Bishop Willie Walsh, retired Bishop of Killaloe, was back on native turf when The Tipperary Star caught up with him this week.
Welcomed back to his native Roscrea for the launch of his 'first and last' book, No Crusader, Bishop Willie was in great form with that winning smile, compassionate and caring eyes, full of energy and life, and a real sense of anticipation for what this latest phase in his very full life will bring.
No Crusader came out of the blue for 81 year old Bishop Walsh who confessed to being neither a literary expert, not a great reader himself. But, persistence paid off on the part of Michael Brennan in Columba Press and the result, after many months of reflection and inspiration, is a beautifully crafted publication which captures Bishop Willie's humanity, compassion, understanding and acceptance of his, others and the Church's shortcomings.
It's rare that such a book is published by one of the Church's inter sanctum. Of course many bishops and archbishops have taken up the pen at times - Bishop Willie wrote the entire book in long hand and then had it typed up - but it is unique to have such a book on the shelves, telling of a boy's journey from childhood on the family farm, through to school in St Flannan's College in Ennis, then onto Maynooth for preparation for the priesthood, Rome for further studies, back to Ennis to St Flannan's where he worked for so many years, and then to his appointment as Bishop of Killaloe. He charts many of the eventswhich shaped his life from the hard working ethos engendered by his father on the family farm, to the strict prayerful influence of his mother who looked after the home, right through to his time as Bishop - he writes of a chastising he received from one of his priests who was ill in hospital and who had not been visited by the Bishop and regards it as a life- changing lesson.
It's curious though to discover that it was another life-changing episode in Bishop Willie's existence which prompted him to write. An aneurysm in the aorta almost claimed him in 2014 and it took him a long time to recover - he was fortunate to have been so close to Limerick at the time and the life-saving surgery proved successful. And, he readily agrees that a book of memoirs written before that episode would have had a different hue to the one he just has penned.
“I had never written a book before and while I had written articles for different publications, this was a different prospect entirely. There is no doubt that the illness changed things for me. I was quite ill and it was very much touch and go. I reflected a lot during that time and told the lads in Columba that I would work from Christmas to Easter 2015 and see how I got on. I felt then that there was the makings of a book alright. I had hoped to have it out last December for Christmas but I was glad of the extra time to have tidied a few things up.
“It would have been a different book but for the illness. The last third of it is very much arising out of the illness and to be honest I don't think I would have written it at all had it not been for the experience of being so ill,” he says.
Bishop Willie was never afraid to speak his mind and in some respects he was regarded as being a bit of a maverick. However, those who listened to his comments through the years will readily agree that compassion and a sense of christianity were always central to his thinking. Perhaps this was best illustrated with the high profile allowing of members of the travelling community to en-camp on the lawns of the bishop's house in Ennis. Many tut-tutted at the gesture and turned their noses up at the idea - Bishop Willie delighted in seeing children running around the grounds in safety, rather than living on the dangerous roadside.
The book is filled with many lovely stories and reflections - he writes of news of his appointment as Bishop of Killaloe and being asked by the Papal Nuncio to meet him at his residence in Dublin. However, being involved as selector with the Clare senior hurling team at the time, the appointed date proved a problem. Bishop Willie simply told the Nuncio that it didn't suit due to a prior arrangement and re-scheduled the meeting - the Pope's invitation could wait, there was a hurling match to be won!
Hurling and Gaelic Games is one of the great joys in Bishop Willie's life, although he played very little himself. Growing up in Roscrea there was a Camblin junior team in the parish, but he was too young to hurl for them. Then, he was away in Flannan's where hurling was a way of life, before heading off to Maynooth and Rome. He credits Kerryman Diarmuid Fitzgerald - a teacher in Corville National School at the time - with instilling his love of the games in him. Diarmuid hurled for Roscrea and marked the legendary Sarsfields hurler Tommy Doyle in the 1945 county final which went to a replay - Sarsfields won the replay much to the dismay of all the Roscrea lads.
Bishop Willie was heavily involved in the glory days of Clare hurling and loved his time there. A member of the Eire Og club in Ennis, nowadays Bishop Willie attends a lot of matches but it is not involved as such.
“I sit up in the stand now and like everyone else I wonder why the selectors are not making the moves which seem perfectly obvious to me. I love going to the games and meeting so many people, but the game has changed so much in recent times and had gotten too fast and skillful. Hurling was not a big thing in my family at all but growing up in Tipperary you could not miss it's influence,” he says.
Today Bishop Willie is very happy, free of the responsibility of office, helping out in the parish of Ennis, which he regards as home. and singing - yes singing. He had never sung before he joined the 'Forever Young' senior choir in Ennis - “The only stipulation was that you had to be old enough” he jokes. He is really enjoying the experience and though he says that they don't take themselves too seriously, he confesses that the group is 'reasonably good'.
Of course that is typical Bishop Willie Walsh modesty- another one of his well known traits. One of the challenges of retirement was to get out and do new things - this concept he has embraced with gusto and he enjoys the occasional game of golf and travelling - a pursuit which took him throughout Europe at a young age en-route to Rome. “I love pottering around historic cities,” he says.
He doesn't worry for the Church of the future. Nor does he regret the demise of the Church of the past. Bishop Willie is 'comfortable' with where the Church is presently.
“Compassion, mercy and love have to be valued. I cannot foretell what the Church in Ireland will be like in twenty years time but I am comfortable with a broken and less poweful Church than the one which I grew up with and which was judgemental and harsh towards people who were in anyway outside of official teaching. I am comfortable with the uncertainlties and in some ways people might say that I should be comfortable with them. But, it has taken a long time to accept uncertainties and that is where I am right now. People will ask a lot of questions and that is a natural thing. I do think that the western society has a crisis of faith and in some ways I am wary and concerned that the younger generations might grow up without being touched by faith and that the memory might be lost.”
Bishop Willie writes that priesthood has been very kind to him. But, it doesn't stop him wondering what married life might have been like- would he have had children and grandchildren? He delights in seeing his friends enjoying their grandchildren and feels a certain loss that this was not to be his lot also.
“Would live have been happier if I had chosen a different path? All, I can say at this point is that priesthood has been kind to me. Yes, there were ups and downs, there were times of joy and sorrow, and there were successes and failures, though how success or failure in priesthood is judged is hard to decide, but I am happy at this stage to have chosen priesthood as a way of life. I have a sense of gratitude towards the Lord and towards the people who influenced me to follow the path of priesthood,” - 12 of the 16 teachers in St Flannan's during his time were priests and they certainly steered him along the path.
The work of the Church is great but the labourers are fewer and fewer. Vocations are in decline and many parishes will be without a resident priest in a few short years.
There are challenges to be met but the Church must still tackle issues of injustice at home and abroad, as well as attending the faith, administering the Eucharist and fostering the Christian messages of love, mercy, understanding & compassion.
Perhaps 'No Crusader' will inspire some to take up the mantle, turn back to the Church, or just try to live as best they can. If it makes a difference to one life, the challenge of taking pen in hand will have been worth it.