THAT strange lost time, postChristmas, pre-New Year, has a nasty habit of claiming some of the church's most distinguished souls. In 1990 it was John FX Flarriott who departed this mortal coil at a time when our minds were elsewhere and the more obvious modes of announcementthe obituary columns were silent for the duration. In 1991 it was Mgr Patrick 0' Mahoney, tireless friend of the third world, once dubbed "God's fund-raiser", who slipped away on Boxing Day as the world stood still.
1992 would have been his thirtieth year as parish priest of Our Lady of the Wayside, Shirley. And what a celebration it would have been. With this son of Cork at its head, the remarkable Birmingham parish year on year has been sending out in excess of £250,000 worth of medicines and other essentials to the third world, Shirley is not your stockbroker belt. It is your average parish that under the leadership of a man anything but run-of-themill performed impossible feats.
And the money raised was used imaginatively. Not only Catholic projects were supported but the widest range of ecumenical initiatives like a joint Anglican/Salvation Army feeding programme for the poorest of the poor in Mother Teresa's city. At a time when inter-faith understanding was no more than a query on the Vatican's agenda, Mgr O'Mahoney was getting on with what he saw as essential.
In tandem with its phenomenal fund-raising, the parish built itself a new church. And nothing it did was second rate. Among those commissioned to decorate the building was Elizabeth Mink.
As Mgr O'Mahoney's reputation grew with the achievements of his parish, he took on broader responsibilities, heading up Birmingham archdiocese's justice and peace commission, setting up an Amnesty International group that one Christmas sent 9,000 cards to prisoners of conscience worldwide. Ethical investment was another issue on this busy man's agenda. He spearheaded the archdiocese's disinvestment from various companies with dubious records in the third world, not to mention local firms with employment practices that were far from ideal.
And on top of all these tasks, he found time to read widely and to write. His books Fantasy of Human Rights, Swords and Ploughshares and A Question of Life demonstrate the range of issues that concerned this most humane, enlightened and purposeful of men.
Mention of John Harriott reminds me that today Friday at the Independent Television Commission (whose predecessor the IBA he worked for) the recipients of the prize set up in memory of the author of Periscope will be announced. Watch this space. Perhaps a similar initiative could be launched a human rights prize? by Birmingham archdiocese in memory of Mgr O'Mahoney.
In the news
THE death of Mgr O'Mahoney may have come just too late to make the pages of our New Year's edition, but our main story, detailing a discussion between Cardinals Ratzinger and Koenig certainly caused a stir. The two were brought together by the German paper Die Well and in the process of a series of exchanges the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hinted that a new encyclical on that old chestnut birth control was on the way. (Smart money, for what its worth, is currently on a wide-ranging document on family and life matters appearing in the late spring.) Well, its reassuring to know that the Catholic Herald is so well read by other journalists. Within hours of the paper appearing the Daily Telegraph, BBC Radio 4's World at One and Sunday and various others were on the line demanding more information, eager to take up the story. Unfortunately for the speculators, Cardinal Ratzinger, with a precision that has become the hallmark of modern-day Germany, had of course covered all options and it was impossible to deduce which way the new Vatican document would go from his remarks.
But it is remarkable how a cocktail of the words Catholics and sex inspires such interest when alternative recipes Catholics and social justice, Catholics and human rights, the option for the poor scarcely excite a murmur.
The irony is that whatever the Pope eventually decides to say about Humanae vitae, exciting as his words may be for the secular media, they are unlikely to change many minds here in Britain. Michael Hornsby-Smith's survey on Roman Catholic Beliefs published last year revealed that in various investigations in typical parishes he couldn't find a single voice raised unambiguously in defence of that landmark 1968 encyclical. So any change of line by Rome even if it is towards a more liberal stance will come too late.
However, while the teachings of Hunianae vitae may now be yesterday's issue for today's generation of Catholics, the pessimism that the encyclical bespeaks about sexuality in general continues to tarnish the church and its teachings. Of course in 100 years time our
society's overwhelming interest in sex may seem as ludicrous to future generations as does the Victorians' obsession with death to us now.
But the fact remains that the ideals the church teaches regarding sexuality are out of touch with the reality of many Catholics' lives on this central and much discussed issue. In consequence the church is sidelined in their lives, or at best compartmentalised. They will listen to it when it talks about the third world, or social issues, but not when it advises them about what goes on in their bedrooms.
I had the odd distinction this week of asking a question of one of the BBC's most enduring institutions the Gardeners Question Time panel. Odd because I live in a first floor flat where my sporadic and, to be honest, half-hearted, attempts at small sale horticulture have failed miserably.
Clay Jones, Dr Stefan Buczacki and Fred Downham, the panel whose names are as resonant of my childhood as the locations in the Shipping Forecast, had come to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in north London to give the Pope John Paul 11 Garden, built by the charity ASPIRE and funded by Catholic Herald readers, the once over. They seemed suitably impressed and then settled down to share their wisdom with local gardeners in a programme to be broadcast at the beginning of February.
I felt like a Martian watching Coronation Street as capillary bedding, dead heading, pink maincrop potatoes and varieties of tomato plant provoked great passions among audience and panel. It was all a new world to me. And then came my turn to ask, on behalf of the (unavoidably absent) designer who had created the Pope John Paul II Garden, about topiary previt. A rarified subject if ever there was one. I hope I got away with it. I fear the benign smiles of the audience may have meant that they had got my number. Still one day the advice may come in useful. Great trees from small acorns grow and all that.