New siege of Troy: We profile a controversial priest
He was lambasted for suggesting that Ardoyne residents should withdraw their objection to an Orange parade. But, although Fr Aidan Troy has ministered in Paris for the last six years, he will always be associated with the Holy Cross parish, writes Alex Kane.
Some images just stay with you. The sight of Father Aidan Troy walking hand-in-hand with Holy Cross primary school children through violent loyalist protests in September 2001 is one of them.
On September 3, a pipe-bomb exploded near the school. "I was trembling that day," he said. "But I had to be strong for the mothers, fathers and those beautiful children. Had I died that day – which was a real possibility – I would have been mourned by my family and friends but I would not be leaving a wife and children. My fear was real but it didn't matter."
Troy had already been warned by the PSNI that there were death threats against him, but had refused their offer to move him somewhere safer closer to the border. Just as he refused the use of a Belfast apartment owned by the Irish government.
When the Catholic Church decided to move him from Ardoyne in 2008 – to a new post in Paris – a 'Keep Father Troy Committee' gathered more than 5,000 signatures and some women vowed to chain themselves to the railings of Holy Cross.
"I agreed to go," he said. "I'd taken a vow of obedience. Besides, refusing to leave would have been pointless. I'd have been transferred anyway and to somewhere a lot worse than Paris."
Ironically, back in 2001, when he was posted from Rome to Ardoyne he hadn't wanted to go. "I was in Rome in 2001 when I saw the television headlines about the Holy Cross protest. I realised in horror – that's where I'm going.
"I remember walking into my first Ardoyne community meeting. One woman pointed at me and said to her friend, 'Who the f*** is that?' And her friend replied, 'I think it's the new priest.' But I wasn't offended; I admired the bluntness. Here I was, this geek from Rome, and all I knew about the north could have been written on a postage stamp."
When he was shifted from Belfast to Paris, it was suggested in some quarters that it was because he had become too much of a public figure and too involved in local politics.
This sort of high profile is not encouraged by the Passionist Order, of which he has been a member for almost 50 years, who tend to steer towards a humbler role of service, sacrifice and penance.
But last week he was back in the headlines again with a piece on his blog, asking: "Would Woodvale/Ardoyne people of goodwill consider offering a powerful witness to our world at a time when in the Middle East children, women and men are being slaughtered daily? Supposing an agreement could be reached to withdraw the objections to the return parade and intensify efforts being made for parading in 2015?
"This would speak a message that shows that long-standing divisions of neighbours are capable of improvement when people of goodwill take a risk for peace. It would also show deep care for others who are suffering and dying even as we talk and consider what to do."
He soon discovered, though, that six years is a long time in politics and an even longer time to be away from Belfast. Within a few days he had removed the blog, citing a much higher level of interest than expected: which tends to be code for receiving a lot of unexpected criticism.
That said, his comments were the subject of a very enthusiastic editorial from the News Letter. Indeed, during his time in Belfast he had built up a very good relationship within the broader unionist/Protestant community and is still remembered with great fondness by a number of unionist representatives: "He always put the people and children before the politics," was how one MLA put it to me last week.
Aidan Troy was born in 1946 in Bray, County Wicklow. His father worked "on the trains" while his mother stayed home to look after their three children. His brother has recently retired from a laboratory post in the Dublin Maternity Hospital and his sister runs a book-keeping business in Bray.
His nursery teachers were Loreto Sisters in Bray, followed by the Christian Brothers for both primary and secondary education. He graduated from University College Dublin in 1967 with a BA in philosophy and from Clonliffe College (also in Dublin) in 1971 with a Bachelor of Divinity. In September 1964 he had taken a "vow of obedience to God that involves sacrificing my own will".
He says that there was no great Damascus moment in terms of the priesthood, "just a slowly growing wish to give priesthood a try. It was no stronger than that and my calling is still day-by-day by God. In 1971 when I started out as a priest I could never have imagined how many of the certainties of my training would crumble and disappear to be replaced by a simpler, more honest and humbler priesthood. But there is still a way to go to become what I believe Christ wants us priests to be as servants of all."
He admits that the Holy Cross experience changed him. "The events of the time are extensively documented but the years at Holy Cross changed me for the better. I could never thank God enough, along with those I met and worked with for those wonderfully challenging years of my life as a priest."
Despite the reaction to his blog comments he remains optimistic: "Northern Ireland has been blessed by peace after many years of violence. The areas yet to experience this peace need all the prayer and constructive action that anyone can bring to the table and travelling the long road to genuine reconciliation needs to continue. It will be necessary to imagine the seemingly impossible and to dare to seek to bridge divisions that now seem to be too wide. It is always going to take time, courage and risk."
In 2009, shortly after moving to Paris, he published Out Of The Shadow: Responding To Suicide. "This book dealing with suicide is not one I ever thought I would write when I set out as a priest in 1971. As a student of theology in Dublin during the 1960s, the issue of suicide was summed up as a mortal sin as well as a crime. Indeed, prior to April 23, 2003, my awareness of suicide was limited to what I would read in newspapers and books.
"As a child growing up in Bray, Wicklow, I vividly recall tiptoeing past a house where a person was said to have died by suicide. But all this was to change on that date in April 2003, when a 17-year-old took his life in Holy Cross Monastery garden, Belfast.
"This was the first time that suicide and its aftermath became part of my experience. I was profoundly affected and changed by witnessing the enormous sorrow and heartbreak of the family. This book is born out of that day and many others that were to follow."
Troy is a great admirer of Pope Francis and contributed a chapter to the recent publication, The Francis Factor: "I see Francis as a gift to our world and not only to the Catholic Church".
This admiration is hardly surprising, since Troy does seem to have the same approach to how the Church should respond both to its own perceived faults and to engaging with the vulnerable in an increasingly secular world.
And while he found himself caught up in the politics of Northern Ireland there is no sense that he was, as some others clearly were, a 'political' priest.
Away from the 'day job' he used to play golf, but since moving to Paris has become a "reborn cyclist and joined the public bicycle service". He's also a supporter of Accrington Stanley and "on my twice weekly jogs on the streets of Paris I wear the AS jersey with pride."
As he approaches 70 there is no mention of retirement or of slowing down: "Leaving Paris won't be easy when the time comes."
He will down what is asked of him. He always has. It's what he signed up for in September 1964.
A life so far ...
- Born in Bray in 1946
- His father "worked on the trains" and he has a brother and sister
- He took his 'vow of obedience to God' in September 1964 and is a member of the Passionist Order
- He is presently serving in Paris, having previously served in Belfast and Rome
- He is best remembered for leading school children through the Holy Cross protests in September 2002
- He is a 'born again' cyclist and jogs through Paris wearing an Accrington Stanley football jersey