An Interview with Father Patrick Noonan, OFM

Updated: Mar 2

by Gordon Nary




Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took and why?


Father Patrick: I attended Franciscan seminaries in Ireland and Rome just as Vatican 2 was breaking and we seminarians were watching excitedly from the sidelines. Theologians were in overdrive at what was coming from the Council halls. You felt as if the church was at a crossroads.


It would lead to the historic Medellin decisions in South America and years later – in the eighties - to the theological game-changing Kairos Document in South Africa.

As a missionary and decades after my original seminary years I was still refining my thinking and pondering the words of Fr Albert Nolan OP in Hope in an Age of Despair (Orbis), “Much of the theology we inherit is, in fact, white theology, but it is generally not conscious of its bias. White theology sees itself as a universal theology applicable to all peoples.”


So you see, Gordon, what I received in the seminary and what I have arrived at now has been a challenging roller-coaster ride.


Gordon: Why did you choose to be a Franciscan?


Father Patrick: I was an altar server in Adam and Eve’s Franciscan Church at Merchant’s Quay in Dublin in the fifties. (‘Adam and Eve’s’ was the name of a noisy harbor tavern on this site in the eighteenth century. During the church persecutions Mass was celebrated secretly in a meeting room behind the tavern) This is where I met Franciscans and began to feel it was the life for me. They also introduced me to the idea of being a missionary.


Gordon: At what parish do your serve and approximate how many members are in your parish?


Father Patrick: Until recently I have worked in about 15 parishes in South Africa particularly in the black ghettos during and after the apartheid era. This enabled me to record from a church perspective and as a primary participant-witness the story of what happened in the final years of the struggle for democracy. It is a story of abnormal ministry in an abnormal society. In my books, I spell out the graphic details of what became “crisis ministry” (Archbishop Hurley). I might add, Gordon, in many ways we are in “crisis ministry” today.


Gordon: Apartheid has been a major challenge in the past. What impact has apartheid had on contemporary society in South Africa?


Father Patrick: South Africans both black and white are still recovering from 45 years of apartheid brainwashing and 300 years of colonialism. It is 25 years into democracy and the robust public debate is making great strides slowly but surely in repairing the damage of the past.


My contribution to this project is my book on racism and reconciliation called Help! My Granny’s Dog is Racist. In South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia healing of memories for liberation war veterans is a work in progress endorsed by the mainline churches.


Gordon: What are the primary challenges to Roman Catholicism in South Africa?


Father Patrick: Because of the role of the Roman Catholic Church (originally banned in South Africa and called the “Roman Danger” by Afrikaners of Dutch descent and Calvinist Reformed faith) in the struggle for liberation the church presently enjoys great respect even though it is only 9% of the population.


Again this has been extensively documented in my books.


The South African Council of Churches of which the Catholic Church is a member plays a stabilizing and cohesive influence in the life of the country today. Many, however, would like the mainline churches to return to the trenches again and be more critical of the present government. The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a member of the decommissioning of weapons committee leading to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.


Presently the government is trying to regulate the mushrooming of thousands of independent Pentecostal churches many with a more cult than church appearance. Like the rest of the world, there are the usual few right-wing whites who post scare stories about the country on social media. South Africa has many missionaries from other African and Asian countries ministering in an expanding local Catholic church. A school principal, Benedict Daswa, was recently beatified, martyred while fighting witchcraft.


Gordon: You are a prominent author. Please provide the titles and an overview of each of the books that you have written.


Fr Patrick: Not prominent, Gordon, but more a hustler in strange church activities from the margins!


I wrote They’re Burning the Churches* (Jacana 2011) which deals with the dramatic role of the Catholic and other churches in the final 10 years of apartheid. It was a time when priests on the streets of South Africa were galvanizing the bishops into pro-active witnessing. The book was read twice on South African radio.


I published St Francis Uncensored (Choice Publishing 2016) which tries to show St Francis in a more global light rather than from a purely Euro-centric perspective.


In 2016 I also published Township God, (Write-On Publishing) a book on finding God in other cultures. And much more.


In my present book, Help! My Granny’s Dog is a Racist (Write-On Publishing 2018) I explore the state of reconciliation and racism in post-apartheid South Africa, worldwide and even going back to the case of St Peter himself in Joppa.

My latest book, awaiting a brave publisher, is called Liturgies that Changed History (but don’t try them in your parish). These were life-giving liturgies, (like Francis’ crib liturgy in Greccio), from the embedded margins of society that created a whole new appreciation of the richness of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. They are not for the faint-hearted! One publisher during Pope Benedict's time reluctantly declined to publish these true stories from the altar. The “Francis effect” had yet to come.


Gordon: What inspired you to write St. Francis Uncensored?


Father Patrick: One day it dawned on me that my image of St Francis was outgrowing the image I had received at the seminary. I began to compare the world I was living in and the type of “Third World” St Francis embraced after he left home.


I found close connections between the two worlds so far apart in time and space. I found myself questioning prevailing stereotypes of Francis and indeed St Clare, his contemporary.


Gathering my thoughts together in this book was a way of processing my reflections.

I remember one evening I sat down to the laptop and suddenly I was changing all the chapter headings. From churchy, passive, academic-style headings to vibrant, eye-catching, more daring ones.


I was breathless when it was all over.

I might mention that this volume was never intended to be a beginner’s life of St Francis. It’s coming from another space, a different place. It would also be helpful to have some understanding of the “third world” culture Francis chose to follow after his chance encounter with lepers. St Francis has so much to offer to help us understand today’s world.


He can even help us understand “the Devils masterpiece” the sex abuse scandals. Assisi itself, Francis’ birthplace, was split between those who stayed in the church and those who left and became Albigenseans. Though I don’t know if the word “scandal” was used to describe the rot in the church at that time (Pope Benedict).


Francis nurtured a deep inner mystical life that only a few of his friends knew about. The Eucharist, meditating in caves and charismatic prayer, the awesomeness of the Trinity, Mary, the Incarnation and originality of the crib (creative representation before Hollywood existed!) deeply stirred him.


If you had received the marks of Christ on your body, the stigmata, you too might feel conflicted


Again from today’s perspective and a geopolitical angle this book is influenced by the traumatic experiences of friars living through three liberation wars in the past fifty years: in El Salvador, Zimbabwe and South Africa. One day I realized the poor man of Assisi had been there too. It made me sit up.


Why did this little fella, sent by God, survive two wars?; fighting the Perugians and navigating the Damietta siege? Today that would be like Vietnam, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and ISIS. Francis experienced the world at its worst. Is that why he was against the carrying of arms? I found a Francis who would have opposed the super-macho American Gun Lobby!


In writing the book I had these things in mind. I feel Pope Francis would agree. I hope someone gives him the book


Gordon: And Islam!


Father Patrick: Your readers will know, Gordon, that last year was the eight hundredth anniversary of the meeting during the Fifth Crusade between the Sultan and Francis at Damietta in northern Africa.


Recently in Johannesburg, I was invited to an interfaith screening of The Sultan and the Saint. About fifty Muslims attended the showing by an ecumenical Islamic group that follows the Gulan school of tolerance teaching. After the screening while explaining my Franciscan habit it was with the greatest humility I suggested to the assembly that the scriptwriters and producer must have read my book, St Francis Uncensored. Laughter all around. Muslims and Christians alike can share a joke.


And it’s not by accident that Franciscans have an international house in Istanbul today, the homeland of Rumi the Islamic mystic, poet, admirer and contemporary of St Francis.


Gordon: I may have mentioned to you that Saint, Francis is my favorite saint. An after this interview, you are my favorite Franciscan.

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