The former Catholic primate of Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, died yesterday at the age of 92. On the eve of what promises to be yet another difficult year for the Irish Catholic Church, Cardinal Daly’s death seems to have created a brief pause during which politicians, church leaders, and others have taken to evaluating his life and times. Reading the various tributes and obituaries can help us gain a more rounded picture of the role of the Irish Catholic Church in the generation just passed.
As William Crawley observes, most of the published tributes ‘focus on his work as a peace advocate, as a staunch opponent of physical force Republicanism, and as a campaigner for Christian unity.’ Daly’s willingness to criticise physical force republicanism, but at the same time to welcome its inclusion in the peace process, constituted considerable leadership at the time.
Casting a backward glance over the Troubles, it can be easy to forget the role of Catholic priests in facilitating and encouraging dialogue at important steps along the way. It also can be easy to forget how far ecumenical relationships have come since 1969. As a foremost advocate of ecumenism, Daly was a leader in the Catholic Church during a period in which ecumenical dialogue and cooperation was once almost revolutionary, but now because of a more general acceptance, can almost seem ordinary. This is no small accomplishment.
Remembrances of Daly also reference his handling of clerical sex abuse scandals, in which he comes off as little wiser than some of the present leadership.
I did not live in Ireland until after Daly’s retirement from active church life, so I have no real memories of him. My knowledge of him comes from books and study. The most compelling comment I have heard about him was in an interview that is running today on BBC Radio Ulster news bulletins with Donal McKeown, the auxiliary bishop of Down and Connor.
McKeown references an interview he heard Daly give after the death of Pope John Paul II. Daly was asked if he was discouraged with the decline of the Catholic Church in Europe, and the unrelenting fallout from abuse scandals. Daly replied to the effect that he wished he was a young priest, because it was an exciting time to be a young priest.
Now, I don’t know for sure all that Daly had in mind when he made that comment, but it strikes me as remarkably hopeful and open about embracing change. It may be the case that the Irish Catholic Church in Ireland will be unrecognisable within a generation. In the best case scenario, there will be a more engaged laity. The current culture of clerical secrecy and denial will have been destroyed, and priests and laypeople will interact more like brothers and sisters rather than fathers and children. And the Irish Catholic Church, having seen the last vestiges of political and cultural power slip from its grasp, will at last be free to serve – not dictate to – society. That would be a Christianity to be excited about.
(Photo from BBC website)