Fr Neal Carlin: Laying stepping stones on the way of truth
IN the best tradition of what the Scots Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean calls ‘the tradition bearers’, a special group of people in every community, Fr Neal Carlin laid stepping stones for others which would bring them along the roadways of life, ar Shlí na Fírinne, on the way of truth which takes us to heaven.
Neal was born at Enagh Lough in Co Derry on May 1 1940, the third eldest of nine to Neal and May Carlin.
With the exception of Una, his older sister, all his brothers and sisters, Joe, James, Angela, Dessie, Aidan, Brendan and Christine, survive him.
The family moved to Newtowncunningham and it was in the old chapel he first promised God that, if he got through his exams, he would offer himself to him as a priest.
At the age of 14 the family moved to Fahan, where he discovered his love of fishing and became aware of the Celtic saints.
His journey of discernment would take him to St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, St Peter’s Seminary in Wexford and the Diocese of Motherwell in Scotland, for which he was ordained in 1964.
His 11 years in Scotland were happy and care-free; he worked a lot with youth where he used his love of sport to evangelise.
However, he felt called back to Ireland and came to the cathedral parish in Derry in 1975 – at the height of the Troubles.
Glenowen was his pastoral area and he loved visiting homes and hearing confessions. He used to say how he would stand looking down over the city, conscious of the disintegration of society around him, all the more convinced that the healing, comfort and challenge of the Holy Spirit was needed to confront the darkness and injustice.
In his writings and preaching, Fr Neal always emphasised the importance of building community as the heart of the Church’s mission.
In 1981, the year of the Hunger Strikes, he founded the Columba Community.
After praying with a Protestant minister in Wexford, he heard the clear voice of God saying, ‘In a few days, a stranger will point out to you a house.’ And sure enough, as with St Paul in Damascus, a few days later a man who was prominent in the SVdP pointed out a house in Queen Street which he thought would be good for him.
It was owned by the RUC and had been bombed by the IRA – so it had the perfect pedigree to become a place of reconciliation.
With his love of the Blessed Sacrament and his unshakeable belief in God speaking in silence, the first thing to be opened in it was an oratory.
As the Columba Community built up Columba House, which quickly became teeming with people looking for help and where no-one was turned away, a sanctuary of peace and quiet was needed.
A man said to him that he had a farm at Dundrean, on the border in Donegal, and if he wanted it, it was his. And so St Anthony’s came to be.
The border ran along the bottom of the garden; it was basic and rural. Many benefitted from its quiet solitude; none more than Fr Neal himself. At last, he could come closer to the depth of contemplation for which he yearned.
In time, further diversification was needed when numbers seeking help with substance addiction grew and so, over the road and around the hill, White Oaks was developed, as well as a prayer garden.
But it was never ever about places; it was always about people and bringing them to God. Stones which he saw hurled in violence and frustration in the Troubles to hurt people were now being built into facilities which would gently bring healing.
Fr Neal was always confident in the belief that God never withdraws his gifts – that the blessings given to the Celtic saints of old were still present and available to us as their followers in the here and now.
He had a great grá for justice; the social Gospel had to be preached and lived.
He was also conscious of his limitations, especially his temper and sharp tongue – so he relied more than most on the mercy of God and others; he was usually the first to be heard saying sorry.
Fr Neal died aged 81 on August 6. Born as he was on the feast of St Joseph the Worker, and dying as he did in this year of St Joseph, may he rest in peace.
Fr Francis Bradley