Christmas, Easter and summer… But when you’re growing up, you take the world as you find it and you fit in with that world and you live with that world and you’re not into comparing it with anything else. You just took that as normal, as normal life.

How did feminism impact your life?

It certainly challenged me and every other male. Feminism is trying to assert the validity of women having equal authority and equal power and equal position in society. That wasn’t the way when I was growing up. The male dominated most of the jobs and particularly the good jobs were occupied by males. Most of the political and business and financial hierarchy were male. So feminism challenged those stereotypes and those prejudices and I think that was a very good thing.

Were you open to those things?

Growing up, you take the world as you find it and the world that I found was one in which males dominated. So feminism challenged that world view, and got you to question why should all the big jobs in society be held by males? There’s absolutely no reason. They’re not superior to females in any way, so why should they be all occupied by men? So it did challenge the prevailing world view that I had. I think that that was a very good thing.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Well, I always presumed feminists were female. I think it’s ironic if a male tries to speak for females. So I don’t consider myself a feminist.

Male and female qualities are considered very distinct traditionally…

Men were supposed to be the people who didn’t cry and who didn’t show any emotion. They were meant to be the people who were rock solid and could hold a situation that was very problematic, whereas it was perceived that women were the softer sex and more prone to emotion. I think those things have broken down now. Men still find it very hard to express their feelings and to cry and show emotion but I think less so than in the past. Certainly people would come into me and they would be in tears talking about themselves and their past and their perceived future. So I think that is breaking down also to an extent.

Do you cry?

No I’m part of the old school. (He laughs.) I haven’t caught up yet.

Do you remember men crying when you were younger?

No, absolutely not. That was taboo, unacceptable within a young male environment that a male would show those soft emotions.

Do you envy younger men in any way?

I wouldn’t say I envy young men growing up today, but I would think it’s a good thing that those differences are breaking down and that men can express themselves, that men can express their emotions. I think that’s very positive. It’s very unhealthy to suppress your emotions, I think. And men do that, but emotionally and psychologically, I presume it’s not doing them any good.

Is gender equality important to you?

Fifty percent of the world is women. I would love to see fifty percent of the top jobs, fifty percent of the politicians being women. I would like to see a world in which women were absolutely treated identically to men and they would have exactly the same opportunities and exactly the same status within the economy, within the political system, within the church as men do.

And I’m all in favour of women being ordained. I don’t see any reason why all the positions of authority and power and priesthood should be reserved to males. Yes, in the society Jesus was living in, he chose all male apostles but that was the culture he was living in and gender injustice was not an issue in his society and it very much it is an issue today.

You meet a lot of younger people through your work. Is there a “crisis of masculinity”?

I would see lots of young families [in this area]where the women go to work and the man looks after the children and both of them are very happy in that role. So in that sense I don’t see any crisis of masculinity. Maybe in other cultures, other areas of the city or other subcultures there may be, but certainly not the subculture I’m living in I don’t see the crisis, no.

The traditional model, where the female partner looks after the children and the male partner brings in the money, that has broken down [but] the men are very happy looking after the children. They’re very happy changing the nappies and feeding the children and taking them for a walk. So there’s been a blurring of roles between male and female in recent times but I think that’s very positive.

Are there other models of masculinity shaping their lives?

I think that in certain subcultures being a hard man is what identifies you as a young male. I think for many young people… they want to excel in comparison to their peers. And many attempt to do that through sport or through academic achievement or through art or music, but many young people in deprived areas don’t have those opportunities. For them to excel it’s through the macho image. And that’s particularly prevalent in areas where drugs are very prevalent because within the drug world your status depends on how violent you can be.

They mistake being feared for being loved and they think that because they are feared that everyone is respecting them. But they’re not. They’re just fearing them and hoping they will go away.

If you’re in that macho subculture, where to be a man you have to be able to look after your own corner [and]defend yourself, any sign of being soft will be manipulated… So you’ve got to present that hard image.

Do you have your own defences?

Ah yes. We all have masks. You can’t live without a mask… Dry humour, that’s the mask I put on, I think.

Jack - Fr Peter’s dog - doesn’t fret about his masculine identity does he?

He does when he’s with other dogs. He’s asserting himself very clearly.

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