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Fr Timothy Bartlett: 'I have experienced very, very deeply the pain of not being married and not being a father... I have literally grieved over the wife and children I never had'

In conversation with Fr Timothy Bartlett

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Firm belief: Fr Timothy Bartlett

Firm belief: Fr Timothy Bartlett

Firm belief: Fr Timothy Bartlett

Fr Timothy Bartlett is administrator of St Mary's, the oldest Catholic church in Belfast, and episcopal vicar for diocesan future planning.

Q. Can you tell us something of your background?

A. I was born in north Belfast in July 1965. The small cul-de-sac I grew up in, just off Alliance Avenue, still has a 30-foot peace fence around it. The Troubles were a huge part of my life growing up. My mum, Alice, and dad, Oliver, were both from Ardoyne and they owned newsagent and ice-cream shops over the years. I am very blessed to still have them in my life. I have one brother, Gary, who is married with three grown-up children (or at least they claim they are grown up!) We are all very close.

Q. What about your education and your clerical career?

A. I went to Christian Brothers' schools and then to Queen's University, Belfast, where I was awarded a first-class honours BEd, followed by a MScEd. I was also awarded a Bachelor of Divinity and Licentiate in Sacred Theology from St Patrick's College, Maynooth. I was ordained in 1992 for the Diocese of Down and Connor and taught for 10 years at St Mary's University College, Belfast. I then spent 10 years as assistant to the president of the Irish Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Brady. I am still secretary to the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland. From 2016 to 2018, I was invited to be secretary-general of the world meeting of families and papal visit in Dublin.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. Growing up in north Belfast, the fear of someone coming in to our house and killing my family was the first stage of learning how to pray. I was so convinced something would happen to my family if I didn't kneel down and say my prayers at night that I never missed a night without saying my prayers. If I fell asleep and suddenly remembered that I had forgot to say my prayers, I would jump out of bed and kneel down and say them, no matter how tired I was. I remember being incredibly impressed by the power of the words of the scriptures read at mass and the sermons of the priests. I also had the incredible example of faith and practical kindness to neighbours, friends and those in need of my parents. They just worked so hard and were so full of goodness to others.

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

A. There have been many times in my life when I have wrestled with God. But, intellectually, I can honestly say that I have never doubted his existence.

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

A. Yes, usually when I didn't get my way with him, which has been quite often. Though I usually come to realise, in the end, that God knew better than me.

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

A. There is a much stronger and aggressive anti-faith culture in the south of Ireland than in the north and I felt this on a number of occasions when I worked in Dublin. More recently, the main hostility to faith, or even personality and priesthood, comes through social media, usually from people I have never met and who know very, very little about me.I have to live with it, but I think we fool ourselves about living in a tolerant, inclusive society. There is a new group orthodoxy around and, if you don't fit in, you can expect to be subjected to very cruel and nasty treatment online.

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

A. Yes. The abuse of children and our institutional response to that abuse has filled me with utter shame. I also think that our attitude to women and to people who experience same-sex attraction, gender disphoria, or even basic human frailty, at times has been nothing short of shameful. We have much to celebrate in our Catholic faith, but we have to always face up to our dark side.

Q. Are you afraid to die?

A. I am very blessed in that I have never been afraid of death. I also have an absolute faith in life beyond death, a life which, like this one, is ultimately about goodness and love. However, I believe in hell and I fear it. I also believe that there are a small number of people in the world who are truly evil and have freely and knowingly chosen to be so. They'll spend eternity in hell. But most of us are good people, who sometimes make very bad, or evil, choices. But they don't define our fundamental character, or choice, and, if we repent, Heaven is ours.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?

A. I absolutely believe in the resurrection of our bodies on the last Day of Judgement. I believe we will know each other again, physically, after the resurrection. The risen Jesus ate, drank, spoke, bore the wounds of his earthly body. In death, God does not throw away these unique bodies by which He created us. In the resurrection, they will be risen, transformed and glorified.

Q. Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?

A. I don't think any Church can ever say it is fully fulfilling its mission. I think faith and the institutions of faith are going through an unprecedented period of upheaval and change. I remain optimistic that the Church will, ultimately, emerge stronger and more authentically Christian out of this, sometimes painful, process of change.

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

A. There are two main reasons, though the answer is complex. The first is that many people have not so much rejected Church, or God, as forgotten God in the midst of very busy, stressful and distracted lives. Secondly, as society has become more individualistic and less community-focused, communal worship and belonging makes less sense to people.

However, I believe this will be relatively short-lived, because our contemporary, individualistic, culture is not satisfying our core human needs for belonging, community and worship. The turn back to God will come - eventually.

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

A. I am so weary of people blaming religion and the Churches for the ills of Northern Ireland. The Churches almost always, often together, or sometimes prophetically within their own communities, pointed the way to a peaceful, reconciled and prosperous society here, one based on mutual respect.

If you go back to the document of the first historic meetings between Church leaders in the 1970s, in Ballymascanlon and other places, you find the language and vision that would eventually become the peace agreements that give us the relatively peaceful environment that we enjoy. The joint witness and leadership of the Churches here on social and political issues continues to be prophetic, for those who are willing to hear it.

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

A. My favourite film would be Sleepers. The priest, who is played by Robert De Niro, stands by the young people from his parish who are abused while in a US juvenile penal institution, even to the point of taking a morally dubious stand for them while under oath. I am also a big fan of CS Lewis and Saint John Henry Newman. As an incurable romantic, I like the song Grace about the marriage of Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail after the Easter Rising.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. Late at night, before the Blessed Sacrament, in silence and with only the light of a candle flickering gently in the room, wafting away the busyness and stress of the day.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. "May he live in love!" I find the whole idea of actually "resting" in eternity a little bit challenging.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. While I have always accepted not being married as part of my calling to the Catholic priesthood, without resentment, on occasions, I have experienced very, very deeply the pain of not being married, especially of not being a father. There have been times when I have literally grieved over the wife and children that I never had. But that is what sacrifice is about; giving up something good in itself, something you would naturally desire, for a greater love. That doesn't mean it wasn't a struggle.

Belfast Telegraph