Fr. Eamonn Casey
THE BISHOP-ELECT of Kerry, Father Eamonn Casey, now just finishing his work at the Catholic Housing Aid Society in London, hasn't given his notice of elevation to the bishopric "much thought". "Until the day I finally hoist my sail and get out of her and arrive in Kerry I won't be able to sit down and even think about it for myself." He speaks between leaps and bounds-to the door, to the telephone, to the top of the stairs to shout down a request or, occasionally, a very polite command. "I don't want to rule but I have to. There must be men, I know there are, in my diocese with far better brains than me and I'm not saying that in any false modesty. I'm going to have to rule but there isn't any need for the expression of dignity for my office or submission to rule to be expressed in structures that will shut people off from each other."
Father Casey will be a people's Bishop. If he has any say in the matter. " Bishops are only the fullness of the priesthood and I couldn't fulfil my role as a priest and accordingly as a Bishop if I wasn't among my people." Around him in his office in North West London, a staff work not quite as long hours as himself in efforts to house and help families of whatever size. The staff, men and women speak of Father Casey, Director of C.H.A.S., with something close to adulation. He can do no wrong for them. "He's just a fantastic man. His energy alone. . . but he's never in bad humour. . . he always rushes. . . he went to 300 meetings alone last year and that's not counting special ones that we haven't any record of . . . he treats everyone the same. . . "
We travel, cramped in a car back to central London. Will he not find being a Bishop shuts him off from the people he has worked among for ten years in Britain or more important from people entirely. "God, I don't know what you think Bishops are or what they're meant to do but I'm going to be the same in Killarney and the towns of Kerry as I've been here for ten years. Look, you cannot limit your horizon to the hills of Kerry. People say to me that I'm going to a remote part of Ireland and I say there is no such thing as a remote part of anywhere. I'm as vital to Peru and Vietnam and so are you as any of my pals who are out there at the moment."
But he admits his" record" is unique and may continue to be so among Irish hierarchy. "I suppose if you mean, could it happen again that a man who spent ten years working among the housing crisis in this huge city and country could become an Irish Bishop, then its unique in the sense that it probably won't turn out that way."
His record is unique in other ways, too. He does not come from the allegedly superior intdlectual background of some of his colleagues in high office. He was born in Kerry in 1927"isn't forty-two a ridiculous age for anyone to be a Bishop? "-took the usual philosophy degree at Maynooth on his way to ordination in 1951. For the first four years of his priesthood he worked in Limerick, at pastoral duties and teaching. From 1955 to 1960 he worked at St, John's Cathedral in Limerick city and then in the autumn of 1960 the legend that is Father Eamonn Casey was born with his transfer to be chaplain to the Irish community in Slough in Buckinghamshire in Britain.
Here he began his first housing efforts. A donor gave him £1,000 which he placed in a bank locally. He found in Slough a few" thorougWy respectable couples" who, with their first baby had been evicted from their flat. He went to the bank which had his £ 1 ,000 and exploited both the money and the system. "Most of the couples had some money saved and on the strength of our £1,000 they got loans of between £50 and £250. With this they could make down payments on mortg:lges. In the first year we got loans totalling £4,865." In the three years that followed the Slough effort more basic capital was deposited and more and more money borrowed from the bank. There wasn't a single case of default in repayments. There was no middle-man. There was no messing, Father Casey was on the way.
From there on the story is one of increased organisation, more centres, new groupings, diversification in the housing drive. Names that are familiar like Shelter enter into the story and so too, does Father Casey's confirmation and praise of "Cathy Come Home," the television drama of a couple forced to live, eventually, in the open for lack of accommodation.
"Not a Capitalist"
But for the Irish, the Catholic population of Kerry and the whole country, this man is better than any of hisinventions.And maybe more important. "I've never taken the label socialist, or capitalist or anything else. No, I suppose I'm not a capitalist, Look I don't give a hoot what systems you have when a need arises, Then you discover that no matter who invented it or how it gets along its only eightyfive per cent workable, All right? The charity of God is needed to fill the other fifteen per cent. Do you understand that? I always believed in using the existing structures-if only because you have to in a pluralistic society-Of course you have to bend them and use them and mess them about to suit your need, When I started to try and do something for the people in Slough I had to use the banks, I'd no money so I'd no bloomin' choice."
Father Casey, who will be consecrated in November in Killarney, will be sorry to leave London. "I'll miss the challenge of this society though I'm quite sure there's a challenge in Kerry and in Ireland. But then that's what I meant about the world and our horizons. As christians we have to be the conscience of the world. Weare the ones who must be sensitive to needs and attend them. And it doesn't matter tuppence whether its unde;: a capitalist or a socialist system."
This priest is destined, it seems, for a bishop's career unique almost in the entire history of the Irish church. He is young, vital, engaged in working among people and working for them. His priorities are for co-operation, charity, enthusiasm, energy-all of which he has himself in plenty. And, as evidenced from his life to date, he is not a man over-concerned with structureS. "I keep the commandments because I want God to come and dwell in me-not as an end in themselves. Again we are back to the point I mentioned to you earlier-you cannot maintain structures that tend to shut people off from others."
And he is sure too, where the priorities are. "The thing I would prefer to hear about, instead of the moral decline or the permissive society is what people really think about life. What do you think it means? What do you want to do with it. What do you feel about it. Anyway, for everyone I can count laying stress on the moral degradation I can name a hundred opposite cases of people of all ages, particularly young, who maintain standards and ideals in their lives that are of the highest order."
His christianity is basic, almost, one feels, naive for the pluralistic, society he has faced. "The two great command.n1ents as Christ Himself said, are
love the Lord thy God and thy neighbour as thyself. Aren't they perfect? Isn't this part of the whole essence? " He has welcomed the ecumenical movement, springing from his admiration for John XXIII and the support he got from a man like Cardinal Heenan for his social work, "I don't think that we can change everything and everyone but there are huge areas of agreement. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land once, an ecumenical one. There were 350 people and only twenty-five Catholics. It was a wonderful experience. Isn't it sad the way the countryside now is plunged in war,"
And this grief for the people of a foreign land is the same as that which he describes motivated his first efforts in housing reform, His city was in "another country," but Father Casey's words are relevant in Ireland today: "Housing is such a public and socially visible thing that, although I hope my work among Limerick people while I was their curate was no less strong and filled with no less community awareness, I was much better known working first in Slough and then in London. What appalled me most was to see the number of people who were denied normal family living. I never had to worry about that and I'd bet you didn't either, but there were and still are scores, thousands, who, through no fault of their own are not able to live even decently."
This is the last simple sentiment from the bishop-elect as we began to take our leave. If he gets relaxation, generally he works about fourteen hours a day or more and the day we spoke he had been up since 6.30 a,m.-" I say Mass in a little private oratory, once in the morning, someimes in the evening; people come occasionally-if they want to stay that's their affair-he will take a few minutes to read a detective novel or a light book. "I like thrillers, I must say. But I also love the live theatre and a good serious film. But you know I also love musicals and light ones that take you right out of yourself and everything."'
So we parted company. Leaving the car which has taken us to London city centre after a couple of hours talk in his office which is simple if not sparse and dominated by a huge photograph of a rotten staircase at the end of which a black child sits, miserable and alone. I press him for an idea of what he thinks confronts him in Kerry, in Ireland.
"Look, don't ask me. I don't really know. There was a challenge here in a pluralistic society and there's one in Kerry and in Ireland." And then, as if in after-thoughr, he calls back: "Ask me what it is in, six months and I'll tell you."