Everyone, or nearly everyone, has their Gay Byrne moment. Mine was on the Late Late Show in November 1995. It was one of those ‘Late Late Specials’ when an entire show was dedicated to one subject, in this case the impending crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland.
It was just after the Fr Brendan Smyth revelations on child abuse and the Catholic Church, then still a force to be reckoned with, was holding its breath. For the first time in recent history, fundamental questions were being asked about the Catholic Church and its procedures.
Everyone and anyone associated with the Catholic Church in Ireland seemed to be there that night. I was asked to be on the panel with Bishops Willie Walsh and Bill Murphy and a few others.
It was a new and strange experience for me. I was shaking like a leaf but managed to say a few things but it was clear that, generally, the programme wasn’t going well from RTE’s perspective. It seemed that people wouldn’t be saying afterwards that, as the legend had it –’it happened on the Late, Late Show’. It wasn’t happening. It was poor television as it was all very pleasant, mannerly, predictable.
I remember looking at the audience and spotting Fr Brian D’Arcy. I found it strange that he was in the audience and I was on the panel, not the other way round, as he was well-known and skilled in media situations and I wasn’t.
Then, after the first break for adverts, RTE launched their star guest. It was as if Cardinal Cathal Daly was held in reserve like a super-sub to be launched if things weren’t going well.
At that time it was still a coup of sorts to have a cardinal as a guest even on RTE’s flagship programme. But whatever the handlers expected Daly’s presence to achieve, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Up to that point general criticisms of the Catholic Church seemed to have a bland and unfocussed feel about them but once the cardinal arrived, it was as if his very presence created a focus for a deluge of resentment and anger.
His was a classic holding situation: reassuring everyone that things weren’t really as bad as they seemed, whatever difficulties the Church had – ‘and history shows us that the Church always had problems’ – would be sorted and most Catholics were happy, apart from a few malcontents was the implication. It had resonances of the infamous comments of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid who, after returning from the Second Vatican Council, had reassured Irish Catholics that ‘no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives’.
But things had moved on since 1965 and McQuaid. Daly’s efforts to calm the waters didn’t work and a low level rumble of discontent from a segment of the audience greeted Daly’s final effort to rescue what was becoming a public relations disaster for the Catholic Church and, in those still respectful times, for RTE.
Daly reassured the audience (and the one million plus viewers at home) that he had heard what had been said, he had taken it on board and he would bring it to the bishops!
Every Catholic in Ireland had heard that spiel before. Roughly translated it meant – “I want to get out of here and here are a few clichés to cover my back but, you know and I know and everyone knows, that nothing is going to change”.
Before the audience exploded Gay Byrne said loudly to Brian D’Arcy ‘Brian, you want to say something’. D’Arcy was clearly taken by surprise but in a measured, respectful and focussed response articulated the frustration and the anger of Catholic Ireland with church authorities refusing to accept that the Catholic Church faced the kinds of problems that bishops on their own weren’t and wouldn’t be able to solve.
At a time when speaking truth to power, as D’Arcy did in speaking directly and frankly to Daly, was a new phenomenon in the Catholic Church in Ireland, the confrontation was variably presented as a row rather than an open, mature and honest discussion about important issues facing the Catholic Church.
Inevitably and predictably D’Arcy, who I believe through his intervention had protected Daly from being booed by some elements in the audience, wasn’t thanked for his troubles. First in line to berate him were many of his fellow priests who delighted in fuelling a whispering campaign against him.
That was predictable enough, as some priests can turn on their colleagues even when they are saying what they agree with! The old phrase that explains it is nvidia clericalis (clerical envy) and much of the criticism of D’Arcy over the years from his peers comes from that source.
D’Arcy, of course, was right in what he said on that 1995 Late Late Show. I salute his courage in saying it, when so many said nothing, even though they knew he was right and knew too that it needed to be said. And we all know now that what has happened in the last 25 years validates what D’Arcy said on that night.
In his new book, It has to be said, D’Arcy writes: ‘Since that night I can honestly say my life changed forever. Many priests (though by no means all) treated me as an enemy. I was frequently refused permission to preside at funerals or to celebrate weddings around Ireland. The clerical church never trusted me again. I was isolated when priests met’.
That may be so with priests but not with the people who can see that if the Cathal Daly and others had listened to Brian D’Arcy 25 years ago, the Catholic Church in Ireland might not be in the mess it’s in right now.
The unvarnished truth is this: Brian D’Arcy has made a huge contribution to the Irish Church and, I believe, history will support that verdict.
Brian D’Arcy’s new book is his best yet. There were things he needed to say and he says them in this book. “It has to be said”, is in book shops now, it costs €24 and it’s flying off the shelves. Treat yourself.
Brian’s book can be purchased online at http://frbriandarcy.com