The missionary who exemplified the best of Irish Catholicism

A Celtic cross (Ulrich Hartmann/

Although the details of the visit have not yet been confirmed, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Ireland this August, during the International World Meeting of Families which runs between 21-26 August.

Despite religious and cultural echoes of its Catholic past, the Holy Father will be visiting a country that is no longer the devoutly Catholic country it was in my mother’s childhood (she was born in Cork in 1924). From the fall in vocations, evoked by the echoing, empty corridors of Maynooth seminary, to the changed definition of marriage, from the priestly abuse scandals of recent decades to the current battle being fought by Irish pro-lifers to protect preborn babies, it is clear that Ireland is following the rest of Europe in the decline of religious belief.

This climate must be very hard on those older priests and religious (nuns have also been given a bad name by the media) who have followed their vocation to the best of their ability but who have been dogged both by the abuse scandals and the indifference of many modern Irish people to the life of faith.

These thoughts have been occasioned by reading A Remarkable Irishman (The Frank McGovern Story) by Jim Malia (New Millennium Publishing). Malia, formerly a Marist Brother, who left because of ill-health, has written an affectional fraternal memoir of his fellow Marist, Frank McGovern (1925-2008) whose life exemplified what was best in the Irish Church of the past.

Malia describes McGovern, who came from Sligo, as “one of Ireland’s great sons.” One of nine children (from the days when large families were common rather than exceptional) he was a gifted sportsman.

“Truth compels the admission that after the love of God, football was Frank’s great love” writes his memoirist. Nonetheless, the love of God which he had imbibed and absorbed within family life and the wider Catholic culture in which he grew up impelled McGovern to become a Marist Brother. Professed in 1945, he first taught in a boys’ school in Sligo before being sent to Nigeria.

At first he taught in a Catholic college in Orlu, Eastern Nigeria before becoming head of the novitiate in Uturu. Nigerian independence in 1960 was followed by the violence of civil war. Doing his best to relieve the starving populace in his area, eventually McGovern was sent back to Ireland and asked to run a retreat centre for young people – to help them realise that “real religion is a love affair [with Christ]”.

Malia does not go into details here but it is clear that on his return Frank realised “it wasn’t the Ireland of his boyhood”, with its unquestioning faith and the hard simple life of a people not yet exposed to the distractions of materialism.

Eventually, in 1978, when he was in his 50s, McGovern discovered a new way of living his vocation: establishing the Marist Rehabilitation Centre for drink and drug addicts. His practical gifts, his instinctive charity, his recognition of the need to help the problem of Ireland’s tramps and alcoholics, combined in the successful running of this long-stay hostel.

I asked Malia how he would describe this Marist Brother, formed in his vocation before Vatican II and its consequences that were to strike at the foundations of the Church; a time before missionary work was called into question, before ecumenism became fashionable and before old-fashioned Catholic faith and piety, with all its straightforward simplicity and strength, met the tsunami of modernism in all its forms.

He describes Frank’s personality as “strong, determined, independent-minded and prayerful”, adding “He was very much a hands-on Christian and I admired him tremendously for this”. Malia reflects that his friend’s spirituality “was based more on St Matthew chapter 25: v 34 [clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned] than on the Rules and Constitutions of the Marist Order”. He tells me that Frank “was one of the finest forwards ever fielded by Sligo County but he was immediately prepared to leave all that behind when appointed to Nigeria.”

I hope that despite her current spiritual malaise, Ireland is still capable of producing men of the calibre of Frank McGovern.