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Bishop Patrick Rooke: 'Our youngest child, Susanna, who has Down's syndrome, has taught us so much, not only about unconditional love, but also about special needs and disability'

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

This week: Bishop Patrick Rooke

Proud parents: Bishop Patrick Rooke, wife Alison and daughter Susanna in Salzburg
Proud parents: Bishop Patrick Rooke, wife Alison and daughter Susanna in Salzburg
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Bishop Patrick Rooke (64) is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in the west of Ireland. He previously served as a cleric in Northern Ireland for 33 years and now lives in Castlebar.

He served in Mossley, Portrush, Cullybackey and Portstewart before becoming Dean of St Patrick's in Armagh.

He held that post for five years before becoming a bishop in 2011.

Q. Can you tell us about your early life?

A. I was born in Dublin, where my father, the Rev Billy Rooke, was rector of Castleknock. We later moved to Bray, where my mother, Rosemary, was brought up. I have an older sister, Brigid, and with my non-identical twin, Henry, we are the eldest of her five younger brothers.

My father died 40 years ago, a few months after I was ordained. How pleased I am that he was there to see me follow in his footsteps. I learned so much from him, as I did from my father-in-law, Canon Leslie Forsythe, my training rector, who went on from Mossley to be Vicar of Antrim.

His daughter, Alison, and I were married in 1979. We have three children, Emily, Nicholas and our youngest child, Susanna, who has Down's syndrome, and from whom we have learnt so much, not only about unconditional love, but also about disability and special needs.

We have two little grandsons, Luke and Louis, and their new sister, Charlotte, our first grand-daughter.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. There was no 'road to Damascus' conversion. I have been moulded into the faith which has sustained me over the past 60 years. When I left school, I had intended to pursue a career in farm management. I soon realised, however, that my calling was to care for two-legged, rather than four-legged, sheep. Brought up in a rectory and the son of a Dublin rector, this was the way of life I understood.

Faith dominates my daily life and I could not do the job I am doing if it did not. Sundays are always a particular highlight - an opportunity to be nourished through weekly worship. Part of this has been the fellowship and support I gained through my membership of a church congregation.

One of the things I miss most as a Bishop is not belonging to any one particular congregation.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. I would not say I have ever had a real crisis of faith, but I have had dark moments when confronted with particularly difficult situations, when I have felt bewildered and frustrated and questioning the existence of a loving God who can allow such terrible things to occur. Then I console myself that it is not God who is responsible, but man's misuse of the free will he has been given.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God? If so, why?

A. I have moments of rage, when I feel helpless and inadequate and I wonder where God is amid all the hurt and pain of this world. And then I feel his presence, right there in the middle of it, pained and hurting alongside us.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?

A. Bishops grow skins like onions - it goes with the job. One is frequently criticised, but one learns to take it on the chin and, on occasions, to take criticism to heart and learn from it.

Q. I there any big difference in being a cleric in Northern Ireland and the Republic?

A. There is a different emphasis in the Republic, where the Church of Ireland is such a small percentage of the population. Essentially, however, the work, both North and South, is leading people to a greater spiritual awareness. Wherever I have served, I have found that people's needs are the same.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?

A. Yes, in truth, I am. Sometimes, we have been fairly accused of standing by and ignoring the obvious, so caught up are we in our petty disputes and wranglings in the institution of the Church that we fail to notice our crucified Lord beside us.

Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?

A. You know the song about everyone wanting to go to Heaven, but nobody wanting to die? I am no different, except that my faith gives me hope in resurrection and in a loving God who is full of grace and forgiveness.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? If so, what will it be like?

A. I have no idea what it will be like, except to say I visualise it as being in the closer presence of Almighty God. What form that will take, I do not know, but that is where faith kicks in and, at that point, I trust in God.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. We are all children of God, loved and valued by him. We are all equal and I don't believe any one denomination to be better, or superior, to any other. The location and form of worship is not the important thing; rather, it is what is in the hearts and minds of those who worship.

I also have the greatest respect for other denominations, each of which is attempting to explain and understand the deity whom they worship. The Church of Ireland happens to suit me and my temperament, but equally I have friends for whom I have the highest regard in all the other main Christian churches and from other faith communities. We have much to learn from one another.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. Absolutely, yes - and I have spent a lifetime doing so.

Q. Are the churches here fulfilling their mission?

A. Yes and no. So much good work is being done to bring about healing of ancient divisions, but sadly there is so much still to do. Churches have a habit of getting sidetracked in single issues or practices that mar much of their good work. Individual Christians can do that, too.

Q. Why are many people turning their backs on organised religion?

A. Because they look at the mistakes made by those who call themselves Christian; they look at the dreadful things that have been done in the name of Christianity; they see the very unChristian attitudes and behaviours of those who profess to be its advocates and they may well feel they can lead morally upstanding lives without the 'stuff and nonsense' of denominational religion.

Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?

A. Both - it has brought out the best and sometimes the worst in people, but true Christianity, which preaches love and tolerance and forgiveness, is still at the root of the salvation for our country.

Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?

A. Recently, my daughter's 30th birthday treat was to visit Austria to see the setting of The Sound of Music.

With other family members, we took her to Salzburg, where we had a wonderful few days doing the Sound of Music tour, culminating in the bus journey up into the hills, singing all the way.

When on holiday, I love detective books, and I am enjoying the French series by Peter May. They provide a good escape from the demands and lifestyle of the west of Ireland.

My time as Dean of Armagh gave me a real love for church music, and the Charles Wood Summer School made a huge impression, so that music remains very important to me.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. On Portstewart Strand - against the power and grandeur of the natural world, my concerns are quickly put into perspective. It's a great place in which to think and to pray.

Q. And what inscription would you like to have on your gravestone?

A. Anything will do - thankfully, I'll not have to read it.

Q. What about regrets? Any major ones?

A. That I wasn't more attentive in French class at school. I'm still trying to catch up.

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