Father Joe, the pragmatic priest who falls in love twice a year
Fr Joe McDonald speaks to Donal Lynch about his liberalism, loves and the moment he forgave the man who sexually abused him
Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30
Ireland has a long and storied tradition of maverick priests. During the theocracy we designated celebrity status to Michael Cleary and Eamon Casey, charismatic clerics with mistresses and unlikely youth appeal. Sadly Father Joe McDonald, of St Matthew's parish in Ballyfermot, doesn't have any secret love children to tell me about, and he anticipates and winces at the inevitable 'Father Trendy' jibes.
Still, he seems like a man made in this tradition of clerical iconoclasts. He's more liberal than you would expect of a priest; he speaks of making the Church a more welcoming place for gay people and those who have had, or are considering having, an abortion. In this era of suspicion around priests, he's a survivor of sexual abuse himself. He tells me that he is bisexual and falls in love twice a year. And despite his age - he recently turned 50 - he only became a priest a decade ago, during the worst days of the Church scandals.
We met, recently, on the set of Claire Byrne Live. On air I had expressed the view that 'my' side - who want the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution repealed - fail to deal effectively with some key arguments of pro-life debaters. I had expected Joe to be vehemently disapproving of abortion but he surprised me by saying he could see how a young woman would make that tough decision. It seemed something short of cheerleading for repeal, but it did make me think that perhaps there was room for progress in the debate, a thread of compromise to be pulled at.
Over tea at his sparsely furnished house - "you're always only passing through" - he first elaborates on the comments he made to me last week. "I look at it like this: how can anyone, whether is it a society or a church, judge that woman who makes that decision? We have failed her, she has not failed us. I can't call her a sinner.
"Sin implies free will and I don't think some young person driven demented with fear is really free. The vague, abstract way that sexuality was always taught in Irish schools plays a part in that fear. The Church must accept its own role. We kept so much secrecy around sex. Now we've swung the other way: kids are told the clinical facts, but they are given no spiritual context in which to live their lives. There is a famine in Irish life, for a sense of meaning and belonging."
Fr Joe sees, in the abortion debate, broader lessons about the way we deal with death. "You can accept, or not, that there is a death in abortion, but I think there is a general reluctance to face up to the realities of life and death in Ireland. When I am officiating a funeral I'll increasingly hear things like, 'We don't want to bring her home in a coffin, so we'll leave her in [the funeral home]'. Or frequently, 'His wife will come to the funeral, but she'll be on a ton of medication to get her through it.'
"It is a bigger problem, really, than even the abortion debate. If you can't face something, you stoke up even more difficult feelings around it. People who are afraid of death are also afraid to live properly."
He says that hearing from women about their own experiences is going to be one of the most important parts of the debate: "I would be open to hearing what would be the proposed laws which replace the Eighth Amendment. I draw a big distinction between some girl who has been raped or whose child will not survive and other scenarios.
"I wouldn't like to see it used like it is in other countries - as a contraceptive, if and when you want. What struck me on Claire Byrne's programme was that I found myself emotionally and verbally touching the brake. WB Yeats had that phrase, 'tread softly [because] you tread on my dreams'. If someone shares something of their own narrative, you have to give it the honour it deserves."
Joe's own story began in west Belfast where he grew up in the worst days of the Troubles. His father was a baker who had lost his hand in an accident with a dough cutting machine. The family moved out to suburbia and became friendly with a local priest, who would go on to sexually abuse Joe. "It was said 'isn't it lovely that the priest has taken an interest in our Joseph'," he tells me, shaking his head. In his teenage years he was approached by the IRA. "They told me I wouldn't have to plant a bomb or anything but that with my brains I'd go far in the operations", he recalls.
"But I told them I already had plans. I said I'm going into the monastery." He ended up as a teaching monk, a Christian Brother, teaching English, religion and psychology. He was in a retreat centre in Swords when he made the final decision to enter the priesthood. By then he was 40. His little nephew asked him, "Did you feel bad that you were so old before you knew what you wanted to be?"
As he was getting closer to ordination he decided that, for closure's sake, he would meet his abuser, who by then had served time in prison. "I told [the abuser] that the things that happened between 1969 and 1973 should never have happened. I told him that it caused lifelong damage to me. And I said I'm now at a point in my life where I want to forgive. As I used the word 'forgive', he said 'oh, you're a great man', and I said, 'let me stop you because there still isn't a week passed that I wouldn't also strangle you'. I have found forgiveness is not a box you tick, it's a process that needs revisiting. At the conclusion I asked him to give me his hands and as he did that he began to tremble violently.
"And he said, 'but these are the hands that abused you.' And I said, 'that's why I want to hold them.' I often say that if I ever start talking about white lights or booming voices, then it's time to call the men in white coats. I even have a few friends on standby to put me in a wheelchair and tip me off the hill of Howth. But on that particular day I did have a sense of God's presence, in the shit of life."
Though the shadows cast by the abuse were long, eventually Joe was able to develop a normal sexuality. He says that this was also important for his ordination. "At 19 I would not have been ready for the seminary. I think it's not possible to live a life of celibacy if you don't know who you are sexually. I think you need to know your orientation and your drive."
And how does that drive square with the vows of celibacy? "Celibacy is about belonging, it's about mattering. I have five very close friends, men and women, and I'm very lucky for that."
Does he find himself tempted to renege on his vows? "Tempted - yes, absolutely. Of course. Only half-jokingly I say that I fall in love twice a year. I find the winter snow extremely romantic. The minute it happens I'm on the sleigh in Dr Zhivago with Lara's Theme playing. In the summer there tends to be something more erotic about it. Maybe I overheat." Is this love for men or women? "Both. I think boundaries like gender are a bit artificial."
He calls the same-sex marriage referendum "a victory over discrimination" and found himself recently embroiled in the controversy over the resignation of two women, Jacinta O'Donnell and Geraldine Flanagan, who married last July and stepped down from the St Michael's church choir in Athy due to what they described as pressure by editor of the conservative Catholic Voice newspaper, Anthony Murphy.
"It was said on the radio that myself and another priest were falling in the way of Judas Iscariot [for supporting the women]. What annoyed me was that [the women] capitulated. But apparently there was stuff being held over them. It looks like the whole town of Athy has supported them."
Fr Joe has a clear message for his own congregation. "All lesbians are welcome here! Especially those with fine singing voices."
He says that people have asked him why he would have joined such a troubled Church. "That's the question. And the answer is, because you see the possibility for something else there.
"I try to take my own broken story and use it as a prism with which to view the world. I'm excited about being a priest, particularly now. I gird myself every day for battle."