Wednesday 26 June 2019

Flawed yes, but here was a priest who knew his job

I don't mind too much that Father Michael Cleary made his accommodation with the rule of clerical celibacy, living one life in public and another in private.

He was doing what he felt necessary to get by. Maybe it would have been easier to pack off his son and the boy's mother to England or the US than have them in his home.

Hiding them in plain sight is what he chose to do with Ross and Phyllis Hamilton, as we saw in RTE One's 'At Home with The Clearys' this week. You could call it hypocrisy -- or you could call it expediency: a way of shouldering his family responsibilities without rocking the boat.

No, once the surprise passed, I found I didn't take particular exception to what he did. He felt unable to challenge publicly the Catholic Church's ban on married clergy and he felt equally unable to reject his family. I can understand such a dilemma, even if I would have chosen a different solution.


But I do mind something else about this saga -- the way its aftershock was instrumental in ushering in a more conservative Catholic Church: no room at the club for the free spirits or free thinkers.

Like Bishop Eamon Casey who also broke his vow of abstinence, Father Cleary was a larger-than-life figure. He was a performer, a natural communicator, a pragmatist, a man of the people with compassion for the underdog.

He had multiple facets, not all of them priestly: he had a vain streak and was a chain smoker, a sportsman, a singer and a gambler who liked the horses and late-night poker schools.

He was never slow to grab the microphone -- even when John Paul II had it already, as we saw in the Phoenix Park. These dimensions to his character helped humanise him and make him more likeable -- and therefore more effective -- as a man of the cloth.

The wave of clergy coming to the fore in the aftermath of his death and unwarranted demonisation strikes me as instinctively conformist.

Men such as Father Cleary and Bishop Casey -- they were flawed, granted, but with an exceptional capacity to reach out to their flock -- are thin on the ground.

And perhaps defects, for example the struggle to keep that darned celibacy pledge, are part of the chemistry that allowed them to engage with people. We respond better to frisky goats than sacred cows.

Such eccentrics, with their charm, their rebellious streak, and their undoubted ability to think outside the box, don't seem to be checking in to seminaries any more.

I guess they can see how savagely they'll be dealt with if they fail to attain the priestly ideal.

Father Cleary's lifestyle choice is routinely referred to as a sex scandal, although compared with what emerged subsequently in the Church it's as scandalous as a bingo session.

But it does mark a watershed. And 11 years on since the story broke, it continues to strike a chord.

It reminds us of a time, a place and, above all, an attitude that's been relegated generally to the past -- although vestiges of it remain.

We look at archive film footage of people sinking to their knees to kiss a bishop's ring and we're astonished. It seems as archaic as bus conductors, yet it was only a handful of years ago.

That automatic habit of deference to the authority of the clergy has crumbled and I doubt it can ever be reclaimed.

But erosion is one thing and extinction quite another. The Catholic Church isn't going anywhere: it's been around for 2,000 years and is here for the long haul.

Perhaps the lesson the hierarchy took from the Father Cleary episode was that it was a mistake to give mavericks a platform and potential influence.

Imagine, for example, if the priest had outed himself yet insisted on carrying on a pastoral role. What if people had supported him? Even if the hierarchy had taken away his parish they couldn't have taken away his community.

In the event, despite knowing death was a matter of months away, Father Cleary put obedience to his Church above loyalty to his flesh and blood. As a result, he died without acknowledging his son, perhaps naively believing that he could take the secret with him to the grave.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," shrugged his son Ross. He isn't bitter, but he knows he was let down by his father.

As for the Catholic Church, its atavistic response to individualism -- a kneejerk retreat to conservatism -- isn't necessarily the ideal way forward.

And watching 'At Home With The Clearys' underlined exactly why.

The programme reminded us of the calibre of man Father Cleary was: of the good he did in unfashionable causes, how he was able to get his message across to people, and it was useful to have our memory jogged. It was no mystery how he could build a reputation for himself after you saw him in action on film.

He had charisma -- he gave good sermon. The last time I listened to a sermon in a Catholic church recently I wanted to walk out, so tedious and condescending was the priest.

But Father Cleary had the X-factor. He knew how to pack a house, be it church or concert hall.

It strikes me the Catholic Church may have struck a wrong note in losing the showmen.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss