THE LONELY PASSION OF WILLIE WALSH
He has regularly been a lone voice in the hierarchy in defence of those on the margins of Irish society. In this rare interview, Bishop Willie Walsh speaks frankly about his life, work and falling in love
Sunday Tribune, 5 November 2006 by SuzannePower
THE Bishop of Killaloe's residence is a journey into a previous century . . . a fine Georgian country house situated just off a 21st-century roundabout.
The bishop currently in residence must feel his life is a lot like this.
Standing for tradition, in fulfilling his episcopal role, he has expressed on more than one occasion a desire for change.
In his first years as bishop, Willie Walsh wrote to the clergy and suggested he move out into "something more practical, a bungalow".
They responded that they felt the bishop had lived in this house a long time and should live in it still.
But this move is on the cards again.
"The strange thing about it is the house doesn't bother me anymore. I am used to it and like it now."
He has sold lands adjoining the property to compensate some victims of abuse. His actions are direct and sometimes interpreted as rash. In his presence, you note his movements are measured and his replies considered. He has agreed to be interviewed about his thoughts and struggles as an individual, as a man.
He lives and works in the one room, although he has a bedroom upstairs. It is clear, when you sit down in the guest chair and the loose spring makes itself known, that, while his room is comfortable, nothing has been replaced.
The story of Bishop Walsh allowing travellers to camp on his front lawn is well known. It also indicates his lack of interest in, or time for, gardening. His house is a diocesan office and he is in his 72nd year, 12 of them spent as a bishop, 25 as a secondary school teacher, 11 as a third-level student in Maynooth, Rome and Galway.
Hurling addict For 30 years, he was a hurling addict, involved with the Clare teams, training local parish and college teams. "My claim to hurling fame is the year after they got rid of me, the Clare team won the All Ireland." He bursts out laughing.
The interview begins at nine o'clock in the evening. There is only one light on in the house and that's in the room he spends his life in. When he opens the door, he has his newspaper in hand and a pen behind his ear.
"I'm a sudoku addict, " he smiles.
He then tries to explain the rudiments in the patient manner of a former teacher to a poor student who didn't pass maths. I might have done had I been in his class.
The desk is piled high but ordered.
The room is a bachelor's, in that care is not taken over it. Everything in it is serviceable . . . books, papers, golf knick-knacks, pictures of action scenes rather than emotive ones, a fine fireplace, a simple cross. He is overworked.
"There is a tendency to drift over to the desk even late at night to get things done when I shouldn't be there." There is a sign in the corner: 'Not all Great Ideas come from the Bishop's Desk'. It was presented to him, on his appointment in 1994, by the priests of the diocese, on top of a new computer.
Bishop Walsh is tired. Will he retire at 75?
"Yes, very much so, if even I go on to 75. I don't have the same energy at 71 as I had at 50." He laughs and then gets serious. "Sometimes priests are not good at retirement. We don't have grandchildren or younger family to get involved with. I don't know if I was retired how well I would cope with it.
I would describe myself as slightly workaholic. But at the moment if I were retired, I'd love to play golf two or three days a week!"
How does he view himself? "As being lucky in life, with my family, my work and my friends. I have lots of frailties. I'd rather not go into those except to say I've managed to cope with them reasonably well all my life. I sometimes think I have had too comfortable a life. I have never suffered deeply, been short of money or held back by circumstances. I would be a fairly generous person.
I give what I have and when I have it. But I can never know, for myself, what people have suffered. I think I could have done a lot more. I haven't always lived up to the ideals that were put in front of me."
His middle childhood however, was not luxurious. Here is what he says about his childhood: "I was born in 1935 and reared outside Roscrea. My mother would have been very pious. My father was not demonstrative, but he had a strong solid faith. An atmosphere of daily Rosary and faith was a part of the household. Everyone around was a practising Catholic, but for a handful of Protestants. We got on very well with them, even though we knew they were wrong and we were right" . . . his tone is wry in saying this. "I was sent to boarding school when I was 12. It was a difficult experience because they were sparse places in the '40s and '50s . . . even the food was scarce.
They were strict too. Thankfully, I didn't leave with a chip on my shoulder, but things could have been better."
Easygoing approach It was his intention, until his final year, to do engineering. Then, he still doesn't know where it came from, he decided to be a priest instead. While at Maynooth, he was chosen, after three years sitting a science degree, to go to Rome to study theology and canon law.
"I came from a society of rules.
But the Italians didn't take rules and regulations half as seriously as we did in Ireland. They had an easygoing approach, and it gave me a freedom that was missing from my upbringing.
There is an order in rules, but if the rules become more important than the person, then I think you are in difficulty. Christ was constantly challenging the scribes and Pharisees about their over-emphasis on rules and regulations.
"All of us were reared as Pioneers and the discovery of Italian wine was joyous, I can tell you.
