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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 2 July, 2020

Column: Cardinal Rules - On January boot camp for the boys

This week, the (not) Primate of All Ireland observes a morale-building exercise, complete with assault course and Dr James Reilly’s speech-giving techniques.

(Not) Cardinal Sean Brady

THIS WEEK I accompanied Bishop Brophy to Maynooth on his now annual visit to the new seminarians. Both Bishop Brophy and I see it as a morale boost after the Christmas period when irrational doubts tend to creep in, or people are feeling a little bit homesick.

I see him as my gentle enforcer, swaying back to their vocation those who have strayed from the path, or indeed cajoling them from atop the seminary belfry. But enough about the wildly misrepresented events of Christmas 1996. Usually a quick pep talk can put paid to anyone scaling a wall, and the occasional intemperate wail of “But I want to see my mammy!”


Bishop Brophy gathers all ten of the new seminarians in the gym. He walks up and down the line asking them their names, and smiling in a grandfatherly way. My job consists of standing nearby, steepling my fingers, and saying an earnest “Mmm,” every few minutes.

Bishop Brophy then faces them head on and starts his traditional motivational speech.

“Do you have any family history that has seen you take this as a career choice? Did you grow up on an isolated farm? Perhaps you were brought up by an overbearing pious father prone to sudden inexplicable outbursts of violent rage? Were you also brought up by a saintly suffering mother? Did your father have occasion maybe perhaps to drown, shoot, or sell a cherished family pet, while making you watch as he drowned, shot, or sold said cherished family pet? Have you taken this pain and sublimated it into a directionless impulse to do good, and to reach out to people in some vague shape or form? Well, if you’ve had none of these experiences then leave now. There’s the door.”

There is silence. Nobody moves. Bishop Brophy smiles at me.

“Which one of you has a stutter?” he bellows.

He turns back to me “There’s always one with a stutter,” he winks.

“Don’t worry whoever you are,” he tells them cheerily, “we’ll beat that out of you.”

He turns back to me. “Not literally of course, there are laws against that now,” he sighs.


The day is spent saying prayers, talking about the Bible, and having a surprise ten-mile run. Bishop Brophy is particularly encouraged by the proliferation of Christmas and V-necked jumpers. Indeed none of the seminarians seems to have any idea about the current fashion trends. A late blooming seminarian is even wearing flecked trousers. This is of course a very encouraging sign.

Later he tells me he has taken note of each and every one of them. “As always we must work on their weak points and vulnerabilities and take advantage of them. I’m particularly optimistic about the fat one with the wonky eye.”

“You mean the one that constantly smells of cheese and onion crisps?”

“That’s the one,” he replies energetically.


Bishop Brophy tells the seminarians that they must be slightly more open to the outside world. Just slightly.

“It enlarges your vision, and helps you, if not to feel empathy for people, at least to create a decent approximation of it.”

Bishop Brophy informs everyone that one of the best ways to understand what’s going on in people’s lives is to look at what is trending on the Twitter. We go down the trending list. After about five minutes we notice that #joysofhavingapenis is trending. Nobody knows what to say for ages. Somebody stifles a sob.

“Okay, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” says Bishop Brady slamming the lid down on the laptop.


The day starts with a five-mile run for the seminarians, followed by an assault course. Everything is punctuated by Bishop Brophy shouting orders.

“I feel just like Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen,” he grins.

I politely inform him that I should be Lee Marvin and he should be Richard Jaeckel. He doesn’t seem too happy with the idea. Then we spend the rest of the day trying to figure which of the seminarians is John Cassavetes. We settle on the nervy talkative one from Roscommon.


Bishop Brophy is advising the seminarians on how best to deal with parishioners. “You need to be able to project both a certain degree of paternalism, with a sense of  patrician superiority,” he says.

As an example he shows us Dr James Reilly being interviewed on the Six-One News.

“See how he manages to be both subtly patronising while also utilising a faint, despairing belligerence?”

The seminarians nod. Some of them start taking notes. Later he teaches them how to project an air of confidence, even while all available evidence points towards disaster. He uses a Phil Hogan interview as an example.


We are down to eight seminarians. We console ourselves with the fact that the percentage is down on previous years, and that according to the law of averages we should be able to at least track one down and coax him back with a few well placed threats.

“The future is looking bright,” smiles Bishop Brophy as we drive away.

And I find myself hoping that he’s not channelling Phil Hogan.

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(Not) Cardinal Sean Brady

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