Remembering Fr Des Wilson by Joe McVeigh

This years Féile an Phobail in West Belfast was to include a discussion on the life and times of Fr Des Wilson. Unfortunately, because of Covid 19, that has had to be postponed. The following are some reflections that I had intended to present by way of introduction to that proposed event.

Fr Des Wilson was such a big part of our lives that all of us, who were his friends, still miss him very much. There is a void but he has left a wonderful legacy. Each of us has his/her own personal impressions and memories. Springhill Community House continues to keep his memory and his work alive.

Des was a learned man and a thinker. He was a great writer -very meticulous and well able to present cogent arguments in favour of justice and liberation. We can go back to those writings and learn from them. We can learn also from his life of simplicity, frugality and humility.

Des showed that priesthood is not only about service but about empowering the people and taking sides. He gave leadership and encouragement; educating in the real sense of inspiring people to discover their own potential. Des was also about community building in opposition to those, in and out of uniform, who tried to destroy community.

Des was committed to the Truth and he was fearless in speaking and writing the truth about any form of injustice or oppression against the poor, against African Americans, against women and against prisoners.

He came to Ballymurphy (St Johns parish) in 1966 after spending 15 years teaching in St Malachy’s College. He got his eyes opened about the reality of deprivation and poverty. It was not that the Catholic people in the Falls were worse off than the Protestant people on the Shankill. It was the class divide in the society that he saw and that annoyed him most. He was especially annoyed with the official Church’s alignment with the well-off professional class. The Catholic ascendancy and the Protestant ascendancy were doing all right. The working class in Belfast were not doing so well.

His confrontation with the Church authorities centred on their hopeless response to the demand for justice and basic human rights. This led eventually to his having to leave the institutional Church and go it alone in Ballymurphy. There the people welcomed him and supported him all through the years. He was blessed that Noelle Ryan heard about his work with the people in Ballymurphy and came to lend a hand-and stayed for the rest of her life. He was also blessed with a supportive and loving family.

Des was constantly seeking the Truth about the political situation in which he found himself, about the reasons for the long struggle and the armed insurrection. He constantly challenged and confronted the lies and the pro-British propaganda both in the local media and in Dublin.

He urged some people to investigate the facts about job discrimination. The late Oliver Kearney and some others responded and began the campaign for Equality which really challenged the State. It also challenged the collusion of the Church & state. How could a Church which is supposed to be committed to the Poor and to Justice condone discrimination?

Des had developed his own liberation theology –quite apart from that of Latin America or South Africa. He was always trying to develop an Irish liberation theology based on the Gospels, the prophets and the Celtic experience of Nature  and monastic living. Simplicity of life was important.

His sympathies were always with the underdog and with the working class, and with prisoners.  He was most impressed with the writings of James Connolly and the leadership of James Larkin. He wrote a number of plays and two were about these favourite Irish thinkers.

He was always concerned to challenge the revisionism of Irish history and set about recording Irish history as he understood it just like James Connolly from the point of view of the oppressed.

Des loved to tell stories –and jokes! He always enjoyed his own jokes –they were often about other priests and bishops! He sometimes could hardly finish his own jokes for laughing!

I think Des made us think about the important values in life and he left us a great legacy. His light shone in Ballymurphy and throughout Ireland during a very dark time. He enjoyed life.  He loved to travel and he loved to spend time in Donegal. He was always creating -new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking. His life is a challenge to us to think, to commit to the Truth  and to show compassion to all who are excluded and downtrodden.

Fr Des published a pamphlet in 1985 entitled A POLITICAL CATECHISM. He raised some interesting questions about politics and morality -in particular about the Church’s attitude to revolution. He wanted to expose the contradictions in the official policy of the Catholic Church to revolution. The following is an excerpt:

Question: Do Church leaders ever condone revolutions?

Answer: Yes. Catholic Church leaders encouraged General Franco of Spain 1936 when he led a revolution against the elected government. They also praised the revolution by the Hungarians against the Russians in 1956.

Q. What did the Church leaders say of those who took part in these revolutions?

A. They said that the Franco revolution was a crusade for Christ and that the Hungarians were heroes.

Q. Do they still hold these opinions?

A. No. Forty years after the Franco revolution they apologised to the Spanish people for having supported Franco’s regime.

Q. Did this bring about change in the attitude of Franco?

Answer: NO

Q. Why not?

Answer: Because Franco was dead.

Q. Is there any example of Church leaders condemning revolutions?

A. Yes. All Irish revolutions, the Russian revolution in 1917 and also the revolution in Nicaragua which successfully deposed the Samoza regime.

Q. Did the Church leaders in any of these cases change their attitudes to the revolutions?
A. Yes. The Church leaders decided after some years that some Irish revolutions were good after all.

Q. How many years elapsed in such cases?

A. About 40

Q. How then would the faithful know whether a revolution was justified or not?

A. By waiting for forty years!

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