Cold Call: Jack O'Sullivan rings Frances Meigh
Saturday 19 September 1998
For Rome, the event was embarrassing, only slightly less disturbing than if a long-haired, bearded man approached St Peter's on a donkey. The Pope is not amused by the frocking of Frances Meigh.
What, I wonder, should I call this ground-breaking cleric? "Oh, I rather like being called `Father'," explains the 67-year-old mother of three. She has a light, joyful voice you imagine angels might use if you could ring them up. "To me, `Father' is what a Catholic priest has always been called. But the bishop says I should use `Mother' as a title."
So Mother Frances it is. Wouldn't it be a mistake in any case, I suggest, to follow male traditions? Like all male clergy, she would have to play golf on Monday afternoons.
"Golf," comes a shriek down the phone. "I hate golf. My father played and I never went near him while he did it. No, I'm not going to learn how to play. And I'm certainly not having a golf club on my coffin.
"All the golf that goes on around here has set my teeth on edge in the diocese for years. I'm a hermit, so I don't have holidays. If I took a day off, I wouldn't feel that I had a vocation."
I wonder whether it would have helped her cause if Jesus had been a woman? "No," she says definitely. "I am perfectly satisfied with him as he is. I'm not a feminist. I don't agree with changing Biblical language, swapping `her' for `him'. As St Paul says, `there is no male or female in heaven'." What about God, the grey-bearded old gent? "I see God as a solid stream of gold. Brilliant, like a cloud burst."
But the priesthood seems very male, I say. Had she watched Father Ted? "Oh, yes. It's very funny. I'd say whoever wrote it had a good understanding of the priesthood."
Would there be a Mrs Doyle in her life, a housekeeper constantly pressing cups of tea upon her? "No, no," says Mother Frances. "Of course, it would be lovely to be waited upon. But if you have a housekeeper, you have to eat when you are told. I like to be alone."
Mother Frances is English but was ordained by a rebel Catholic bishop in the Irish village of Omeath, Co Louth and will in future celebrate Mass at the local church.
I've interrupted her reciting her "Office", a set of prayers taking about 90 minutes. But she is good humoured. We chat about whether she is a fast Mass-sayer(she starts with a canter and gets into a gallop around the Eucharist prayer). We discuss how useful plastic detergent bottles are for making dog collars. Does she really feel like a priest now?
"It gradually takes hold of you," she says. "I remember coming back on the plane. There was a bump over the Irish Sea and I worried what would I do if we crashed. How would I reach everyone?
"Then there was second bump and I realised I would have to be quick with a general absolution, like you can give on a battlefield, because I might not last long. But we landed safely. It was nerves, like when you first have a baby and you want to do everything as well as you possibly can."
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