Edward Daly reminded us of the church at its best, just when we needed it most 

I didn’t know him at all, but I feel as if I did. Tributes to the late Bishop Edward Daly of Derry have come from far and wide, from Catholic and non Catholic, believer and non believer. His death was a lead item on news bulletins in Ireland and the U.K., with commentators speaking of him with warmth and affection.

Of course, those of a certain age remembered him as the priest who waved the blood-stained handkerchief on Bloody Sunday, but he was more than that. He was a model, a reminder, of what a good priest, a good bishop, is like. It was an important reminder at the end of another difficult week for the Irish Catholic Church.

In fact, that was one of the contrasts that hit me most clearly these past few days: the same radio shows and newspapers and social media that feasted on the Maynooth crisis and the dysfunction in the church, leaving people to wonder if there is any such creature as a good or normal priest, then reported on the life and ministry of one good priest, reminding people that such creatures do exist after all.

And Edward Daly was one such priest.

He was unpretentious, without airs or graces, happy to be called ‘Eddie’ rather than ‘Bishop’ or ‘My Lord.’

He was not ambitious, and had no desire for high office. He was shocked to be appointed bishop at just 40 years old.

He was an ecumenist, and knew the importance of extending the hand of friendship and solidarity across the religious divide.

He was a peacemaker, not afraid to stand up to the men of violence from whatever side.

He was a man of the people, who knew the smell of the sheep, and knew many of them by name.

He was a simple pastor, who for the last 20 years of his life, ministered to the dying and the bereaved. It must have been very consoling for them, whether or not they were people of faith, to have a bishop by their bedside at their end.

He gave witness to the faith, witness to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. His life and example offer a good template for all bishops and pastors.

Another difficult week for the Irish Catholic Church 

I watched them streaming into Mass this morning, the regulars – old, young and in-between – and I marveled at their faith and commitment. After another awful week for the church in Ireland, with allegations of all sorts of strange goings-on in Maynooth, still they came. After a week of lurid headlines and wild speculation about life in the national seminary, still these faithful people came out to Mass. If I were a layman in Ireland today, I’m not sure I would.

It’s been another embarrassing week for priests in Ireland and for the church we serve. I couldn’t help wondering how many people in the pews today are looking up at the altar and asking silent questions about the celebrant. Is he gay or straight? Has he ever been up to anything? Is he on one of those dating apps they are talking about?

And even if they are not asking those questions about their own curate or parish priest, who they know and are comfortable around, they will be wondering about priests in general, that ragged body of men out there who struggle on despite the storms that periodically swell around them. How many of them are gay or straight or perverted in some way? What do they do behind closed doors?

And that’s the tragedy of this past week. The stories about the national seminary don’t just affect those connected to or associated with Maynooth, they affect everyone who wears a collar. They impact on all clergy. All feel upset and embarrassed by association.

The glee with which some people on social media have commented about the Maynooth affair is also extraordinary to behold. They delight in any negative story to do with the church. They glory in it. They don’t distinguish between one priest and another or between one part of the church and another. As far as they are concerned all are one and the same. It’s understandable that people react against the church’s past dominance, and delight in its death rattle, but when they rejoice in the church’s misery, they rejoice in my misery too.

I don’t know what’s going on in Maynooth. I have been there less than ten times in my life, but I am certain that the vast majority of those in Maynooth are good men doing their best. Obviously, some type of review or reform will take place, but it’s difficult to act based on anonymous letters or in response to the agitation of the Catholic right. 

This story will pass in a few days and life will go on, but the fundamental issues around mandatory celibacy and church teaching on sexuality remain to be addressed, as do questions about how priests should be trained and even the nature of priesthood itself. 

Meanwhile, ordinary priests will continue to administer the sacraments and to do their best, even as their morale sinks lower and wearing the clerical collar leaves them open to suspicion or ridicule.