John McEntee: 'Don't make people choose between the church and their games'

Pope Francis is set to appear at Croke Park this weekend
Pope Francis is set to appear at Croke Park this weekend

HALF-A-MILLION people will descend on Phoenix Park, Dublin on Sunday to be in the presence of His Holiness, Pope Francis. On the same day hundreds of Gaelic matches will be played across Ireland. Some of these matches are league fixtures which are being crammed in as the season draws to a close, while other games are championship encounters.

From July 8, only eight counties remained in the race for Sam Maguire. This was reduced to two three weeks ago. Sure we all know the issues with the fixtures crisis but can county boards really justify creating an unnecessary clash with the pontiff’s visit?

I recently raised this topic via social media only to get many churlish retorts – the most polite perhaps being ‘sure it’s 2018 not 1918’. The same guy likely used a similar snappy line to express his views on the centenary commemorations of the 1916 rising, which presumably were as insignificant in his mind.


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In typical Irish fashion we have a habit of turning our back on things which have served us well in the past and continue to provide a valuable role in our society.

I’m the first to recognise the many failings of the Catholic Church, particularly when it comes to safeguarding children and vulnerable people over the decades across Ireland and abroad. I recognise the hurt and distress caused to thousands of people and I can also understand how sections of society want to disassociate with the Church for those reasons.

I accept that one of Ireland’s strongest social constructs, that of the close relationship between state and Church, needed to dissolve. But this debate is not about any of that stuff.

What I am struggling with is why the GAA people who continue to have a close spiritual relationship with the Church are treating the Pope’s visit as a by-the-by event – not dissimilar to Michael Bublé’s recent concert. It seems as though some want to ignore what is happening in Dublin in the hope that the elephant in the room is missed. I liken it to the scene in the film Jumbo starring the quirky actor Jimmy Durante.

Durante gets into bother with creditors [like many Irish folk]and creatively he attempts to sneak the main asset, Jumbo off the circus grounds only to be confronted by a sheriff, who demands: “Where you going with that elephant?” Caught red-handed, Durante casually replies “What elephant?”

Sure we are a secular country I hear people say. The 2016 census indicated that Ireland remains a religious country with 78.3 per cent identifying as Catholic and a further 9.22 per cent adhering to some alternative form of religion. Those stats don’t shout ‘secular’ to me.

Of course stats can be twisted to suit any argument, so I will give you a real-life example of the role of the priest in my GAA life.

For all of my adult football career playing with my home club our backroom team, particularly for championship games, comprised a priest.

Fr Joe McKeever was our parish priest for the past 10 years. Many matches were played on a Sunday. So for those days which conflicted with regular Mass times Fr Joe would say a private Mass to our team and family members who were present in the hotel.

The sermon would be short – which was always welcome – but it typically contained a very specific reference to the game we were about to play and at all times it had a calming influence on our minds.

Our team, like many teams, had the regular Mass-goers, the non-attendees and everyone in between. Nobody was forced to attend, yet no-one opted to remain in their bedroom.

That Mass was as important to me and our set as was the pre-match meal, the tactical training sessions or the physio treatments. To be the best that we could be we needed our mind and body to be at ease. Fr Joe’s words did that for us.

In a similar way, the present parish priest, Fr Cullen, is a great Gael who can be seen at football every night of the week and whose views are deeply respected, whether they be on the Bible or about a player’s ability. The club dressing room is a better place because of men like these.

In another month my county will be hosting its annual Mass for deceased members of the GAA. It is another example of the close relationship between the GAA and the Church.

Ireland is unique in that the minority voice is heard the loudest. Maybe they are better at articulating their views – and for that they ought to be applauded. A lot has changed in the 40 years since the last Papal visit but many good things remain the same. GAA folk should not ignore the elephant in the room as religion is not going away.

Our society must embrace all things good and each important event must be given its place so that sport, education, religion or whatever institution one holds dear, is encouraged to foster harmoniously.

Don’t make people choose between their Church and their games.