Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Matt Talbot's canonisation would be a sign of hope to addicts

By Morgan Costelloe

The Irish Times

January 14, 1997


EMMET Oliver is a freelance journalist who presented his views on the implications of the canonisation of Matt Talbot in this column last month. Unfortunately, his contribution was littered with factual errors, distortions and shallowness. {See Oliver's column below}

He told us that Mall Talbot was born in Rutland Street and that he had chains embedded in his flesh when he died. He mentioned the 1954 biography of the Dublin workman, Matt Talbot and his Times, but apparently did not read it carefully. Had he done so, he would have learned that Mall Talbot was born in Aldborough Court and did not have chains embedded in his body when he collapsed. If he wishes to research this point further, he should read the sworn evidence of Sister M. Ignatius and others at the Ordinary Process. Her observations may be read in our diocesan archives.

The cult of Mall Talbot was initiated by the poor of the inner city visiting and praying at his grave. Emmet Oliver contends that it was fostered by an oppressive church to continue "a subtle form of subjugation" of its members. "It is no wonder that Archbishop McQuaid wrote the preface to the man's biography in 1954," he writes, adding "no other figure has been more associated with the powerful, dictatorial and puritanical church of his time."

THAT outburst reveals Mr Oliver's real attitude, particularly to readers who know that Archbishop McQuaid commissioned the late Mary Purcell to write that book out of a deep personal devotion to Mall Talbot. It is worth noting that Mall Talbot was well known long before Dr McQuaid was appointed archbishop in 1940. An earlier biography by Joseph Glynn had been translated into 13 European languages by 1929.

It would be impractical to deal with all the points in Mr Oliver's article. However, I was amused by his reference to "one pamphlet about Mall Talbot" in which he informs us that a comparison is made with Tim Severin, the explorer.

He then condemns the author on the grounds that "particular emphasis is placed on his Irish nationality, which no doubt makes him a more wholesome cause for committees in the US who have championed his cause." This pamphlet deals exclusively with Mall Talbot's spirituality and places no emphasis on his nationality. I know because I wrote it: The Mystery of Matt Talbot (Irish Messenger Publications).

"You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," Christ told His followers. When Mall Talbot found sobriety through prayer and spiritual guidance, his desire for drink was replaced by a desire for Christian perfection.

There are many ways to this goal. He turned to Monsignor Michael Hickey, an experienced spiritual director, for advice. He chose a programme closely resembling the rule of the early Irish monasteries, which moulded the great saints of the fifth and sixth centuries. Monsignor Hickey judged that Mall Talbot was an exceptional person who was physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of following their way to God. They met weekly for many years to monitor Matt's progress.

THE principal elements in the rule of the monasteries were prayer, fasting, penance, work, study, devotion to Our Lady and missionary drive. "The Mystery of Matt Talbot" examines how and why a Dublin woman lived this rule in our own century.

It is doubtful if Mr Oliver read this pamphlet with any depth. Had he done so, he would have discovered that there was one notable exception to the rule in the case of Mall Talbot. While some early Irish monks engaged in self flagellation, that was never part of his programme.

Matt Talbot developed a deep devotion to Our Lady and was impressed by Louis Marie de Montfort's book, "True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin." The future saint stated that anyone who practised this devotion broke the chain of sin and assumed the chain of love. He suggested that such a person should wear a light chain, a bracelet, as a symbol. Mall Talbot did not settle for a bracelet. With the permission of his spiritual director, he wore chains wrapped around his body on special occasions.

Mall Talbot's ascetic practices have to be viewed against the historical selling of his time (1856-1925). There is no foundation to Emmet Oliver's opinion that they constituted "extreme self abuse." Dr Feichin O'Doherty, professor of psychology in UCD, dealt with this question in a 1977 RTE documentary and concluded that self abuse did not arise.

Mall Talbot's neighbours and workmates had no idea that he was living by a strict monastic rule. To them, he was a happy, kind, prayerful and generous man. Few knew that he was a recovered alcoholic, a former addict. He "kicked the habit" by the grace of God. His higher power was the God and faith of his childhood.

Our present Pope believes that God in his providence has raised Mall Talbot as a sign of hope for addicts. This view is shared by 50,000 members of the Mall Talbot Retreat Movement of the US.

All are recovering alcoholics. They attend regular enclosed retreats - including the many who do not share the Catholic faith - and learn that while no one is expected to emulate the ascetic life of their patron, a spiritual dimension is essential for their rehabilitation programme. As retreatant said to me once: "If Talbot can do it by the grace of God, I can do it."

Emmet Oliver wonders what the canonisation of Mall Talbot would say. The answer is found in the petition sent to Pope John Paul II on behalf of the 50,000 members requesting his beatification.

It is found also in the hundreds of reports of favours from individuals and families which I have received from many parts of the world. His canonisation would speak of a caring, compassionate church. It would give hope to addicts.

