In a fascinating documentary to be shown next week, Fr Brian D’Arcy opens his heart as never before. Stephanie Bell reports
A lonely man whose heart ached for a wife and a home of his own while remaining true to his calling is the tragic portrait which Fr Brian D’Arcy reveals of himself in a powerful new documentary.
The controversial Catholic cleric has laid bare his soul in what is a deeply personal and at times highly emotive film charting the extent of his torment in the wake of the Vatican’s move to censor him.
The Fermanagh priest opened his heart to the BBC, who followed him during a six month journey when he questioned whether or not he could remain a priest and be true to himself.
The broadcaster, who is known for his liberal stance on issues such as mandatory celibacy, the ban on women priests and contraception, goes further than he ever has before in revealing his true thoughts in the film The Turbulent Priest. But despite his controversial views on the church, the 67-year-old member of the Passionist Order comes across as a man deeply devoted to his parishioners.
Earlier this year it was reported that Fr D’Arcy had been censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, and that his weekly newspaper columns were being run past a church censor. The step was taken following an anonymous complaint to the CDF. The film starts on the day that news of his censorship breaks just as Fr D’Arcy is due to take Mass. The first of many emotive scenes is filmed as Aideen McGinley approaches the priest to reassure him in front of the church that he has the support of his congregation.
Her kind words prove too much for Fr D’Arcy who struggles to control his emotions and openly weeps.
Tears also flow when he talks about the impact of his own childhood abuse by two members of the church.
He said: “You’re afraid the secret will destroy you until you realise, hey, I’ve nothing to be afraid of. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of and I can say that clearly now, and it’s the same thing when the Vatican came after me, I could say, ‘I’ve nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t do anything wrong.’”
Fr D’Arcy lets his guard down again when he talks about how celibacy has impacted on his life. He reveals that he was once in love and wanted to marry although he never broke his vows: “I have been in love and I did think I would get married once.
“Both of us were aware it was not just a sexual attraction and both of us felt that we could be holy and good people and be married. I would have been a much better priest had I married. I think it would have been the whole thing of sharing your life with somebody else and the whole thing of making sacrifices for somebody else and also that idea of a companion, a closeness, a friend, someone to call home.”
Another emotive scene comes when he visits the home in England of his good friend Michael Carroll, who was ordained on the same day as him but left the priesthood after 10 years.
Seeing his friend happy in his own home with his wife evoked a strong reaction from Fr D’Arcy who spoke about the incredible loneliness which celibacy forces on priests: “This is what I miss, having a home of my own. Ask any single person who doesn’t want to be single what it’s like. You’re a nobody in the world for a start. You have no place really you can call your own. You have no friendship you can call your own. You have given your life to everybody else and find that you have no life at all at the end of it. Where is home? At the end of my life I don’t have a home. Ideally religious life is supposed to be a type of home. It isn’t, not now anyway.”
In the hour long programme, the BBC’s Natalie Maynes follows Fr D’Arcy as he journeys across Europe in search of answers as to whether he can continue to be a priest. He travels to Austria to speak to Helmut Schuller, a priest who is actively lobbying for reform of some of the church’s teachings. He also visits Father Brian McKevitt, editor of a conservative Catholic newspaper, who has a much more traditional viewpoint and says of Brian’s Sunday World column: “A lot of what you write is a kind of a candy floss spirituality. It looks attractive but when you actually bite into it there’s an absence of substance, an absence of nourishment.”
And he calls with his friend, actor Frank Kelly, who played the infamous Father Jack from the popular comedy series Father Ted. Narrator and producer Natalie Maynes said: “Making this film has been a unique opportunity to document an insider’s take on the Irish Catholic Church, at a time when it is under particular scrutiny.
“Father Brian D’Arcy has been in religious life for 50 years and that half century of experience has convinced him the Church should be taking its lead from the ordinary ‘grass roots’ Catholics he helps on a daily basis.
“But Brian worries the Vatican is returning to the conservative church of his youth which he believes will alienate Catholics struggling with core teachings like clerical celibacy, second relationships, homosexuality, and contraception. The worst case scenario, says Brian, is that ‘we allow them to impose this legalistic church again. Look what happened — that’s what led to the abuse of children, abuse of power, the abuse of the church itself’.”
Throughout the programme, the church comes in for strong criticism from Fr D’Arcy, who concludes of his own situation that he is a priest trying to be authentic in an organisation that is dysfunctional. He is philosophical about how the church might react to him, once again questioning its authority and values.
“I’m a bit nervous about it,” he said. “I’ve no idea at all what the reaction will be. I ended by telling my congregation that I do still want to be a priest but whether or not I will still be a priest on Tuesday (after the programme is screened) is beyond my control.”
The Turbulent Priest, Monday, October 29, BBC One NI, 10.35pm