‘Is the cappa magna making a comeback?’, asks Declan Kelly
In recent weeks I have found myself thinking of and praying for Fr John Dermody. Born in the parish of Cappatagle in the diocese of Clonfert some 160 years ago, stories about him are still legion within the parishes he served. Older people will swear he was born with a “cross on his back” made of hair, which they firmly believe presaged his “powers.”
On one occasion, having been summoned by a displeased Bishop John Healy to give an account of himself, Dermody reportedly grew so irate that he created from thin air a hive of angry, swarming wasps which chased the bishop and his terror-stricken aides from the room. Such stories are, of course, the stuff of nonsense.
One of the real reasons people recall his memory so vividly is because he was `silenced.` A tendency to speak too plainly and, sadly, a fondness for `the jar` conspired against him.
One would imagine that things have changed radically in the Church since then but have they? I find it disturbing that clerical students are to be virtually sequestered within St Patrick`s College, Maynooth, and consider it a regressive move. How does one live a semi-cloistered existence for seven years and then face into the hurly-burly of an urban parish?
I also find it troubling that clerical trappings most identified with John Dermody`s era are making a vigorous comeback, particularly the cappa magna. The cappa magna is a pendulous garment of watered silk and of an inordinate length, the most of which is usually carried as a train. Some undoubtedly derive comfort from the knowledge that clerical tailoring is alive and kicking in the early twenty-first century, though one must harbour serious reservations about the prudence of prelates of Christ wearing such an obviously costly item at a time when many catholics are living in distressed economic circumstances. And while I fully support the wearing of clerical attire for witness value, I seriously doubt that there are many catholics who are anxious to see some who bear the title Monsignor go about in garb better suited to a production of The Gondoliers than to a working Irish parish. In point of fact, these kinds of occurrences coupled with the silencings of recent times, are highly counterproductive and only serve to highlight a growing disconnect between catholics on the ground and the institutional Church.
Don`t get me wrong. I am far from being a screaming liberal, but it breaks my heart to see a Church which I have tried to serve loyally for a decade and which has so very much to offer to society push itself further and further away from the people of God.
If real renewal is to happen, then we must begin at the most fruitful source of renewal and that is the Gospels. It is only by listening carefully in our hearts to Christ`s words “I came not to be served but to serve” that we will find a way forward. The Church in Ireland is down but certainly not out. It can still be salvaged through vibrant preaching that begins with the daily experiences of people, through dedicated household visitation by clergy and religious that affords people a listening ear and open heart so lacking in today`s world and also by letting God`s people have an active role in the Church that has been a part of so many of their lives from first memory. So many good men and women in my own diocese and dioceses throughout the country struggle to bring Christ`s peace to people every day. They deserve every support.
I genuinely wish Archbishop Charles Brown every blessing and success in his difficult new duties. May I respectfully suggest that if he wishes to succeed beyond all expectation in facilitating a renewal here, he incorporate as part of his brief a regular visitation of every diocese which includes calling to the houses of working catholics and listening to their stories. In so doing he will greatly bridge the divide between people and the institutional Church in Ireland.
John Dermody lies in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in east Galway. He died in 1908 yet it is his memory (and not that of any of his former superiors) that the people recall. While that is partly due to the mystique generated by his silencing, it is also due to the reality that he was regarded as “a man of the people” and one who shared their sorrows, joys and anxieties. Come back Fr Dermody, all is forgiven.
Fr Declan Kelly is a Parish Priest in the diocese of Clonfert who is currently on sabbatical.