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Remembering Enda McDonagh

The last conversation I had with Enda McDonagh was less than two weeks before he died.  We had the kind of wide-ranging conversation we always had.  We spoke about politics, sport and poetry.  That day our discussion was about Amanda Gorman’s extraordinary ‘The Hill We Climb’, delivered at President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.  His curiosity and humour were threaded through the conversation as we spoke about how the pandemic had affected what were to be his final months. He was determined to return to his beloved Maynooth once the pandemic had abated.

Enda was an extraordinary teacher.  He taught the traditional themes in moral theology in very creative ways.  I remember my first classes with him in 1983, where he explored the nature of agape through poetry and literature.  The assignment for the class was to choose a novel and write about the different forms of love expressed therein.  That assignment was the catalyst for a friendship of almost 40 years, and for a lifetime of learning from the most generous of teachers.  His rooms were the centre of lively political debate and theological exploration.  He convened groups of unlikely interlocutors from the worlds of politics, the arts and the academy to discuss issues of social justice, globalization and gender equality.  He was deeply concerned about the marginalization and systemic injustice that he saw all around him, and frequently raised issues of ethical concern long before they became commonly acknowledged as such.  His compassion drew him to these issues, and his compassion was also the anchor of much of his ethical reflection and writing.

Enda was an accomplished theologian.  His work is biblically inspired, deeply ecumenical, dialogical and politically engaged.  Much of his writing is concerned with human frailty and finitude.  Titles like Survival or Salvation?, Faith in Fragments and Vulnerable to the Holy capture this preoccupation.  Whether he was writing about the stigma of HIV/AIDS or about homelessness, or about political violence, Enda combined a clarity about the ethical imperative in each situation with a deep understanding of the vulnerability of all the actors.  He saw people’s vulnerabilities even when they were shrouded in anger and violence and he understood that recognizing our shared vulnerability could be the path to reconciliation and hope.

If Enda’s work was centered on the fragility and frailty of human existence, it was also oriented towards hope.  His love of poetry and the visual arts was bound up with what he called their redemptive-creative dynamic, and their capacity to express the possibility of presence.  He was comfortable with ambivalence because he lived with faith, hope and charity.

Enda’s reconciling presence is gone, but his deep wisdom and the witness of his compassion lives on.  The desolation and loss at his passing is immense but is tempered by a sense of gratitude for the privilege of having known and loved such an extraordinary person.