Fr. Willie Cleary R.I.P.
The priests’ plot in Tullamore cemetery where Willie was recently buried is set in a beautiful border of roses. It was Willie who organised the design and planting before he left Tullamore. He wasn’t thinking of himself of course. When he resigned as PP he had no intention of going into retirement, and went on to work for another ten years as a curate in Mornington. But the rose border was an act of deep courtesy to his fellow priests that was typical of Willie. Over the 25 years that I’ve known him I have greatly admired a number of ‘opposites’ in his make-up. And this was one of them. Willie was a clergyman to his fingertips, intensely proud of and loyal to his fellow clergy. He had a vision for priesthood at its best, and he believed in and loved that. And even though the clerical system didn’t always match up to that vision, and could at times treat its members, including Willie, in a manner lacking even basic courtesy, Willie was unfailingly kind and courteous in response.
And yet at the same time he was anything but clericalist. He was a priest with an instinct for mission and his focus was on the people whom he was serving. While he stayed with the clerical status-quo he sought unstintingly to move it. He believed that in order for the parish to be an effective agent of the gospel in today’s world it needed to put itself on a missionary footing, with teamwork between priests and laity as a foundation. In no way was he satisfied that parishes and dioceses were sufficiently on that footing, and he never tired of saying that. This did not always make him popular among his fellow clergymen.
In his homily at the funeral mass his friend John Byrne (Kells) spoke of the twin sources in Willie’s life that fed this missionary instinct. One was the teachings of the 2nd Vatican Council. The other was his prayer life. Willie was a man who was simply and honestly spiritual. His relationship with God was at the core of his life. His life’s work as a priest flowed from that core, seeking to be faithful to his sense of what the Spirit was calling him to be and to do.
And this touches on a second set of opposites. At one level Willie was not a very self-confident man. He had a strong and abiding sense of personal inadequacy that was like a cross in his life. If left to his own devices that sense might have crippled his capacity to be a leader. But he wasn’t left to his own devices. His relationship with God was the source of strength that lifted him out of himself. I found him remarkably assured and confident in expressing and leading the overall thrust of his parish development work. But it seems to me that the particular way he did this was shaped by his experience of both spiritual strength and personal weakness. Willie took into his heart the yearning of the Spirit that people should be reached out to with the good news of the gospel. He had the courage to stay with the question of how in his parish work. Bu he also had the humility to know that he didn’t have the answers on his own. He knew he needed to make space for the gifts and energies of many others. And this was key to how he exercised leadership in the parish. He was a space-maker, a servant leader.
As his own energies went into decline in more recent years Willie took huge delight in the work of Pope Francis. And in Joy of the Gospel I believe he felt his life’s work affirmed. Of course he would never have said that, but I said it to him. Mission not maintenance; being close to the experience of the people; putting the good news into language and forms that relate to that experience; respecting and working with the popular religious culture; all of these are emphasised by Francis and all of these Willie has been at for years. Of course there are plenty of others who have been as well. Reading their collective experience in the light of Joy of the Gospel would offer hopeful and helpful directions for our church right now. But that’s for another space. But I think too that such reflection and action is the kind of remembrance that Willie would have most wanted. Right to the very end he was following happenings in the Irish Church. On the night before he died I was speaking to him. He wasn’t much interested in my questions about his health. But he was very interested in telling me what he had read just then about the Limerick Synod. He was delighted with it.
My wife and I were at home when we got the news that Willie had died. We both cried. Afterwards we were trying to name the particular sense of loss we were feeling. We got a sense of it at his funeral. We met lots of people who were grieving like us. The talk wasn’t much about Willie’s style of leadership or his ecclesiology. It was about a warm and humble man who had time for them. A man who engaged intently, delightfully and sometimes even eccentrically with the ordinary things of life. He loved watching Westmeath football. A friend told us she travelled some distance to visit him at home. But the visit coincided with the recent Meath-Westmeath semi-final. He welcomed her warmly, sat her down by the TV and then asked her – Now Lily, you won’t talk to me while the match is on, sure you won’t? They knew that Willie had his eye on some of the bigger questions of life, but right then what they remembered and appreciated was the man who also made space for ordinary people and for small things – visits, shared meals and of course rose borders.
Martin Kennedy 07/08/15
Maybe now would be a good time to say thank you to all the good priests we have in Ireland. The last number of years haven’t been easy but they served and continue to serve. Despite whatever difficulties they may be having and despite advancing in years, on Sunday they are there and for that I say thank you.
I never knew Fr. Willie Cleary but it seems he, like so many, gave everything he had. We will miss you when you are gone.
Thanks, Martin for a well deserved, sensitive and perceptive tribute… Willie’s strengths and weaknesses, his faith and vision.
We miss him.
My compliments to Martin Kennedy on his tribute to Willie, God rest him. I can’t say that I knew him well but he has been, for many years, one of the prophets of our time, unusual in Ireland and, I suspect, unusual even in Meath! But like all prophets, of course, he wasn’t accepted in his own country.
When an Irish Church should have knelt at his feet in unambiguous appreciation of his vision and cherished the insights that he brought to pastoring, instead he was tolerated, patronised and, in a Church where invidia clericalis still rules (God help us) his legacy was watered down in case it might become a lifeboat for a floundering Church.
Willie did what Pope Francis is now trying to do, open the Church to the gentle, accepting, forgiving face of Christ by letting the vision of Vatican Two live in the day-to-day lives of his people.
He was the living opposite of everything Francis rejected: pomp, pretence, rigidity. But we knew too much to listen. And now as the darkness conspires to envelope us, we see our star setting, as in the words of poet (and priest) Pádraig J. Daly, The rigid will inherit the earth:
The rigid will inherit the earth;
And we, who knew You gentle,
Comprehending of failure, soft on offence,
Will fade forgotten, from the world.
(Holding Away The Dark, in God in Winter, 2015)
Thanks, Martin, for a wonderful summary of the life of a great priest.
Willie was unique and wonderful. Not only was he a planner and a strategist but he never lost touch with people and their needs. If I could be be the kind of priest Willie was, I wouldn’t be doing too bad at all.