Monsignor Cyril Murtagh

Monsignor Cyril Murtagh

My first experience of the Canon Law Society was at the winter meetings at Marie Reparatrice Convent in Wimbledon. I remember a particularly stimulating and amusing talk by a Lord of Appeal contrasting the British Common Law approach of speedy, if rough justice with the Continental approach of perfect but timeless justice.

Those early meetings were only one night affairs. The “Young Turks” of the Society in those days (Gerry Sheehy, Ralph Brown, John Humphreys, John Barry et al) were anxious to move the interest of the Society to more urgent pastoral problems of Tribunal work. It was they who sponsored a Spring meeting at Wood Hall which was eventually adopted by the Society as its official Annual Conference.

Wood Hall was then a Pastoral Centre run by the irrepressible Monsignor Michael Buckley. I remember his welcoming us the second or third year there with the announcement: “You’ve all got rooms of your own this year, though some may need to pass through your room to get to their own” or, “the swimming pool is open for you all the time, except from 8am to 8pm when it is let to local bodies”. We soon moved to the Passionist Retreat House at Ilkley, a beautiful setting. A vivid memory is of the Secretary of the Society at the time serving cups of tea to us in bed at 7.30 am, despite his usual late socialising the night before! Increasing numbers led us from this beautiful setting on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors to the Northern edge of the M25 at All Saints Pastoral Centre.

The standard of speakers was very high: I particularly remember Fr. Clarence Gallagher, SJ, on Eastern Canon Law and Fr. Zuzek, also from the Gregorian, billed to give a lecture on the canonical position of Patriarchs in the Eastern Uniate Churches: a seemingly recondite subject, except that it had just previously led to a fist-fight among the Ukrainian community in Gloucester! Max Reinhardt from the Brooklyn Tribunal described its “fast-track” methods of processing cases in one sitting of the Court. John Humphreys’ memorable paper on Moral Certainty has always been my guiding light in this area. But, from early on, one of the most enjoyable features was the discussion period after a lecture: woe betide the speaker who floated too many trial balloons in his talk: the expert marksmen in the audience soon potted them, all in a good-humoured way!

In 1972, I was fortunate to get in on a small group from the Society that made a three-week visit to the Holy Land. That was a moving, but also hilarious occasion: the red wine from Mount Carmel was branded as “Elias” – have you ever had a gin and Elias? I don’t recommend it!

One year I was invited to give a paper at the Canadian CLS Conference in Montreal. Gerry Sheehy was another speaker. But the principal guest speaker was Cardinal Felici. After the Conference, I was invited to join Frank Morrisey, Felici and Gerry Sheehy on a trip to Niagara Falls. The Cardinal was rather reserved at first, obviously (being a Roman) wondering what the sub-text of the trip was. One reason was to impress him with the vast distances in Canada and why tribunals had to conduct meetings by phone. But the principal reason was for us to have a good time, and if he wanted that, OK by us: he gradually relaxed and the climax came when we stopped for lunch at a motel. The place was full of ladies, some dressed in white, with a sash reading “T.O.P.S” and wearing white cardboard mortarboards. On enquiry we found this was the graduation day of the Weight-Watchers and “TOPS” stood for “Take off Pounds Sensibly”. The Cardinal was fascinated and went on about “i Tops.” We reckon he went back to Rome and told Pope Paul all about this new academic degree!

After the 25th Anniversary Mass in Westminster Cathedral, we adjourned to the Cathedral Hall for refreshments – I was deputed to look after Lord Hailsham and the Nuncio. I found myself in total agreement with the strong view of the Nuncio that cheese should be eaten without butter on the biscuits – this was about the sum canonical gem from our stilted conversation! The Anniversary Conference was at All Saints Pastoral Centre, our then location.

In the years of preparation for the 1983 Code, the Society played a major part in commenting for the Hierarchy on the drafts of the Code as they came from Rome. We also heard somewhat dramatically phrased accounts from Monsignors John Barry and Joe Buckley about various clashes in the Working Group they had been invited to join in Rome; where they seem to have spent much time in confrontation with the Roman line. Our own work was much less dramatic and very interesting for me, as a member of one of the Society’s Working parties here. But the Pezzi Grossi of the Society (especially Gerry Sheehy) played a major role in gathering representatives of various English-Speaking Societies in Ottawa and hammering out a joint approach by various hierarchies on the vexed question of the “Nature of the Church”. These submissions had a major influence on the final Schema of “De Populo Dei.

Then came lengthy debates concerning the English translation of the Code and a proposed Commentary; in retrospect, it was better not to have rushed into print with a less worthy Commentary. From the very start, I found the Canon Law Society the most welcoming of organisations, whose serious purpose and intellectual life was only matched by its sociability. For me – and I say this in all sincerity - it has been an enormous support in my priestly life. I thought I was joining the Scribes and Pharisees but actually found I was in a rather good club which sharpened my wits considerably and gave me much needed intellectual stimulus: this in an area of Church life which I rapidly came to see as of outstanding importance. I was fortunate to be a member during the period of gestation of the New Code and of rapid development in Jurisprudence, both of which gave me a larger view of the Church. At the same time, the work in the matrimonial tribunal kept one aware of the needs and problems at the “coal face” of pastoral life. I am sure others will write more eloquently and with greater expertise than me, but this is what the Society did for one ordinary member, for which I will always be enormously grateful.

                                                            Monsignor Cyril Murtagh

One of the features of CLS Conferences was the fact that early on wherever the Conference was held (except in Edinburgh) it always ran its own bar, and supplied its own barman. There was a short list of expert barmen; pictured here is Fr.Gerry Ennis at Foxrock. Another expert barman was Fr. Gordon Read.