Thursday, 8 February 2007

From The Tablet, 10 February 2007

Seán Mac Réamoinn, the veteran Irish broadcaster and journalist, who died in Dublin last month, aged 85, was a seminal force in the introduction and dissemination of the concept and ideas of the aggiornamento in Ireland during and after the Second Vatican Council.

He was born in Birmingham to Irish emigrant parents, who returned to Ireland shortly afterwards. In Galway he was educated by the Jesuits who, with his family, instilled in him not only a mature spirituality but a deep attachment to the Irish language. A brilliant academic career led to a position in the Irish foreign service, but the young diplomat’s communicative skills rapidly diverted him into the Irish broadcasting service, now known as Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ), then experiencing massive post-war expansion.

Much of his work with the station was initially focused on the Irish language and culture: his surviving archival recordings from that period demonstrate not only his linguistic skills but his versatility as a broadcaster and his keen sense of cultural values as a collector. In 1963, however, he was sent to Rome by the station to cover the opening of the first session of the Second Vatican Council. The experience, and his passionate desire to share that experience with an Irish Catholic Church that was at the time largely passive and uninterested in change, were profoundly to mark the rest of his career, and the society of which he was a part.

RTÉ was in fact the only Irish media organisation to send its own staff to cover the first three sessions of of the Council. When the print media finally followed suit, at the beginning of the final session in 1965, Seán, already a senior figure in the throng of journalists who had been following the evolution of this extraordinary initiative of Pope John XXIII, became a mentor to his Irish colleagues. Generous to a fault with his insights and his contacts, he inducted many of them into a crash course in the theology of renewal and the intricacies of Vatican politics. His fame, however, was by then more than national: at the end of a convivial dinner in a trattoria on the last night of the Council in December 1965, one hundred or so of his journalistic colleagues from many countries, along with assorted theologians and Vaticanologists, held an impromptu conclave at which he was unanimously elected the first lay pope.

Back in Ireland, there was serious work to be done, especially in a Church marked by a combination of episcopal timidity and rigidity. He was a key member of an unusual organisation called “Flannery’s Harriers” (after another founding member, the Dominican Fr. Austin Flannery OP, the much-respected editor of Doctrine and Life). This was a theological discussion group of which it was unkindly but not altogether inaccurately said that it had Protestant and Jewish members before it had any female members, but which played a key role in placing intellectual rigour, and the role of the laity, at the centre of the Irish renewal.

His broadcasts on religious topics for RTE in the years that followed, supplemented by a constant stream of articles in newspapers such as the Irish Times and periodicals such as Doctrine and Life, not only earned him a wide and appreciative public, but introduced that public to key issues and debates. He was at the forefront of the nascent Irish ecomenical movement, and a key contributor to its manifestations at conferences in Glenstal, Ballymascanlon and elsewhere. At the centre of an ever-growing circle of friends, collaborators and allies, he was in a continuous cycle of stimulation, activity, and intellectual and theological exploration. Even in the two decades that followed his retirement, his productive energies barely flagged. His funeral on 20 January was marked by an extraordinary outpouring of public respect and affection for the man who habitually described himself simply as a member of “the People of God, Dublin Branch”.

Seán Mac Réamoinn born Birmingham, 27 November 1921; died Dublin, 17 January 2007.

John Horgan

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