Rome was a wonderful experience.
When I go back there, I feel so at home. Italians are loving people.
There's an honesty about them.
There is a danger in any religious organisation of becoming concerned with regulations to the extent of forgetting the core of what we're at. Ultimately there is one law . . . the law of love."
Does he have doubts as to God's existence. "There must be moments when you wonder if those that say there is no God might be right. There are moments of question in my life, but when I look at the extraordinary complexity of our world, I just can't accept that there is not a greater intelligence behind it all. There are two important supports to my belief. One is the wonder of nature, the second is the love that I have experienced from other people."
He overcame fears and doubts "which every young man studying for the priesthood goes through, about whether it was right for me. I worried about being worthy, and the issue of living a celibate life was a big concern for me." He came through this and was ordained in 1959, on a day in which he describes having a "tremendous, just a tremendous feeling".
"As a man, I would have found celibacy a big sacrifice. There are different stages to it.
In the early years, to be intimate and loving with the opposite sex would have been a strong drive.
That attraction remains throughout your life. But as I grow older, I think it is the joy and new life that grandchildren bring to people my age that I miss most. I think it would be lovely to have that joy in my own life."
There is a reflective loneliness in this statement, but he turns it into a positive almost immediately afterwards. This is a pattern in his thoughts and behaviour. "I've worked closely with married people all my life. My closest friends are married. I know that marriage is not a continuous honeymoon either. I'm aware of looking at grass and considering it greener. You pay prices in life. Celibacy, when lived generously, is a gift from God and a gift to people.
But if celibacy for a priest is destructive of life and love, you have to look at whether it's right for him.
"I would be concerned for some priests who I feel are very lonely. I've been lucky that I have a small number of very close friends, male and female, whom I love dearly. It fills that void for me. My life can still be lonely at times.
"If you followed literally the training of priesthood for my generation, it could lead to isolation. There was a certain fear of intimacy. It could make you cold and distant. I found notes I'd made from a 1958 retreat recently and I reread them. I could identify with the young man who wrote them, except on the issue of chastity and platonic intimacy. The notes were suggesting that working in a parish, you had to be friendly with everybody and not too friendly with anyone. I saw that as saying 'don't let anyone get too close'. I think I managed to get over that. I was involved in the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, now known as Accord.
The people involved were practically all married lay people. I feel they taught me not to be afraid of intimacy. Obviously, I would not be familiar with a full loving relationship between a man and a woman."
Still in love Did he ever fall in love? "Several times, well a number of times anyhow. And I hope that I am still in love with a small number of people.
That, obviously, puts me at risk.
And I suppose you put someone else at risk too. But I'm happy that these relationships were conducted in a respectful manner which did not compromise either of us.
These relationships have been very enriching."
It's refreshing to hear this honesty. He is forthcoming about his struggles, and in doing so, identifies with those living in the thin ribbon of Ireland from west Clare to Birr that comprises his diocese.
Some would argue that he identifies too much with those who are marginalised. The travelling people, divorcees, priests who had to leave because they wanted to marry, women with vocations to be priests . . .
many have heard him speak up in their favour. Why?
Because ultimately, his one steadfast rule is: "I try to think what Christ might do in certain situations. And I try to do that. I know that causes difficulty on occasion. But I have to do it. I don't suggest for a moment that I always get it right."
He might have had a life of relative ease, but he has had one or two terrible times personally: "I am the youngest of four boys and two girls. Two of my brothers died.
One was in his early 50s, a lovely person, but careless with his health. My other brother died two years ago, aged 70. It's hard to be at the funerals of your own family.
The most difficult one to officiate at was that of one of my nieces who was only 16f".
Then, straight to the bright side.
"But then there is the joy of officiating at the weddings. One of my nieces got married recently.
"There are ups and downs in every life, and that is true of the life of a priest. You are there with people in their times of greatest happiness and deepest sorrows."
What gets him down?
"I think when people treat other people with lack of respect. And there have been times when I have been guilty of that. I would be sad when people who profess to be good Catholics abuse another human being. I am not just talking about sexual abuse, though of course I am talking about that too . . . just lack of respect for others. There is nothing as extraordinary, mysterious or wonderful as another human being. So everyone is worthy of and entitled to deep respect.
"It makes me sad, it hurts me, when I meet people who have been hurt by anyone working in the name of the Church, by priests, religious or lay persons. That's certainly the saddest part. I have tried to be open about it and help anyone I can who has experienced such hurt. But you meet some people who have been so deeply hurt and badly damaged. When you see how they have suffered, it is hard to bear, because lives have been destroyed."
Spiritual fatigue It's late at night now, and the interviewee has been on the go since early morning. He denies tiredness but it is clear that in this room crowded with objects and thoughts, a lot of despair, soul-searching and spiritual fatigue has gone on.
