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Column: Cardinal Rules – on the annual trip to Knock

This week, the (not) Primate of All-Ireland brings the priests on their annual pilgrimage to the Mayo shrine. But is one of his clerical flock tempted by a (not ‘Our’) Lady?

(Not) Cardinal Sean Brady

THIS WEEK I brought the priests in the minibus on our annual trip to Knock. As usual a great time was had by one and all.

8am

We listen to the news over breakfast. Former Bishop Edward Daly is on talking about his new book, and getting rid of the oath of celibacy. This inspires lots of tutting and guffawing around the table.

“It’s an interesting debate though isn’t it?” says young Fr Walsh. There is the sound of spoons being dropped on the table. All eyes are on Fr Walsh. He looks suitably embarrassed by his outburst. “I mean…what I…I…I just…”

“Eat your Ready Brek,” I tell him.

9am

After a short delay, while Fr Cronin looks for his angina medicine, we hit the road.

11am

Fr Collins is looking through his Knock brochure. “They have confessions all day long!” he squeals. I tell him to calm down, and he does. But watching him in the rear view mirror I spot him licking his lips. A light sheen of sweat is also forming on his forehead.

12pm

We arrive in to the car park at exactly the same time as a bus full of nuns. We all exit our respective buses. Nobody knows what to do. The number of nuns far exceeds the average number we have been trained for.

Then Fr Walsh speaks up as he spies a young nun he is acquainted with. Her name is Sister Margaret. She is uncommonly bubbly for a nun, and her superior, Sr Agnes, gives her a reproachful look. I look at Sr Agnes and roll my eyes in empathy. She nods at me. It seems we have “broken the ice”.

12.15pm

We all arrange to meet for 3 o’clock mass and the anointing of the sick. In the meantime everyone does their own thing. I can’t help noticing that Fr Walsh and Sr Margaret seem to be talking to each other in a very animated fashion. Indeed, Sr Margaret doesn’t even seem to be taking time to draw breath. Perhaps it is the excitement of being in Ireland’s number one pilgrimage spot, and the ever present possibility that Our Lady might turn up when we least expect it.

1pm

I take some time out to sit on a bench and eat my egg salad sandwich and think about Our Lady. A few feet away I see Fr Walsh flapping and waving his hands in a most alarming fashion while speaking to Sr Margaret. Perhaps he is practicing his preaching technique. It must be very good because Sr Margaret can’t seem to take her eyes off him.

1.30pm

My contemplation is broken by Fr Doyle asking me for money for a ‘99.

2pm

I stroll over to one of the stalls selling Virgin Mary Statuettes. Fr Walsh and Sr Margaret have been perusing the wares. Fr Walsh has taped a small statuette to a piece of stick and is waving it around. “Look! She’s moving, she’s moving!”

For some reason a shrieking Sr Margaret thinks this is hilarious. I pass by them, making sure to clear my throat in a commanding fashion. They immediately stop, but I am certain I can hear some slight sniggering when I turn my back.

3pm

Mass and the anointing of the sick. Fr Lawlor jumps the queue, and pushes past a woman in a wheelchair. He tells her he has a bad knee. When she protests he shows her a letter from his doctor.

When Mass is over, I spy a stunned looking Fr Walsh listening to Sr Margaret. Sr Margaret looks very serious indeed. She can barely look him in the eye. It’s quite obvious that they have finally “copped themselves on” and are talking about a serious theological matter. Another small victory for the unique and just ever so slightly oppressive ambience of Knock.

5pm

We are all about to climb back on board the minibus. A lost looking Fr Walsh wonders if he can ask me a question. I tell him to fire away (I am hoping to appear both authoritative and vaguely paternalistic). Fr Walsh asks me if I think the oath of celibacy will ever be done away with.

I pat him on the shoulder. “Of course not,” I say. Fr Lawlor interrupts “Even if it did,” he says, “at the very earliest it would at least be another fifty years or so. And by then what use would it be to any of us?” he says cheerily.

Fr Walsh says nothing, and just looks at the nuns getting on their bus.

On board our own bus there is talk about Sr Margaret. Apparently she is leaving her order and becoming a lay person. Everyone agrees it is a very serious step, and thankfully one that requires a long drawn out and soul crushingly superhuman effort when one is in the priesthood.

“Besides, leaving the priesthood usually carries the risk of killing your own mammy with the shock,” says Fr Collins. Fr Walsh looks stricken at the thought. “Thank God for that great theological trip switch,” says Fr Farrell. “Amen,” I reply.

A pale Fr Walsh looks at the nun’s bus as it drives away. Sr Margaret is sitting with her head bowed, as if she can barely face the world. And quite right too.

I start the ignition. “Right then” I say. “The wheels on the bus…”

And nearly everybody cheers.

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(Not) Cardinal Sean Brady

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