End of an era as humble servant Bishop Colm O’Reilly bows out

Bishop Colm O'Reilly receiving a presentation from from Michael Denning, Board of Management chairman at Moyne Community School. Photo: Shelley Corcoran
The term ‘gentleman’ is a turn of phrase often overused yet rarely merited.

The term ‘gentleman’ is a turn of phrase often overused yet rarely merited.

It’s an expression that undoubtedly applies to Bishop Colm O’Reilly nonetheless, a man who just oozes sincerity and all-round decency.

This Sunday those virtues, along with many others, will be recognised as the Colmcille native prepares to hang up his crozier for the last time.

St Mary’s Church in Athlone will provide the setting for the official ordination of Fr Francis Duffy, the man charged with filling Bishop Colm’s shoes after more than three decades as the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois’ chief cleric.

It’s an occasion he appears relaxed over, despite admitting to being somewhat taken aback his ‘retirement’ has taken the best part of three years to arrive.

“I was 75 when I tendered my resignation and yes I was a little bit surprised, but I think I know the explanation,” he pointedly remarks.

“For a while, discussion began whether dioceses should be amalgamated into bigger units or put under the guidance of singular bishops. That slowed the whole thing up and nobody was appointed, but that’s just the way it worked out.”

The delay brought with it plenty of “leg-pulling” at various Bishops Conferences, but plenty of upsides too. When senior clergy both at home and abroad were summoned to a meeting with the Pope in February 2010, Cardinals and Bishops were seated in order of seniority, meaning those longest in office sat closest to the Pontiff.

It was a moment in time the veteran cleric reminisces fondly over, but one he might not have had the chance to savour following his own brush with mortality.

Ten years after replacing Cathal Daly as Bishop, the former Granard-based priest flew out to Africa to visit his late brother and Missionary Priest, Brendan who was gravely ill in hospital.

While there, Bishop Colm suffered a massive heart attack of his own. Rushed to hospital by a fellow priest, medics at Nairobi Hospital astonishingly refused the pair access until they had paid at the door.

“The pain was getting worse and worse and when I arrived a person said to me: ‘You have to pay 15 Kenyan shillings to get in.’

“I hadn’t a penny on me and I suppose it would be about five or six euro in today’s terms. The priest that was with me fortunately had enough with him.

“Whatever people say about the HSE, I think they would have let us in,” he comically puts it.

After six weeks of convalescence, Bishop Colm returned home and continued where he left off. Confirmations, church ceremonies and countless other official duties became the norm along with regular Bishops’ summits and occasional jaunts to Rome.

Given his huge length of service to the Church, 53 years to be precise, the drawn out response he gives when asked about his many highlights are hardly surprising.

“There were lovely positive ones, many in fact,” he remarks, arms folded. “One I remember is the year when we celebrated the Jubilee in 2000. We had a lovely event in the cathedral which was very memorable and Cardinal Daly came down for it. There were marquees outside the cathedral; it was just a lovely family day. But there were lots of other ones (memories) too.

Turning the discussion to its exact opposite and one of regrets, Bishop Colm admits being twice turned down by his then superior, the first in 1969 and some years later as a Missionary priest to Zambia, still occupy his thinking.

“There are bits of me that do regret that, but on the other hand it just wasn’t to be. I suppose it’s a fact of life that there are options that come. Sometimes you get to make those choices, but in my case it was my predecessor who made it for me.”

He never, though, harboured any designs on going further up the clerical ladder. Ushered into the role in March 1983, setting his stamp on his own administration and leadership style was evident right from the off.

“Of course I had reservations,” he candidly admits, when pressed about the task that confronted him. “I was going to walk into the shoes of a man who had great competence and a very high national profile. Then, I said to myself: ‘All I can do is do what I can do’. I was a different person, with a different background and had different ways of doing things and I have stuck to that ever since.”

One of those attributes that has defined his tenure has been his openness and willingness to speak objectively and without a hint of bias on most topics.

Much like the era in which he took over as Bishop, Ireland finds itself in the grip of recession.

And in a frank admission of our present day difficulties, many indebted households he conceded, were right to feel “let down”.

He said: “It’s a very sore point. You have to feel for people who are in that predicament. Beyond question the country was let down.

“There was a collective blindness about it all, be it from political leaders or bankers. There was a very false assumption that this (Celtic Tiger) could go on the way it was going. When you think back, it made no sense whatsoever.”

