Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Father Matt

There was enormous sadness at the news of the death of Fr. Matt Wallace at the weekend. A county Wexford man he had served as a priest in west Belfast for most of his time as a priest.

This is a short blog in memory of a remarkable man and priest.

Fr. Matt

I slipped up the side of Holy Trinity church and  joined the people standing at the front  door. Matt's clann were standing across from us in a line talking quietly. I noticed how well the church grounds looked. The crowd at the gate thickened. More people joined us. Turf Lodge was hushed. The sun shone. The birds sang. It all seemed surreal. Normal.

Then the coffin was lifted from the hearse and carried into the porch of the church.  People started to applaud.  Matt was home. Home in Holy Trinity.

His family wept. So did the rest of us. Poor Matt. Such a good straight decent man. Struggling. Giving. Slagging. Praying. But never preaching. Funny that. A priest who didn't preach. Not in the conventional sense.
'People here don't need me to tell them what is wrong and what is right. They are rearing families, minding neighbours. They know what is wrong and what is right. The people are the church. It was always so. They need support. Hope. A chance. Not long sermons'.
So Matt didn't preach.  Matt led.
He was conscious of all the flaws in the human condition but energetically and impatiently alert to our great potential and our possibilities. His vocation was grounded in that gospel of hope. For all of us.

His Masses were always packed. And quick. He didn't hang about. Bustling up onto the altar. If he said anything aside from the prayers it would be to commend some local project or to comment favourably on a local development or disapprovingly of something the powers that be had done. Or to joke with someone in the congregation.

Matt saw the Mass as a social occasion. He told me that. For many people, he said, it was where they meet their friends. Particularly older people who didn't get out a lot. If you go to Holy Trinity a few minutes early for Mass that's what you would notice. People sitting chatting to each other. Others kneeling and praying of course. But in the background the low chatter of folks talking. Then, in Matt would come and all would rise. And he would be off at a gallop.

Matt is from Wexford. The weekend his life ended Wexford beat Louth in the football, and drew with Dublin in the hurling. He would have liked that. Forty years in Belfast, first on the Ormeau Road and the rest of the time in West Belfast, in Divis and Lenadoon and Turf Lodge. But a proud Wexford Gael.

Working with the great people of this wonderful community through all our tribulations. Baptising our babies. Burying our dead. Officiating at our weddings and communions and confirmations.  Working at building schools and community centres and youth facilities and counselling services and women's projects. Fundraising. Encouraging jobs initiatives. Visiting the sick. And the dying. And the elderly. Looking after victims of abuse of every kind.  Challenging the system. Standing up to the British Army when they were here. Visiting the prisons.

And having the odd pint up in the Gort to celebrate that fine club's achievements and to discuss the merits of Wexford and Antrim hurling.

Matt was his own man. He was often annoyed at the Hierarchy. At the height of the revelations of clerical child abuse and after the publication of one of the reports into this he told us one Sunday morning that he had a letter from the bishops to read to us.

'But' he continued,
'if you are really interested in what bishops are saying you can read it for yourselves. We all know what the bishops should do. They should clear all this up. And if they are not prepared to do this then they should resign.'

And he continued with the Mass.
Matt was a very human being.

Another time when one of our much loved old patriots and celebrated Gaels, Eddie Keenan, died his local priest would not let Eddie's coffin into the parish church draped in the national flag. His family contacted me. I phoned Matt.

'Bring him here Gerry", he said.

And we did. For a Mass of music and song. A celebration of a life well lived.

Much like Matt's life. He also lived his life well.

He gave his all. And never stopped giving.
Calls to the house at all times of the night. Distressed citizens. Or Passport forms to be signed. References to be written. Attending the scenes of sudden deaths. Of suicides. No wonder he smoked like a train. When he wasn't trying to give them up. Always something else to do. Someone else to attend to. Matt gave and gave and gave. Until he had nothing else to give.

And we, who wonder why he went as he did, we who are hurting because we couldn't  help him, we who are honoured to call him Father and friend we know  we are better people because of him.

Because he loved us and cared for us. All of us.



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