Desmond Cleere, class '36
1920 - 2006
Fr Desmond Cleere was already a priest for 20 years when the Community adopted the use of the vernacular for the praying of the Divine Office. Over that span of time he had come to memorise several lines of the Latin Vulgate psalms, and could quote them appositely and with ease. One of them was a verse from psalm 121 which ran Fiat pax in moenibus tuis et abundantia in turribus tuis. In the modern Grail version it is; “May peace reign in your walls and in your palaces peace!”
When writing to him in later years I noticed how fond he was of opening or signing off his letters with the simple phrase ‘Pax in moenibus tuis!’ (May you have peace within your walls). I cannot recall if he ever added the latter part of the verse about having ‘abundance in your towers (or palaces)’. Certainly he had much time to contemplate the walls and the towers of Glenart Castle where we seminarians were housed for the four years of our theological course, and where he lectured on systematic theology and on the New Testament.
In September 1945 eleven candidates for the seminaire arrived in St Joseph’s Blackrock, where Desmond Cleere was already in major Orders and would be ordained to the Priesthood in the following May. Were we not aware of the fact that he had not been ordained a priest, we could quite easily have concluded that he was. For Desmond, if he did not look older than his years, had a solidity of frame and body and a ‘gravitas’ in his bearing and in his facial expression that bespoke a man of greater years and maturity.
Immediately after his ordination he was sent to do postgraduate studies in Maynooth and in Rome. As the moderator of his doctoral thesis (on an aspect of St Augustine’s theology) he had the Dominican professor Michael Brown who subsequently became papal theologian, Master-General of the Order and Cardinal. On his return to Ireland, Desmond was appointed to St Joseph’s Blackrock and in following year to Glenart. Those of us who studied under him will remember the conscientious care with which he prepared his classes in Scripture. While he cannot but have been aware of the rapid developments that were taking place in the world of Scriptural studies in the wake of the publication of Pope Pius XII’ encyclical Divine Afflante Spiritu, he would not claim to have been a fully qualified Biblicist. Before Ordination, Desmond had as lecturer in Scripture Dr Donal Herlihy (later bishop of Ferns) who was universally recognised as a competent Biblicist and who had tutored Desmond in the Hebrew language.
What many of us felt most indebted to Desmond for was his personal love of the word of God, which at every turn he tried to impart to us. Along with the psalms it was the Letter to the Hebrews that seemed to have impacted deeply on him. On the first occasion he had for expounding the Letter to the Hebrews, he devoted an entire summer to studying the text and the theme of this letter, and its relationship to our sharing in the common and pastoral Priesthood of Christ. It would be a life-long love of his. Perhaps it was his personal appropriation of the spirituality of that Letter that qualified him to be such a successful spiritual director in the Westminster major Seminary of Ware. In 1967 Cardinal Heenan, the archbishop, had requested from the Visitor a spiritual director for that seminary – and Desmond was to spend nine years there (1967-1976). Some of the Westminster priests still speak appreciatively of his work in Ware, where he was much appreciated by the seminarians for the wisdom and experience of young people that he had gained as a lecturer in theology in the College of Education of St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill. Then after three years as spiritual Director in Maynooth, much of the remainder of his life would be spent on the English mission – in our parishes of Mill Hill and Dunstable.
Returning to his earlier years in Glenart – we came to know the human qualities of Desmond Cleere. Serious minded as he was, he had a dry sense of humour which he could use it to good effect. He enjoyed puncturing with a remark some of the causes which we younger men at the time would promote with what he might consider an excess of elation. Thus when in the early Fifties Monsignor Knox published a new translation of the Bible, Desmond welcomed it, but not uncritically. Some of us – perhaps with a youthful passion for novelty and change – were over enthusiastic about it. Desmond would delight in finding one of those texts favoured and used by missioners with rhetorical effect in their sermons. Often the resonance and poetry of the old and familiar Douay version would be lost in the Knox version. Desmond would read the old version in a resonant tone of voice (he was blessed with an attractive tenor voice); What doth it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Then in a rather flat prosaic tone the modern Knox translation. How is a man the better for it, if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul? For a man’s soul what price can be high enough. Looking up from the pages of the versions, he would mutter, “That’s taking the bread and butter out of the mouths of our missioners….”
Life in Glenart for all the spaciousness of its beautiful grounds was lived in a closed environment. Desmond loved his game of golf and on a Sunday evening a game of cards in the home of a family whom he had known from his school days in Castleknock. He liked to exit quietly from the house on a Sunday afternoon, and, as he would hope, unobserved by the students He saw it as a perennial challenge to do so. The contest was unequal. One pair of eyes was no match for twentyfive. Indeed living with him later as a staff member, he would say to me with an ironic smile that he never felt ‘safe’ at any time from the prying eyes of students even in the most private of places of the castle we were inhabiting…
Desmond Cleere not just as an academic teacher. As one aware of his own weaknesses, he proved himself to be a very Christ-like and sympathetic confessor. To those who had a tendency to scrupulosity he could show infinite patience. Invariably he succeeded in communicating to a penitent an assurance and confidence such as was becoming for an adopted son of our loving and compassionate Father in Heaven.
It was here in St Paul’s, Raheny, that Desmond began what was to be his long ‘goodbye’ to life on earth. A form of Alzheimer’s disease slowly invaded his mind. Painfully he descended into a very dark and strange valley of confusion and forgetfulness. Somewhat like a launched satellite his personality seemed to distance itself from us, as it swung into an orbit that we could not reach. O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed… The clear tenor voice remained strong for a time and delighted the Daughters of Charity when they prayed their evening prayer in Rickard House. Lines of the psalms in Latin and in English would streak from time to time across the sky of his consciousness and remind us of a life of prayer that had been lived earnestly over the six decades of his priesthood. In his lonely alienation, he was cared for as a child – lovingly, patiently and – indeed – heroically by the staff of Rickard House. Then on 16th October 2007, Desmond Patrick Cleere scaled the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem and found peace within them and abundance in its towers. Fiat pax in moenibus tuis et abundantia in turribus tuis!
Richard McCullen CM
Desmond Cleere CM
Born: Kilkenny, 16 January 1920
Entered the CM: 7 September 1938
Vows: 8 September 1940
Ordained Priest: 28 May 1946 at Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, by Dr John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin
1946-’48: St Patrick’s College, Maynooth / Rome – studies
1948-’49: St Joseph’s, Blackrock
1949-’60: St Kevin’s, Glenart
1960-’67: St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill
1967-’76: St Edmund’s Seminary, Ware
1976-’78: Sacred Heart, Mill Hill
1978-’81: St Patrick’s College, Maynooth
1981-’96: St Mary’s, Dunstable
1996-2002: Chaplain – Marillac Hospital, Warley
2002-’06: St Paul’s, Raheny
Died; 16 October 2006 (in Rickard House)