Note: Fr. Morgan Costelloe was Vice-Postulator of the Cause for Venerable Matt Talbot when this column was published.

"Working man's saint or misguided victim?"

By Emmet Oliver

The Irish Times

December 17, 1966


IN A Catholic Church of declining vocations and recent sexual scandal the search for an unblemished symbol of faith to reinvent the unsullied church of 30 or 40 years ago is ongoing.

The beatification of Edmund Rice recently focused attention on the traditions of Catholic education. The possibility of another beatification, that of Malt Talbot, may not be a cause for celebration in the same unreserved way by Catholics or people in other churches.

A couple of months ago the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, Dr James Moriarty, spoke of Malt Talbot's example and how his canonisation would be a rich reward for a supremely devotional life.

The campaign for his canonisation is currently collecting evidence. If his beatification - the first step to canonisation - is granted, many, Catholics will reflect on what this means for the church now. The meaning of Edmund Rice's beatification to a church desperately trying, to hang on to its central role in education is obvious. It is less clear what the canonisation of Malt Talbot would say.

I remember as a schoolboy in Dublin, in the mid-1980s, being told the story of Malt Talbot. A teacher informed us that this man's life should be an inspirational model. The shock and genuine fear among our group when we heard the full story was manifest.

The story is well known to generations of Catholic children who were told the only way to stay off the drink was to copy Malt Talbot's conversion to God.

Malt Talbot was born in a drab tenement house in Rutland Street, Dublin, in 1856. He was an alcoholic from the age of 16 after he began sampling pints of porter at a bottling plant where he got his first job. Before he embarked on his penitential journey, he was known as Barney Talbot, a stereotypical hard man of Dublin pub life, who regularly drank himself into a stupor.

It is claimed his conversion came suddenly one Saturday in 1884 when he pledged to abstain from drink for three months. His future devotional practices were a way to divert his mind from a genuine addiction.

In fact he would probably never have achieved recognition within the church if it had not been for the chains which were found embedded in his skin when his dead body wash examined in hospital. Does the church hierarchy now honestly believe that people should follow Malt Talbot's example of devotion and sanctity, which included punishing himself with cords, chains, wooden pillows and plank beds?

The image of Malt Talbot wearing chains and taking the Stations of the Cross on his knees does not seem in tune with post-Vatican II ideas of religious worship and freedom or the new radical Catholic social thinking of recent years.

For most people such penitential practices are hard to imagine, even at Lough Derg. They will remind, many older people of the austerity, harshness and brutality of the early years of the State or even worse the fundamentalism of Opus Dei.

Another unsettling element in Malt Talbot's story is the relationship that existed between him and his spiritual directors. Every part of his life eventually became ruled by the guidance given to him by priests such as Dr Hickey, the then rector of Clonliffe College.

Once when a young girl proposed marriage to Talbot, he told her the answer was "no" - Our Lady had told him not to gel married. But we do not know if the advice came from a less celestial source, either Dr Hickey or another key confessor, the Jesuit Father James Walsh.

The impression one gels from these relationships is of Matt Talbot, illiterate for much of his life, being given guidance by people better educated and more comfortable in society than him. Were these people not, obliged to dissuade Talbot from trying to achieve sanctity through extreme forms of self-abuse? Would they themselves have taken the same punishing road to devotion which they recommended to this simple and unassuming working man?

Malt Talbot was trying during all this to replicate the ascetic environment of a monastery. A book called True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin by the 18th-century French saint Louis Grignon de Montfort - which is also one of Pope John Paul II's favourite devotional books - gave him the idea for the chains and self-punishment.

The dark stories which have emerged from homes and orphanages like Goldenbridge remind us what Catholicism often meant in practice in the early and middle part of this century. Far from Matt TaIbot being the working man's saint, his form of devotion and the authoritarian mindset which controlled the church then exemplify all the things that kept the working man in a subtle form of subjugation.

In one pamphlet produced about Matt Talbot, a comparison is drawn between his spiritual achievements and the seafaring achievements off the explorer Tim Severin, who emulated the Brendan voyage, using an exact replica of the saint's leather boat.

Another description of Talbot's efforts in the same pamphlet is that he engaged in "no half measures". Particular emphasis is placed on his Irish nationality, which no doubt makes him a more wholesome cause for committees in the US who have championed his cause.

It is no wonder that Archbishop John Charles McQuaid wrote the preface to the man's biography in 1954. No other figure has been more associated with the powerful, dictatorial and puritanical church of the time. It is known that from the comfort of his palatial residence, he regarded Malt Talbot's life with some awe.

Is it possible that Matt Talbot was a victim of the ethos that Archbishop McQuaid came to represent? But more importantly would a canonisation now offer some kind of retrospective approval for those values?