Edward Daly – an inspiration to a generation
Last month I found myself in the crypt at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There lie the bodies of the city’s bishops – including, it is said, the first among them. The bones under the basilica’s great altar are said to be those of Peter, the ‘rock’ on which the Catholic Church is built.
No longer there is Saint John Paul II. He was ‘moved upstairs’ after his beatification in 2011 and his tomb is now one of the main attractions in the basilica itself. You can even see it on a webcam.
‘Attraction’ is perhaps the wrong word, but as anyone who has been to Rome will know, the Vatican has become more a place of tourism than pilgrimage.
It had been a long and tiring day, mostly spent marvelling at the riches of the Vatican Museum. Thousands were doing the same thing – most of us in pursuit of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece.
St Peter’s Basilica was the family’s last stop before heading to Roma Termini and the 19.40 back to Florence where we were staying.
With my pedometer showing I’d managed more than 20,000 steps on my blistered feet, I gave up looking for John Paul II’s tomb. Life’s too short and, to be honest, neither he nor his successor, Benedict XVI, struck me as being the right man in the right place for the challenges of the modern day Church. (In the case of JPII, I suspect I am in the minority on that, but no matter.)
I was, however, moved to find myself standing by the tomb of his predecessor, the ill-fated Pope John Paul I – supreme pontiff for one short month in what has become known as the year of the three pope’s. He rests not far from the Blessed Paul VI – whose last minute U-turn on contraception in Humanae Vitae has left the Church with a continuing problem over its approach to human sexuality.
The lurid conspiracy stories over John Paul I’s untidy death have clouded the breath of air he brought into the Church. He rejected a coronation and the triple tiara; he abhorred the use of the Royal ‘we’ (though Vatican flunkies wrote it back into his speeches), he referred to God as ‘our mother’ as well as ‘our father’, and he seemed ready to take on the corruption that had turned the Church into a corporation rather than a community of sinners.
It is a scandal that almost 40 years on, Pope Francis is fighting the same fight, and against the same forces within.
While many bishops, archbishops and cardinals find it difficult to relate to their flocks and the challenges they face; a few stand out and, with quiet dignity, uphold the values that underpin many of the world’s great religions.
One such man was Edward Daly, laid to rest in the city he loved yesterday afternoon.
Much has been written over this past few days about his life, and his commitment to the cause of peace and reconciliation.
To a generation, he was an inspiration. The image of him carrying out his ministry in the midst of the carnage of Bloody Sunday is one of the most iconic of the twentieth century – and one of the most complex too. It can be read in so many ways – the futility of violence, the courage of an individual and a community, the power of prayer, the gulf between the British and the Irish, and the brutality of war in all its guises. Its companion piece is the picture of the late Fr Alec Reid praying over the body of Corporal David Howes. Fr Reid was another witness for Christ.
Not everyone was enamoured of Bishop Daly’s outspoken renunciation of violence. He was principled and robust. He feared nobody.
For most of us, the best we can hope for is that we leave this life having done marginally more good than harm. Edward Daly was not man who lived on the margins.
He gave people their dignity and their place; he spoke for those oppressed by the state, and those cowed by men who wielded power within their own communities.
He held out the hand of friendship when it was not the done thing. He presence throughout the troubles was a reminder that there is good in the world, and good must triumph.
If anyone deserves to rest in the Vatican crypt, it is he. But given the choice we know he would pick the rich earth of County Derry in the shadow of the Cathedral he served so well. May he rest in peace.
- This article appeared in The Irish News on August 12 2016