I live next door to the Church where I was baptised, so in a funny way my life has come full-circle. But when my Dad and my God-mother and my older brother brought me for the ceremony I am sure they never dreamed that the little baby would be back as a priest to say Mass there over sixty years later!
Despite being baptised in Dublin, I grew up in County Meath. My father was from Cork and my mother from Kerry, and I have an older brother and two younger sisters. We have no history of priests or religious in our family, but it was as an altar-server in Trim that I first began to think about becoming a priest. It is not something you would decide to do, and I always thought I would be a teacher or a civil servant. But I served Mass for a newly-ordained Columban Priest, and he asked me if I ever thought of being a priest. Somehow the idea took root, and later in secondary school (in Dublin) we had a talk about Priesthood from Father Paddy Crean who was Head Chaplain to the Irish Army and a really colourful character. He invited anyone interested to come and see him at Collins Barracks. I remember some difficulty getting past the military policeman on the gate, but it was a memorable visit, and I applied to study for the priesthood in Dublin diocese.
I spent the first three years living at Clonliffe College and studying at UCD. There with five of my classmates I was sent to study Theology at St. Patrick’s College Maynooth. It was a very exciting time in the Church; Pope John the twenty third had been elected and was shortly to convene the Second Vatican Council. The last ecumenical council had closed in 1870 and his decision was a great surprise. But it ushered in a time of change and renewal in the Catholic Church, and that is a process which is still going on over forty years later. Our class were the last to be ordained in Latin as English was first introduced into the liturgy of the Mass in 1965.
My ordination in May 1964 was a very happy and memorable event. As the little Church at Clonliffe was so small, we were only allowed 17 guests. I remember telling my brother that he could only invite his girlfriend if they were really serious – they were, and I celebrated their wedding two years later. After the years of study and preparation I was delighted to be appointed Chaplain at Blanchardstown hospital, and the following year took up duty at St. Paul’s Arran Quay where I was chaplain to St. Brendan’s Hospital and later to the ‘Old’ Richmond Hospital. The highlight of my ministry there was baptising conjoined twins – two beautiful little girls. Sadly they did not survive.
In 1968 I was appointed an emigrant chaplain in the UK and found this a very enriching and challenging experience. Working in a new environment and collaborating with English clergy gave me new insights into church life and pastoral practice. We have a lot to learn from our colleagues ‘across the water’. I also experienced the loneliness of being an emigrant, and I hope it has made me sensitive to the needs of people who are far from home.
Having returned to Dublin in 1970 I have served in four parishes – all of them different – and I spent ten years involved in marriage preparation and marriage counselling in the agency now known as Accord. In every parish I was involved with ministry to young people – as a school chaplain, and also in music groups for ‘young adult’ Masses. In 1993 I went with a parish group to a meeting of young adults in Munich which was organised by the Taizé community, and I have gone on pilgrimage to Taizé itself with groups of young adults many times since then.
In the last parish where I served there was a very active inter-church fellowship which promoted friendship and co-operation between the various local churches. Perhaps it was this involvement, together with my interest in working with young adults which led to my being asked to become a university chaplain. I must confess it was a very unexpected job-offer, and I was quite reluctant to leave ‘main-stream’ parish ministry where one is close to people at all stages of their Christian lives. But I was encouraged to give it a try, and I have spent a very enjoyable and rewarding six years as a chaplain at Trinity College. The funny thing is that if someone had said to me the day that I was ordained that I would end up as a Catholic chaplain at TCD, I would have said it was impossible as in those days Catholics were forbidden to attend Trinity. But the ‘ban’ was lifted in 1970 and the first Catholic chaplain appointed that same year. Now I work as part of a team of four chaplains – two Catholic and two Protestant – and as well as ministering to our own congregations we give joint Christian witness in an amazingly diverse and multi-cultural college community.
Looking back on my life – and I am entitled to do that as I am now officially a ‘senior citizen’ – I have to say that it has been enjoyable on the whole. There have been difficulties and challenges and times of sadness and loss, especially with family bereavements. My own extended family have been a huge support, and even though our life calls us to celibacy and excludes the possibility of having children and grand-children, the friendship and hospitality shown to priests, especially in Ireland, is quite something. And I have always cherished the promise of Jesus that those who follow Him would have a hundredfold in this life, and everlasting life as well!
A Day in the Life of a University Chaplain
The central heating in my flat starts up about 6.00 am and that usually wakes me. I must confess that I lie on in bed and read the Morning prayer of the Church until the flat warms up and it is time for a shave and shower. Breakfast is usually a bowl of porridge, orange juice, and tea, toast and marmalade. Then I try and spend time in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It is good to live next door to a Church, but I can also use the prayer chapel in College. Being a priest has its advantages in living beside the job and not having to commute to work!
After morning Mass it is time to stock up the chaplaincy Common Room which is an ‘open door’ facility offering hospitality to all comers. An endless supply of tea, coffee, herbal tea, drinking chocolate, and – most important – chocolate cookies, are on offer. Also available is the daily paper. This is the time to check the e-mails and voicemail, and follow up on any enquiries or problems which may present. There is a fair amount of administration related to weddings in the College Chapel, and we have to interview all couples who want to marry there.
We are an ecumenical chaplaincy team, two Catholic and two Protestant. Tuesdays are our busiest day. We meet for Morning Prayer – which is open to all. Then we have our weekly staff meeting, and later host a free lunch with soup, brown bread, cheese, etc. which is a haven for mostly international students, and a good time to meet and mingle. We have formal office hours in the morning and afternoon when people can drop in for a chat or to pursue more serious business.
Evening activities include a weekly Taize Prayer, Faith Development (‘Discover’) Group, a Scripture Group, and visits to student societies and activities. In Trinity term the Chaplaincy holds a bereavement support group. One or two evenings a week I help with House Visitation in the local parish.
Someone once described university chaplaincy as ‘loitering with intent’, and the first Catholic Chaplain in Trinity said he used to walk the length of the Campus every day – just to be seen, and more importantly to be available. The ministry of a university chaplain is a lot about presence and witness. We are often asked: ‘what do you do?’ and ‘are you busy?’ It is hard to give a definite answer – but I hope we are doing the Lord’s work in this amazing place!