This obituary about a Catholic Priest in the Daily Telegraph reminded me of Fr. David Muscat

The Daily Telegraph carried an obituary of a Catholic priest by the name of Fr. James Doherty. He worked as a priest in Scotland. Fr. Doherty was a typical Irish. He remained famous for his witty but funny jobs. Yet, what earned him an obituary in the Telegraph was the fact that he gave attention to the poor and stop up for the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland, who was not always living in the spirit of the bible. Fr. James Doherty earned the respect of the other communities due to the charity works that he performed with his parishioners.

This obituary remained me of Fr. Muscat because Muscat too cracks witty jokes. Like Doherty too, he speaks in a witty way about “poofs” or “adulterers” but Scotland is not Malta, and what Fr. Doherty stated was understood within the proper context and for this reason, he was never dragged to court by Scottish politicians or his statements were branded as homophobic. Instead, they ended up reported by the Daily Telegraph in this obituary! Moreover, like Fr. Doherty, Fr. Muscat has the temerity to stand up to Catholic authority with the difference perhaps that Fr. James did it in a more diplomatic – or shall I say – Irish way. Fr. Muscat does it in a Maltese, Arabesque way.

The major difference between the two is that Fr. James Doherty, unlike Fr. David Muscat, did not indulge himself in local politics. I am sure that it is politics and his political statements that are the real reasons for Fr. David Muscat’s brushing with the authorities and why he is hated by a section of the population.

Fr James ‘Big Jim’ Doherty, well-loved Glasgow Catholic priest known for his witty sermons and devotion to the poor – obituary

He was so respected by other denominations that the Orange Order did not allow their bands to play when marching past his church By Telegraph Obituaries21 January 2022 • 8:22pm

Fr Jim Doherty: his ability to connect the personal to the theological was celebrated, and every anecdote was a parable
Fr Jim Doherty: parishioners compared him to Billy Connolly, and every anecdote was a parable

Father James Doherty, who has died from cancer aged 68, was a popular Catholic priest in Glasgow whose charisma, and physical presence, earned him the nickname “Big Jim”; he was a gifted preacher and his sermons were both radical and funny, blending scholarship with concern for the marginalised and a subversive wit.

Parishioners compared him to Billy Connolly. He began one service with: “Good morning and welcome to the 10 o’clock Mass. And a special welcome to everyone watching live on BBC One.” The congregation sat up and looked around in panic. “Aye, that woke you up, didn’t it!” said Doherty, and launched into prayers.

James Doherty was born in the Gorbals on August 24 1953. His family had migrated from Co Donegal and his father died when he was young. He had five sisters and a brother, Charlie, who was killed in a pub in the 1990s. Jim had his first and last drop of alcohol at the age of 17: he did not like it, and his mother said he had already picked several addictions so it made no sense to add another.

Top of the list were reading and religion. After a spell working at the Glasgow Corporation housing department, he entered St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, in the 1970s, and ministry in 1979. This was in the aftermath of Vatican II, the reforming council that among other things sought to refocus the energies of the Church on helping the poor.

The Church changed slowly, however. In Doherty’s first parish house in the West End of Glasgow, several assistant priests had one small room each, while the monsignor, an Italian by birth who had lived in Scotland for 50 years (yet, Doherty complained, affected to barely speak the language), occupied the entire top floor, keeping one room for his golf clubs.

Appointing himself the clerical shop steward, Doherty demanded a sitting room for the worker bees. The monsignor reminded him that he was not the parish priest yet and should remember his place. “In that case,” Doherty retorted, “you can be parish priest when that phone rings at three in the morning for the last rites, or on all the hospital visits, or all the funerals.” The priests got their sitting room.

He bristled against authority, and not every priest met his high standards. One placement was brief because Doherty and his brother priest fell out: after a fire, Doherty claimed, the priest and his housekeeper were spotted escaping through the same window. Another posting, on the banks of the Clyde, was under a “wee holy saint” whom Doherty nicknamed “Courteney Cox” after the actress who played the highly strung Monica in the sitcom Friends.

Doherty found a real home at St Vincent de Paul in Thornliebank, first as curate, then parish priest – establishing himself as a dynamic cleric who attracted rich and poor, drug addicts and doctors; the Celtic manager Tommy Burns came to hear him.

Doherty redecorated the church’s interior without spending a penny by persuading parishioners to donate their own time and money. Happy to talk to anyone, he would baptise, marry and bury whole families, and was remembered as the priest who made them laugh.

His bluntness irked the bishops, but to the laity it spelt sincerity and an absence of snobbery. An oft-repeated story told of Doherty ringing up a woman who had not been to church for years to see if she would like him to bless her home. “The old priest never came to see us,” the woman said, “because of our living arrangements – you see, I’m living with my partner and we’ve three bairns out of wedlock.”

“I’m here to bless your house, honey, not judge your circumstances,” replied Doherty. “Where do you live?”

“Oh, thank you father. We live in a flat, our name is Smith, but press the top buzzer. There are Smiths below us, but you don’t want to go there because they’re a couple of poofs.”

“Is that right? Well, see, if I do press the wrong buzzer and I get the two poofs, I’ll just say: ‘Hello you two poofs, can you tell me where the two fornicating adulterers and their three bastard children live?’ ”

A characteristic act of Doherty’s was to attach an HIV red ribbon to a statue of St Vincent. And in 2005 he addressed the Scottish Parliament. “Having a morality and moralising are two different things,” he said. “My Church has been trying to get its own house in order since it began.”

In 1997 he was diagnosed with leukaemia and an admirer wrote to the Glasgow Herald asking that readers might pray for a “living saint” so respected across sectarian divides that “the Orange Order do not allow their bands to play music when marching past his church”.

Doherty had to retire early, and was allotted a run-down house that he refitted, sending the bill to the diocese. The story goes that the archdiocese sent it back and so Doherty called, demanding to speak to the archbishop, Cardinal Winning. Winning rang back that night, declaring in his rich Clydeside burr: “I heard what you said, Jim, and I am aghast!”

“Aye, and I was very nearly gassed by that condemned fire you left me with,” replied Doherty. The bills were paid.

The Catholic hierarchy, Doherty believed, needed to be humbler – penitential in the wake of the abuse scandal, particularly. But he loved the Church and the Church needed him. After 10 years of sick leave, he was called back into ministry, as parish priest of St Joachim’s, Carmyle, where he blazoned across the side of the church the words “Smile, you’re in Carmyle.” 

He restored the building, creating a Blessed Sacrament chapel and a new baptistry and installing new stained glass.

This posting lasted five years, until friends found him a house on the south side of the city finally to retire in for good, where he collected icons, paintings and piles of books. He liked to listen to country music and Irish folk. He did not own a mobile phone and had no idea how to operate a computer. 

He worked as a supply priest and was much sought after for his wise counsel. In a period when some Catholics were campaigning for women to join the priesthood, he offered this observation of the clerical life: “After this Mass I shall go to the kitchen, where the microwave is my chef. I’ll have a loveless night in bed, and I’ll wake up by my big old self. So, women, don’t be moaning that ye can’t be a priest.”

Doherty summed up his approach to pastoral work as: “People are God.” What Christ wants from the Church, he proclaimed, “is broken healers.”

In late 2021 Jim Doherty was given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He is survived by his five sisters.

Fr James Doherty, born August 24 1953, died January 8 2022

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