Sunday 15 September 2019

Fr Brian D'Arcy: 'I feel sad at Christmas, because I'm convinced that priests should be married, and I was the marrying kind'

Fr Brian D'Arcy (71) has been a Passionist priest for 47 years. He is also an author, columnist and broadcaster. Born in Bellanaleck, he lives in St Gabriel's Retreat in The Graan, Co Fermanagh, with three other priests

Fr Brian D'Arcy has been a priest for 47 years
Fr Brian D'Arcy has been a priest for 47 years

Ciara Dwyer

If I could tell you about my Christmas day, I would be a great prophet, because I have no idea what Christmas is going to bring; it's different every year. The lead-up is a very busy time for me. There is an extraordinary lot of poor people still in the country. Since I began writing for the Sunday World, which is now 41 years ago, I've always had letters from very sad families.

I received two this morning - very genuine letters from people who don't really know how they are going to get through Christmas. There has been a sickness in one of the families, and an alcoholic mother in another family. The daughter has written to see if I could get something to send to her, and not the mother, so that they will have something for Christmas. We'll do that. It's no problem at all.

I'll be 47 years a priest on December 20, and in all of that time, I've never had any money. Anything I get goes into the order, and yet, people slip me a tenner here and a €20 note there. They say: 'Give it to the poor'. That, to me, is Christmas; from the sadness of dealing with families who wish that Christmas would never happen, to maybe being able to write a wee letter to them and send them a few bob, no strings attached.

Instead of celebrating the feast of the nativity, Christmas has unfortunately become a holiday season. Yet many young people want it to mean something special to them. It's probably the only time in the year when there isn't enough room in any church for all the people. They still want Christmas to have a churchy effect on them. I finish confessions on Christmas Eve. I have always heard confessions. As a young priest, I heard confessions in ballrooms in Dublin for 12 years, five nights a week.

Everyone knew that I was there to talk to the bands - I was their chaplain. When people saw me smoking my pipe in the corner, they'd come up and say, 'I'd like to go to confession', and they did, in the ballrooms. It was just a little chat. In all my life, I have never once refused absolution - sometimes I might have had difficulty working out how I could do it. But then I'd say, 'It's between you and God'. And if they are sorry, I pronounce absolution.

On Christmas Eve, I get the church ready. Mass starts at 8pm, but we have the blessing of the crib at 6.45pm. Our church holds about 800. The place will be crawling with children and families. Then we'll have the Mass. There'll be a bit of fun in it. There will be a sermon about the meaning of Christmas. And at the end of Mass, I'm hoping that Santa Claus will arrive, and that he will have a present for every child in the church.

At Mass, I tell people that I'm delighted to see them here; that it has made my Christmas, and I hope that it makes their Christmas, too. You take people as they are, especially if they haven't been to Mass all year. They are there now, dammit, and they have come to pay their respects. There is some little spark of faith in there, and don't put it out. Enkindle it in some little way. Enkindle the hearts of the faithful.

On Christmas morning, I get up, put on the heating in the house and the church, and put on the coffee for the rest of the community. I'm in a religious order called the Passionists. There are just three here and myself. They are all older than me. I always have turkey in the monastery with them later in the day. We chat and we say, 'Well, this could be my last Christmas, but we're here now, so we'll have a bit of crack today.'

If it's a snowy morning, I'll put on my boots and salt the car park, so that people can get into the church. The rest of the morning is spent greeting people, if not saying Mass. Then I'll usually be on hospital duty. I'll carry a phone with me, in case there is a call. It could be somebody dying, a car accident, a heart attack, or somebody is taking a bad turn. You never know. I've done that for the last 15 years, and I've never gone through a Christmas Day that I haven't had at least one death. Usually, it's later in the evening.

When I was a younger priest, it used to frighten me a little bit, because I was afraid of death. I suppose it was because my mother died while I was a student. But then that took the fear of death away from me. I remember the first Christmas after my mother died, I went up to my cell in the monastery in Mount Argus and I cried most of the day. That night, the director almost forced me down to join the community for sing-songs and laughs. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But that experience makes me think of people who have had bereavements, especially where young people have died, or a young parent.

I can't get around them all, but I try to get to about five houses. All I am is a distraction for them. They'll make you tea and give you a slice of cake. For them, it's just about getting through. When somebody dies, the first of everything is very hard. The first Christmas, the first anniversary, the first birthday. Once you get through them, it's the first step on the road of grief.

Christmas Day can be a lonely day because you're not married, and you suddenly realise that even though you have family, you don't have family. I feel sad at Christmas, because I'm convinced that priests should be married, and I was the marrying kind. But I'm not going to marry now. I'm too old. When we look at our lives, we become very aware of what we haven't got, without recognising what we have got. One of my constant themes in my own spiritual reflection is the idea of gratitude. Rather than complaining continually about what I haven't got, I thank God and people for all that I have.

After house visits, and hospital calls, I get home around 10pm. I love to watch a comedy, something like The Three Stooges; the funnier the better. I can still laugh, which is a great gift. I make sure that the fire is off, that nobody is in trouble and then I go to my room and pray. I usually say nothing. I just sit in a chair and at the end of it, I say, Deo gratias. Thank God. Another one over.

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