The Church, he believes, will play an important role in plugging that gap. The success of voluntary led organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the employment provided by the ongoing restoration of St Mel’s Cathedral are just for starters, he confides.

What Bishop Colm has been noticeably careful to veer away from throughout his unblemished career has been to become embroiled in controversial debates.

Whereas other, perhaps more outspoken prelates, have waded into topics of societal interest, the north Longfordian has rarely, if ever, courted negative publicity.

His beliefs in regard to the Church’s position on gay marriage illustrate this.

“It’s very hard for the Church to do anything but stand by the fact that marriage as an institution has one definition. That is the unit being the coming together of one man and one woman with the possibility of children.

“I think the definition of marriage is one thing we don’t want to alter. But I also think it’s important to say that the Church has a concern, a respect and wish that people who order their lives in a different way will not be pilloried or dismissed in any way.”

The almost exact same parallel could be levelled at his stance on everyday Church customs.

In the diocese of Meath, his colleague, Dr Michael Smith has advised priests to avoid the practice of eulogies taking place inside the Church.

Rather than issue a blanket ban, Bishop Colm sees merit in holding both the Mass and appreciations independently.

“To interfere in any way around funerals is highly dangerous in that above all change can be very sensitive,” he remarks.

“I think there should be a way of including speeches but not in the context of something that is celebrated during Mass.

“The Mass itself has its own inner structure. I think the best solution to that is to separate things totally. If people want to say things about the good life of the deceased and thank people for coming, it should be done somehow separately.”

Besides tweaking with what goes on at a ceremonial level, the Church faces many challenges.

Declining Mass attendances are one, as are the pressing need to address its own vocations issue.

Despite playing down fears the diocese faces an imminent crisis when it comes to priest numbers, a staggering fact lies in Bishop Colm’s own startling revelation.

“We have been fortunate a crisis hasn’t hit us yet, but it’s not far off,” he ominously predicts. “ I ordained 22 for the diocese and many of them were in the 70s. But that’s not enough to replace the ones that were lost or the ones that died. I’d say I celebrated the funerals of 50 or 60 priests (during time as Bishop).”

To combat those shortages, the laity he accepts will have to play a far more active role. Duties such as leading prayers at funerals as well as those at graveside burials are among the additional duties he can see lay people assuming responsibility for.

“They (laiety) will have to do more, of course. Some dioceses have deacons taking on responsibilities and there are a lot of things that you don’t in fact have to be a deacon for.

“I think people have to get used to the idea of having somebody doing some of the things that don’t require ordination. We should be easing the burden rather than adding to it.”

One facet of the Church parishioners have embraced, much to his own delight, has been the steady refurbishment of St Mel’s Cathedral.

Gutted by fire on Christmas Day 2009, its painstaking rebuild has understandably taken its toll on a man, who next January celebrates his 79th birthday.

He still remembers receiving a phone-call shortly after 5am, informing him that the Cathedral was on fire. Dazed and understandably shocked, he still has trouble recounting the next few hours almost half a decade later.

“It was just overwhelming, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. I was just struck dumb by it all. It was like watching your own life being put through the shredder.”

Not accustomed to displaying his innermost feelings to the outside world, many sleepless nights and tears were shed in private as he struggled to comprehend the enormity of it all.

Four years on, any overriding sense of sadness has been subsumed by one of optimism as thoughts turn towards the Cathedral’s grand re-opening for Christmas Eve Mass 2014.

“I went on record at the time and said we would restore it. Looking back on it, it was heart rather than head that was doing the talking.

“But it was important I said that because people needed to hear it and the progress that has been made since has exceeded expectations.”

The results of those modernisations he speaks so fondly of are for another day though, a day you get the feeling Bishop Colm is quietly longing for.

In the meantime, and as he gets set to stand aside later this week, there is much he intends setting his mind to.

Jetting off to sunnier climbs doesn’t appear to be on the agenda any time soon. But his penchant for walking, a custom he enjoys immensely, definitely is.

Another is the lure of being able to take life as it comes.

“I won’t be setting the alarm clock that’s for sure,” he smiles.

And why not? It’s a luxury this amiable, gracious and cordial church leader has justifiably earned throughout a flawless and impeccable five decade-long career.

Thank you Bishop Colm, thank you.