Gar O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I come is twenty-five years old. He has grown up in a tiny village, like all the young men of that village, he has attended Mass Sunday by Sunday, but on the night before his departure for the United States, he looks to the church for meaning. He hopes that somewhere in his alienation from his father, in his alienation from the community, in the grinding monotony and pointlessness of life, there will be someone who will interpret, someone who will grant significance to the otherwise pointless existence in Ballybeg.
While the public persona of Gar is in his bedroom, his private persona watches his father sat at a table with the local parish priest, playing draughts as they have every evening for years, the stakes a halfpenny each. Gar’s private self cries out in desperation:
‘Canon, because you’re warm and kind and soft and sympathetic – all things to all men – because you could translate all this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery into Christian terms that will make life bearable for us all. Isn’t this your job? – to translate? Why don’t you speak then? Prudence, arid Canon? Prudence be damned! Christianity isn’t prudent, it’s insane.’
Friel wrote the play in 1964, setting it two years previously in 1962. If there was alienation in 1964, if life seemed without translation, if the Christianity on offer seemed shallow and unduly conservative, what would Gar O’Donnell be saying today?
Perhaps the gently comical Fr Mick O’Byrne and the surly and discontented Gar would now be so far apart that there would be no possibility of translation, that even if Fr O’Byrne were a mystic and a scholar instead of a benign, draughts-playing country priest, Gar would be so distant from the church that there would be nothing that he could hear.
Working in a community where there is a palpable sense of alienation among younger people, where even those of advancing years express disillusionment at the political system, where the collapse of the economy is driving whole families overseas, secular Western liberal democracy seems not to have a great deal to offer by way of translation. However, what is remarkable is not the decline of the church, but its persistence in the face of adversity. Anyone who believes the church is dying should come to Co Laois on a Sunday.
Fifty years after Brian Friel wrote of Gar, perhaps a Pope who travels on the bus and who speaks for unmarried mothers is a man who might be able to translate ‘this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery’. Don’t be prudent, Pope Francis: speak in a language Gar O’Donnell would understand, isn’t that your job?