Tuesday 19 March 2019

Twenty of us trained to be priests together in 1980. All but three have left

Back in 1985, Gay Byrne invited listeners of his radio show to send in romantic short stories they had written. He was much taken by an entry from Michael J Hayden from Donnycarney, Dublin, which focused on a young priest whose life was turned around when he kissed a woman in France.

What Byrne and his listeners didn't realise was there was no Michael J Hayden. The story writer was 23-year-old Joe Armstrong, who was from Donnycarney and was training for the priesthood at the Mount St Mary's seminary in Milltown, south Dublin.

And the experience he related in his fiction really had happened to him that summer and its impact would be seismic.

"I was very innocent, had no experience of girls or anything like that," Armstrong says today. "So to get to kiss this beautiful girl was a really profound experience for me, especially when you consider that I had spent almost five years in a seminary."

Armstrong was just 18 when he walked through the doors at Mount St Mary's. He had grown up with a deep sense of Christianity, a love nurtured in his late teens when he joined the burgeoning Charismatic Renewal movement. This was an Ireland, remember, that had ecstatically welcomed Pope John Paul II the September before.

But nine years later when he left the Marist Fathers seminary, he had had enough of the vows of chastity and obedience. And he had had his fill of Jesus too. "Over the course of the 1980s, I went from belief to unbelief, from having absolute faith to none whatsoever."

Armstrong -- now 50 -- was one of 20 students who joined Mount St Mary's seminary in 1980. Today, only three remain in the priesthood.

He tells his story and that of two of his classmates in the compelling documentary, From Belief to Unbelief, on RTÉ Radio 1 this evening.

Armstrong left a month before ordination but his friends Declan Wynne and John O'Sullivan went on to become priests. Wynne quit the church in 1993 and is now in a gay relationship in Seattle; O'Sullivan left as recently as 2009 and says he is happiest when spending time with his girlfriend.

"It was a very different Ireland the year I entered the seminary," Armstrong says, speaking from his home near Kells, Co Meath. "About 400 young men -- including several from my school -- went to study for the priesthood that year. But in a way, those figures would disguise the change that was soon to happen in Ireland."

Like many people born in the 1960s, Armstrong did not question his faith. Both his parents were deeply religious and he recalls acting out the role of priest saying mass when he was just five years old.

He looked up to his uncle John who was a priest and when he was 17, he wrote to him to seek his guidance about joining the clergy himself.

In the documentary's most evocative moment, Armstrong reads from that very letter and his voice is intercut with that of his son, John, who is -- by neat coincidence -- 17 as well.

"It's the letter of a young man who was very much in love with God and the idea of priesthood," he says.

When he sought career guidance, and mentioned that he wanted to join the clergy, the support was unequivocal. "I was told 'you will save many souls through your ministry'. That's a very powerful thing to be told as a 17-year-old."

Initially, Armstrong enjoyed life in the seminary. Many of those who had joined were his own age, and just as idealistic. But tiny seeds of doubt started to grow, especially when students began to leave.

"Every time one of my friends would go, I'd ask myself if I was doing the right thing," he says. "That question got more pertinent as time went on."

As his teens ended and his 20s began, the vow of chastity started to play at him. "I had hormones, just like everyone else, but was being told that sexual intimacy was wrong. We were told that masturbation was a grave sin, and I would feel this awful guilt for a long time after touching myself."

He had similar concerns over the vow of obedience, the notion of submitting one's mind to one's elders. And he soon saw that the vow of poverty at St Mary's was "a sham, because we had a roof over our heads and never went hungry, and we had a sense of security that many people don't have".

He admits that the toughness of the 1980s recession was lost on him: "We were sheltered from all that. It didn't impinge in any way."

By 1985 -- when he had his brief romantic dalliance -- Armstrong's relationship with his faith had soured. "I'd begun to see that all the retreats we went on were just elaborate forms of self-delusion," he says.

He made up his mind to leave, and initially his "spiritual adviser" said he supported the decision. But soon after, another senior priest made him acutely aware that if he was to quit it would be against the advice of the Marist Fathers. "And it was made clear to me that if I was to change my mind, I wouldn't be welcomed back."

Armstrong -- who was just 23 at the time -- backed down. "I didn't have the self-confidence to go. And, if I'm honest, I'd become a bit institutionalised."

It would take a further four years before he would have the inner belief to quit. Ironically, he left just weeks before he was to take his final vows. His decision was helped after he had been to a counsellor. "She really was wonderful," he says. "She helped me understood who I really was."

He left the seminary with £500 in his pocket and little idea about what he would do with his life. "I felt liberated, but apprehensive too," he says. "I hadn't had to worry about money and security at any stage in my life up to this moment and it was a bit of a rude awakening."

As part of his studies, he had secured an arts degree from UCD and soon found himself gravitating towards teaching.

He emigrated to London and found a job teaching in a secondary school in one of the toughest districts of the East End of London. He loved the experience.

And it was while living in the UK that he met his future wife, Ruth, who was working as a teacher in another school. He proposed within months. "When you meet the love of your life, you know it," he says.

They moved back to Ireland in the mid-1990s and have two children -- John and 15-year-old Sarah. Armstrong works as a freelance writer and From Belief to Unbelief marks his debut as a documentary maker. Ruth teaches locally.

"I have mixed views about my time in the seminary," he says. "I do feel like I missed out on many of the pleasures of youth and maybe didn't get to experience life as fully as I could have. But I did learn a lot and there were some wonderful people there. And, if life had been different, I wouldn't have met Ruth and John and Sarah wouldn't exist."

But the zealous beliefs that marked his early life have been completely eroded. "I simply don't believe -- in any of it -- any more. And I think the really sad thing is there is a strong likelihood that there are old priests out there who have absolutely no faith either but they feel they have no option but to remain in the priesthood.

"They have too much to lose by coming out and saying it's all a lie."

From Belief to Unbelief will air on RTÉ Radio 1 this evening at 6pm. It is available now for download from the Documentary on One website -- www.rte.ie/doconone

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