| 10.9°C Belfast

'My vocation came as a result of losing one of my best friends, Fergal O'Harte, to cancer... at the time, I fought with God and, in turn, tried to erase the ever-growing call to the priesthood'

In conversation with Fr Gary Donegan


Reconciliation Corpus Christi Church, Belfast work: Fr Gary Donegan

Reconciliation Corpus Christi Church, Belfast work: Fr Gary Donegan

Reconciliation Corpus Christi Church, Belfast work: Fr Gary Donegan

Fr Gary Donegan CP is a member of the Passionist Community in Crossgar. He is director of the Passionist Peace and Reconciliation Office.

Q Can you tell us something about yourself?

A I was born in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, in 1964. My parents are Christina and Michael. I have three sisters - Attracta, married to Finbar with two children, Cariosa and Oisin, Caroline, married to Neil, with children Christina Mai and Gearoid, and Micaela - and a brother, Mark.

I was born into a faith-filled and happy home with an idyllic childhood, with parents whose practice and witness to their faith was central to my formation as a young person.

We faced many adversities, including losing our first home through a fire, leaving us destitute and reliant on other family members. My mother was described at the time as "Ireland's national heroine", as she entered the blaze to rescue my brother, Mark.

My father had remarkable courage to begin again and provide us with a home and a comfortable standard of living while my mother personified the role of homemaker.

My primary education was in Newtownbutler Primary School, while my secondary education was at St Eugene's College, Roslea and the-then Fermanagh College of Further Education.

Priestly studies were carried out at Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Dublin. Then followed a post-grad in Humanities in All Hallows College, Dublin. I have received two honorary doctorates - Ulster University in 2017 and Queen's University, Belfast in 2018.

Q How and when did you come to faith? And did you have any doubts?

A I believe that my vocation came as a result of losing one of my best friends, Fergal O'Harte, who died of cancer on May 9, 1980. This happened 10 months after Fergal's father, two brothers and a cousin tragically died as a result of a road traffic accident on July 22, 1979. At the time, I would have fought with God and, in turn, tried to erase the ever-growing call to priesthood and the religious life.

Like my classmates, I wanted what is perceived to be the normal things in life: playing sport for my beloved First Fermanagh GAA club (the third-oldest in Ulster), getting married and having a family. Just the normal guy growing up. Apart from the loss of my friend Fergal, there have been other times when I have struggled with faith, but I believe that if you don't experience such doubt, then you are in danger of becoming merely a robot, following ritual as opposed to living by faith, which I believe is a constant challenge and grace.

When Mother Teresa died, at the reading of her papers, it was discovered that, on more than one occasion, she doubted God's existence. That made such headlines; that a saint could struggle with the concept of faith. Maybe struggling and living with those doubts in the midst of the poverty and desolation of Calcutta is what actually led her to be the saint she became.

A friend of mine from the world of politics once asked me if I ever had doubts about faith. I gave him a couple of examples and asked him the reason for the inquiry. He replied, as an atheist: "Since meeting you, I doubt there might be a God." That is one of the best compliments I think that I have ever received.

Q How important is this faith to you?

A Faith is central to my life and something which is practiced on a daily basis as a priest and religious. Initially, I was an itinerant preacher and conductor of youth retreats. I was very content in that role.

The year 2001 saw me, reluctantly but providentially, seconded to Holy Cross Parish in Ardoyne. On June 19 that year - my birthday - what became known as the Holy Cross blockade began. This incident was to give myself and my predecessor, Fr Aidan Troy CP, international prominence, as we tried to initially accompany the children and eventually tried to resolve the situation presenting at the time. As a result of this, I became directly involved in peace and reconciliation work. To this day, I commute to north Belfast from our idyllic Passionist retreat centre at Tobar Mhuire in Crossgar.

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

A As a result of my work, despite all the plaudits, I have often been the victim of keyboard warriors and commentators who have never come within a mile of an interface, or dealt with the tragedies of grief at a pastoral level, including suicide, addiction, drug, or alcohol, abuse, to name a few. These people have never met me, or had the courage to speak to me face-to-face directly. True pastoral care continues long after expedient criticism has been voiced and then, unfortunately, they move on to their next victim.

Criticism isn't always external. Often my biggest critics are from within. I am not married to an institution, but I'm vowed to Christ. Therefore, I have never been found wanting when I feel that the Church as an institution has become more concerned with preserving itself than with its mission to serve.

Q What are the challenges facing the Churches today?

A There have been many challenges that the Churches in modern-day Ireland have been forced to face, sadly, many of their own making. Traditionally, we were born into a particular denomination and, by and large, the Church you were born into was the Church you were buried out of. This largely reflected the society at the time, where change tended to happen very slowly and where people were largely too obedient to institutions of authority, within Church, state, or society.

In today's world, change happens quickly, where people are not so much motivated by rules as by personal conviction and, in some cases, selfishness. That is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Churches.

Today, faith is not so much about fate, but about choice and often that choice of faith is made against the tide of apathy, or egoism. The role of the Church is to facilitate that choice through witness, not words.

Q How can the Churches meet the challenges?

A When it comes to the key moments in life, particularly those of loss, confusion and doubt, we tend to search for that sense of the sacred with a hunger for meaning and hope. The message of the Gospel is as relevant today as ever, but we can't sit waiting for the empty church pews to fill. The pews are out there in our streets and, as a Church, we need to engage, be relevant and disturb the peace of today's apathy and narcissism.

Q What are your favourite books, films and music, and why?

A Inspiration from the arts include my favourite books, An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan and The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, among others. My favourite films include The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King and Jean De Florette and Manon Des Sources by Marcel Pagnol, the French novelist, playwright and film-maker.

Were I not a Christian, I would love to be reincarnated as Bruce 'The Boss' Springsteen. My musical favourites include Springsteen's Hello Sunshine and My Hometown, U2's Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, Shining Light by Ash and The Parting Glass by Ronnie Drew.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A It is like my favourite lines from the musical Les Miserables: "To love someone is to see the face of God." I feel closest to God in the presence of those I love. Family, friends and those I serve.

Q Do you have any regrets?

A I believe in an all-merciful saviour, who is there for all of us, irrespective of religious denomination, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. Ever-aware of my many limitations as a human being, I try to live my life in a manner which will leave little room for regrets at the end. Essentially, I don't do regrets, as regrets clip your wings, but I do feel contrition for anyone I may have hurt in my life.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A "Rinne me mo dhicheall" ("I did my best").

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph