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Archbishop Thomas Morris: A Man Who Possessed a Native Earthiness

The Irish Times - Friday, January 17, 1997 by JOHN HORGAN

ARCHBISHOP Thomas Morris was one of the few Irish prelates who had to confront directly the enormous revolution in Irish Catholic attitudes brought about by Vatican II over 30 years ago. It was a task for which some members of the Hierarchy were better equipped than others, and Tom Morris was better equipped for it than most.

The factors that helped him through this exceptionally difficult transitional period included a native earthiness, a strong sense of the value of ordinariness, an engaging modesty, and a useful, often ironic sense of humour. He was very much in the Canon Hayes mould, and not only because of his life long devotion to Muintir na Tire: physically big, slow spoken, with the pipe in his mouth and both feet firmly planted in the parish, he exemplified solid rural virtues while remaining relatively at ease in the wider world.

In rugby parlance (although of course he was a GAA man to the core), he would be described as a safe pair of hands. This was, in all probability, why, after Vatican II, he was put in charge of the Irish Catholic Church's response to that Council's decree on communications. It was in this context that he struck up an enduring relationship with the late Father Joe Dunn, and shepherded the Catholic Communications Institute through its formative years. It was at one level an unlikely alliance, but the two men, very different in so many ways, certainly shared a faith that was supremely uncomplicated. It was a friendship to which Joe Dunn paid a solid and well deserved tribute in No Lions in the Hierarchy.

At the annual Mass for world communications day, where he often presided, he evinced an openness to those of other denominations - and perhaps even of none - which was all the more effective because it was expressed in simple language, unclouded by formularies or abstractions.

One of the projects which was closest to his heart was the restoration of Holy Cross Abbey in Tipperary, which he had carried out under the supervision of Percy le Clerc, and with a strong feeling for authenticity and simplicity which, in itself, marked a kind of turning point in episcopal artistic sensibilities.

In later years, I think he was saddened by some developments, that would have seemed to him to be spiralling out of control. The crisis at Maynooth, when two members of staff were dismissed in extraordinary circumstances, and where he and the other bishops found themselves opposed by many theologians and others where previously there would have been a large measure of mutual respect, was a wounding experience on both sides.

When I wrote a somewhat facetious report about one of the Hierarchy's decisions (to allow priests to attend the theatre), he sent me a (pained note wondering why, in Ireland, people could make such a butt of the Church. But like another, more famous member of the old guard, Bishop Lucey of Cork - he never confused political or theological disagreement with other, more personal considerations. When I last contacted him to seek his support for a particular project, a couple of years ago, he was courtesy itself and - as often - held his cards fairly close to his chest. His passing symbolises at least the beginning of the end of an era.

John Horgan is a senior lecturer in journalism at Dublin City University. He reported on the Second's Vatican Council for The Irish Times.