"Yes, I have sat in here and wept after some of the stories that I have heard. The agony of the stories was at times to much to bear for me as a listener. For the sufferer, of course, it was nothing short of a living hell."
What of the future of the Irish Church?
"The reality is that you don't know if the Church in Ireland will survive. I believe the Gospel and Christ's teaching will survive, will endure. Certainly, if you attend any Sunday Eucharist in Ireland, you are very struck by the absence of young people. We used to say:
'they'll come back when they get married and have children'. I think we are fooling ourselves a bit in that regard.
"As we have it at the moment, our Church is not speaking to the lives of young people. I don't have any simple answers to this and there are not any. We are living in an age of uncertainty, and there are so many different things that affect the opinion of young people about Church: the scandals, but more than just that. Young people were leaving the Church across Europe before the scandals. The scandals have given permission to people who have been hurt by Church in various ways over the years, to challenge and reject the Church."
"I know lots of honest, upright, decent people who care for others and do their best, some of them great friends of mine, who would not be church-goers. It sometimes saddens me that they are missing out on the Eucharist. I have one good friend who, when I am in trouble, as I often am, would be first to pick up the phone and say:
'are you alright?' He wouldn't be in the church on Sundays. But he has heart and he has been a great support to me."
As a curate and a bishop, he has been happy, but some of the experience, as he puts it with his practiced humour, "has been a bit more enriching than I would have needed, perhaps".
Willie Walsh's views on celibacy and women priests have been well documented. It is a stipulation of his interview that we do not venture into this territory.
"Someone in the media", he smiles, "once referred to me as the wishy washy bishop. I do sometimes wonder if I trim my sails to the prevailing wind."
"There are others", he still smiles, but less so, "who say that I don't deserve to be bishop and should resign. I worry people might feel I am not sufficiently loyal to the teaching of the Church." He reacts strongly to any suggestions that he is different to other bishops.
"Of course, each one of us has his own personality and there will be differences in approach.
But we are not about personalities. We are about the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. I like my colleagues and I believe they like me. We struggle together and I think that for all of us the great struggle and indeed the great sadness of recent years has been dealing with the very painful and shameful issue of sexual abuse."
Privilege and responsibility Would he say more if he was a plain member of the public, rather than bishop? "Yes, but not much more."
Was there ever a time when he would have liked not to do the job?
"Yes, a few times. But I never got as far as putting pen to paper to resign. I have to say the 12 years as bishop have been a lot happier than I would have expected."
Why did he accept the appointment if he was apprehensive about it? "I saw it as a privilege and a responsibility. I believed that the spirit of God was involved. I believed it was right for me."
He gets his energy from people, from being with people, whether celebrating liturgies or simply talking, listening, exchanging views.
He confesses to be less fond of paperwork.
How does he deal with criticism?
"I suppose one has to accept criticism as part of the job. Some of it can be very personal . . . I try to answer every such letter. I would reply to complaints trying to help the person to realise that I have to do what I believe to be right. It amazes me how certain some can be that their view is the only possible one. A colleague put it this way one time: 'I wish I was as sure about anything as some people are about everything.'
"I suppose I die uncertain, but I do put my hope in a loving God who understands my uncertainties and frailties."
The wisdom of Bishop Willie Walsh On celibacy: "As a man, I would have found celibacy a big sacri"ce. In the early years, to be intimate and loving with the opposite sex would have been a strong drivef but as I grow older, I think it is the joy and new life that grandchildren bring to people my age that I miss most."
On whether he has ever fallen in love:
"Several times, well a number of times anyhow. And I hope that I am still in love with a small number of people. That, obviously, puts me at risk. And I suppose you put someone else at risk too. But I'm happy that these relationships were conducted in a respectful manner which did not compromise either of us. These relationships have been very enriching."
On abuse: "It makes me sad, it hurts me, when I meet people who have been hurt by anyone working in the name of the Church, by priests, religious or lay personf you meet some people who have been so deeply hurt and badly damaged. When you see how they have suffered, it is hard to bear, because lives have been destroyed."
On the Church's future: "The reality is that you don't know if the Church in Ireland will survive. Certainly if you attend any Sunday Eucharist in Ireland, you are very struck by the absence of young people. We used to say: 'they'll come back when they get married and have children'. I think we are fooling ourselves a bit in that regard."
On his liberal image: "Someone in the media once referred to me as 'the wishy washy bishop'. I do sometimes wonder if I trim my sails to the prevailing wind.
There are others who say that I don't deserve to be bishop and should resign. I worry people might feel I am not suf"ciently loyal to the teaching of the Church."
On whether God exists: "There must be moments when you wonder if those that say there is no God might be right. There are moments of question in my life, but when I look at the extraordinary complexity of our world, I just can't accept that there is not a greater intelligence behind it all."