Father John Fitzsimmons’s online confession
HE was controversial in life and remains controversial in death. The memoir of a Catholic priest and regular BBC presenter, in which he castigates the Catholic Church in Scotland for a lack of leadership, is to be published online.
Father John Fitzsimmons, who died in 2008 aged 68, left behind a 154-page, type-written manuscript that is now set to be published on two prominent Catholic websites.
The manuscript – called A Vision Betrayed – takes potshots at the current leader of the Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, as well as his predecessor Cardinal Thomas Winning. He accuses a senior Scottish clergyman of describing Pope Benedict XVI as “disagreeable” and accuses the Church hierarchy in Glasgow of giving titles to the priests who raised the most money for central funds.
Fitzsimmons, who regularly presented Thought For The Day on the BBC Today programme, criticises the ability of O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and leader of Scotland’s 700,000 Catholics, dismissing him as hard to define as “distinguished”. He goes on to argue that the Cardinal has not grasped the character of Glasgow, Scotland’s Catholic heartland, writing “If he lives to be a thousand, I do not suppose he will ever understand the West of Scotland.”
He also claims that Catholic priests could “buy” titles such as “monsignor” and “canon” by passing on the greatest amounts of parish finances to the Archdiocese of Glasgow. He wrote: “It was supposed that the fastest way to be named a canon or monsignor was to have a healthy deposit with central funds.”
He also describes the late Cardinal Winning as “a great chance wasted,” saying: “He could have achieved ‘stardom’ but it eluded him because for some odd reason he thought he already was a ‘star’.”
Fitzsimmons, who was the parish priest at St John Bosco, Erskine, goes on to argue in favour of inter-communion, the sharing of communion with Catholics and Protestants, which is currently banned by the Catholic Church, and for an open discussion about female priests. He adds: “The calibre of leadership in the Church has been diminished almost beyond all recognition.”
Fitzsimmons also alludes to an incident in which a Scottish Archbishop was called to a meeting in Rome with a Cardinal known as “the Rottweiler” after which the Archbishop said of the figure: “I have never met such a disagreeable person in my life.” Before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was known as the “German Rottweiler” for his tenacious defence of Catholic orthodoxy.
Fitzsimmons was known as a brilliant biblical scholar but he was removed as Rector of the Scots College in Rome in the 1980s because of his liberal views and unorthodox practices.
While working as a parish priest he became a popular presenter of The Greetings Programme on BBC Radio Scotland while also contributing to the Today programme and speaking out regularly about the failings of the Catholic Church. He said the church under Pope John Paul II was “utterly authoritarian” and when challenged would say he was “not some heretical priest, I’m just a man who thinks.”
The memoir is principally about the Second Vatican Council, which took place in Rome between 1962 and 1965 and which modernised the Church by introducing changes such as the Mass in English. Fitzsimmons acted as a stenographer during Vatican II, as it is popularly known, and was a staunch defender of the changes, but believed it did not go far enough.
The book is set to be published on two Catholic websites, Voice of the Church and Stand Up 4 Vatican II, in October, which marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Second Vatican Council.
Yesterday, Fitzsimmons’ literary executor, who did not wish to be named, said she was passed the manuscript along with his papers by the priest shortly before his death and was pleased that his “heartfelt account” would now be read by a wider audience.
Catholic historian Michael Turnbull praised the decision to make Fitzsimmons’ memoir available to the wider public. He said: “He cuts to the quick and says what he believes and thinks, so unlike much of the dreary verbiage churned out by many churchmen today.” He also praised him as “the most brilliant biblical scholar the Catholic Church in Scotland has ever produced” and said that his life “has a powerful message for Scotland today.”
However, Liz Leydon, the editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer said it was wrong for the manuscript to be published posthumously. She said: “Given the strong broadcaster and talented wordsmith the late Father John Fitzsimmons was, I have no doubt this larger than life character said all he wanted to say in life without someone publishing his private thoughts without his approval now.”
Asked to comment on the manuscript’s content, a Church spokesman referred Scotland on Sunday to Father Thomas Boyle, a Vicar Episcopal in the Diocese of Paisley and former friend of Fitzsimmons. He said: “Father John was a larger than life character. He loved being a priest and was a great preacher and storyteller with many an opinion. His stories matched his nature: funny, engaging, challenging and sometimes controversial. We all still miss him, even his controversy.”
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