Fr Brian D’Arcy (71) has been a Pas­sion­ist priest for 47 years. He is also an au­thor, colum­nist and broad­caster. Born in Bel­lanaleck, he lives in St Gabriel’s Re­treat in The Graan, Co Fer­managh, with three other priests

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - WAKING HOURS - In con­ver­sa­tion with Ciara Dwyer

If I could tell you about my Christ­mas day, I would be a great prophet, be­cause I have no idea what Christ­mas is go­ing to bring; it’s dif­fer­ent ev­ery year. The lead-up is a very busy time for me. There is an ex­tra­or­di­nary lot of poor peo­ple still in the coun­try. Since I be­gan writ­ing for the which is now 41 years ago, I’ve al­ways had let­ters from very sad fam­i­lies.

I re­ceived two this morn­ing very gen­uine let­ters from peo­ple who don’t re­ally know how they are go­ing to get through Christ­mas. There has been a sick­ness in one of the fam­i­lies, and an al­co­holic mother in an­other fam­ily. The daugh­ter has writ­ten to see if I could get some­thing to send to her, and not the mother, so that they will have some­thing for Christ­mas. We’ll do that. It’s no prob­lem at all.

I’ll be 47 years a priest on De­cem­ber 20, and in all of that time, I’ve never had any money. Any­thing I get goes into the or­der, and yet, peo­ple slip me a ten­ner here and a €20 note there. They say: ‘Give it to the poor’. That, to me, is Christ­mas; from the sad­ness of deal­ing with fam­i­lies who wish that Christ­mas would never hap­pen, to maybe be­ing

Sun­day World,

able to write a wee let­ter to them and send them a few bob, no strings at­tached.

In­stead of cel­e­brat­ing the feast of the na­tiv­ity, Christ­mas has un­for­tu­nately be­come a hol­i­day sea­son. Yet many young peo­ple want it to mean some­thing spe­cial to them. It’s prob­a­bly the only time in the year when there isn’t enough room in any church for all the peo­ple. They still want Christ­mas to have a churchy ef­fect on them. I fin­ish con­fes­sions on Christ­mas Eve. I have al­ways heard con­fes­sions. As a young priest, I heard con­fes­sions in ball­rooms in Dublin for 12 years, five nights a week.

Ev­ery­one knew that I was there to talk to the bands I was their chap­lain. When peo­ple saw me smok­ing my pipe in the cor­ner, they’d come up and say, ‘I’d like to go to con­fes­sion’, and they did, in the ball­rooms. It was just a lit­tle chat. In all my life, I have never once re­fused ab­so­lu­tion some­times I might have had dif­fi­culty work­ing out how I could do it. But then I’d say, ‘It’s be­tween you and God’. And if they are sorry, I pro­nounce ab­so­lu­tion.

On Christ­mas Eve, I get the church ready. Mass starts at 8pm, but we have the bless­ing of the crib at 6.45pm. Our church holds about 800. The place will be crawl­ing with chil­dren and fam­i­lies. Then we’ll have the Mass. There’ll be a bit of fun in it. There will be a ser­mon about the mean­ing of Christ­mas. And at the end of Mass, I’m hop­ing that Santa Claus will ar­rive, and that he will have a present for ev­ery child in the church.

At Mass, I tell peo­ple that I’m de­lighted to see them here; that it has made my Christ­mas, and I hope that it makes their Christ­mas, too. You take peo­ple as they are, es­pe­cially if they haven’t been to Mass all year. They are there now, dammit, and they have come to pay their re­spects. There is some lit­tle spark of faith in there, and don’t put it out. Enkin­dle it in some lit­tle way. Enkin­dle the hearts of the faith­ful.

On Christ­mas morn­ing, I get up, put on the heat­ing in the house and the church, and put on the cof­fee for the rest of the com­mu­nity. I’m in a re­li­gious or­der called the Pas­sion­ists. There are just three here and my­self. They are all older than me. I al­ways have tur­key in the monastery with them later in the day. We chat and we say, ‘Well, this could be my last Christ­mas, but we’re here now, so we’ll have a bit of crack to­day.’

If it’s a snowy morn­ing, I’ll put on my boots and salt the car park, so that peo­ple can get into the church. The rest of the morn­ing is spent greet­ing peo­ple, if not say­ing Mass. Then I’ll usu­ally be on hos­pi­tal duty. I’ll carry a phone with me, in case there is a call. It could be some­body dy­ing, a car ac­ci­dent, a heart at­tack, or some­body is tak­ing a bad turn. You never know. I’ve done that for the last 15 years, and I’ve never gone through a Christ­mas Day that I haven’t had at least one death. Usu­ally, it’s later in the evening.

When I was a younger priest, it used to frighten me a lit­tle bit, be­cause I was afraid of death. I sup­pose it was be­cause my mother died while I was a stu­dent. But then that took the fear of death away from me. I re­mem­ber the first Christ­mas af­ter my mother died, I went up to my cell in the monastery in Mount Ar­gus and I cried most of the day. That night, the di­rec­tor al­most forced me down to join the com­mu­nity for sing-songs and laughs. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But that ex­pe­ri­ence makes me think of peo­ple who have had be­reave­ments, es­pe­cially where young peo­ple have died, or a young par­ent.

I can’t get around them all, but I try to get to about five houses. All I am is a dis­trac­tion for them. They’ll make you tea and give you a slice of cake. For them, it’s just about get­ting through. When some­body dies, the first of ev­ery­thing is very hard. The first Christ­mas, the first an­niver­sary, the first birth­day. Once you get through them, it’s the first step on the road of grief.

Christ­mas Day can be a lonely day be­cause you’re not mar­ried, and you sud­denly re­alise that even though you have fam­ily, you don’t have fam­ily. I feel sad at Christ­mas, be­cause I’m con­vinced that priests should be mar­ried, and I was the mar­ry­ing kind. But I’m not go­ing to marry now. I’m too old. When we look at our lives, we be­come very aware of what we haven’t got, with­out recog­nis­ing what we have got. One of my con­stant themes in my own spir­i­tual re­flec­tion is the idea of grat­i­tude. Rather than com­plain­ing con­tin­u­ally about what I haven’t got, I thank God and peo­ple for all that I have.

Af­ter house vis­its, and hos­pi­tal calls, I get home around 10pm. I love to watch a com­edy, some­thing like

the fun­nier the bet­ter. I can still laugh, which is a great gift. I make sure that the fire is off, that no­body is in trou­ble and then I go to my room and pray. I usu­ally say noth­ing. I just sit in a chair and at the end of it, I say,

Thank God. An­other one over.

You take peo­ple as they are, es­pe­cially if they haven’t been to Mass all year. There is some lit­tle spark of faith, enkin­dle it

Stooges; gra­tias. The Three Deo

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