There was no mistaking Fr. Kelly’s confidence and charisma. It wasn’t just his demeanor or attire, his shoulder length dark hair, black beard or his blue jeans. He wore a wooden crucifix around his neck instead of the traditional roman collar. Even the lads down in the back row were quiet. If we chose to follow Jesus, he intoned with his Belfast brogue, we would make a difference. He took us through the selection of slides of his parish in rural Liberia. It was a compelling scenario for a young lad in rural Ireland.
Looking back now, half a lifetime later, I realize I imagined a religious life as some sort of exotic ticket on which I could piggyback my way through life. I simply wanted to escape the poverty of rural Ireland. And living my life as a priest in Africa seemed a likely, if improbable solution. Remarkably, I never discussed my vocation with my parents. My family – I was one of ten children – simply wasn't a family that was given to such conversations.
At the time, the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland was held in high regard. Priests were beyond reproach. Over the next decade the Church would self-destruct, but at the time there was no inkling of anything untoward. More than a million people had just crammed into a cordoned off section of the Phoenix Park to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul ll celebrating mass. Any surprise visit by our local curate had our Ma peeling off her apron, frantically tidying up and reaching for the rarely used china, or the bottle of Jameson – irrespective of the time of day – that she kept in the sideboard for such special occasions.
Towards the end of the following summer, I was on my way with my rosary beads and a brand new bible stowed in my suitcase. Everything I saw that day as the train traveled along has long since slid from my memory. No doubt there would’ve been livestock grazing in the fields, acres of stubble and quiet traffic queues at the level crossings. I’d spent a long and solitary summer milking fifty Friesians on a farm in Leitrim, and that day when I’d finally head off to the seminary couldn’t come quick enough.
Some of my fellow seminarians had given up careers as teachers, computer technicians and salesmen, but most were, like me, just out of secondary school. It still astounds me that we imagined we’d devote the rest of our lives to converting Africans to Catholicism. In between studying, meditating and some token gardening, we played a lot of table-tennis and snooker. At times we got on each other’s nerves. There weren’t any fist-fights but it occasionally came close. Homesickness wasn’t a problem as I’d spent several years at boarding school.
But by the year’s end, I was unraveling. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I had no appetite and I couldn’t concentrate. Nights were the worst. I’d wake up in the early hours and remain alert for the rest of the night. I realized that a calling could be a nebulous thing; and that I’d be tested like Jesus at Gethsemane. So, I thought my perilous state of mind was all par for the course. No matter how hard I tried, meditation made no difference. I wasn’t sure who or what to believe anymore, and although I didn’t know it, my difficulties hadn’t gone unnoticed.
After breakfast one morning, the Superior, a quietly spoken man, who always wore Aran sweaters and corduroy trousers, tapped me on my shoulder and asked me to pop into his office ‘for a chat.’ I wasn’t sure what to expect. We’d never spoken before, but he was a familiar figure, pacing the corridors while reading his breviary.
He invited me to sit down but he chose to stand at his window which overlooked the tennis courts. Normally a jovial man, he suddenly seemed ill at ease. And by now, I was worried. He turned towards me, cleared his throat and he said that the Order was recommending that I immediately terminate my vocation. He said he believed I was building my foundations on sand and it would be better for all concerned if I packed my things. He paused as if to let what he was saying sink in or perhaps to give me an opportunity to respond, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Taking a tissue out of his pocket, he began cleaning the lens of his glasses, so I turned and walked out of the room.
Two years later I was on the ferry. In London I got a one-way flight to Melbourne. Almost half a life time later, I haven’t looked back. Though, of course, those of us who leave are always looking back.
From the Order’s website, I gleaned that only a handful of my class made it to ordination. One still works in the Philippines and another is in Tanzania. I can only admire their enduring self-belief and tenacity.
Thirty years later in Australia, my religious inclinations have well and truly evaporated. I went to Mass for the first few years but then things started to slide. Working as a nurse meant working on some Sundays, but it was more than that. Growing up in Ireland, going to Sunday Mass was an event. Whereas kneeling in a near-empty church in suburban Melbourne quickly lost its appeal.
The Catholic Church in this country also has had its share of scandal. The Church’s response to a litany of sexual abuse allegations has been woefully inadequate. Perpetrators were also “moved on” only to continue on with their crimes.
But the Church’s fall from grace here hasn’t been as spectacular as in Ireland. After all, no religion has ever succeeded in occupying center stage in this continent. Maybe it’s because Australians are generally a brash, skeptical lot. I honestly think that the land of Down Under will always remain a vast godless place, devoid of any Croagh Patricks and Lough Dergs. But, truth be told, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I have worked as a psychiatric nurse for the past three decades. It’s a profession that calls for a caring and compassionate approach for those who grapple with their own demons. Perhaps, it’s not all that dissimilar from tending to people’s spiritual needs.
My bible is long since lost, but I’ve held on to the rosary beads. For some reason that I can’t quite explain, I keep them in a safe place in my bedroom. I suspect Fr. Kelly would approve.