Bl. Thaddaeus MacCarthy

(1455-1492)

You can trace the Irish Clan MacCarthy back to the third century. They were the royal family of Desmond, the lower half of Munster, the southeast Irish province. It was Cormac MacCarthy, king and bishop (died 1138), who built the famous chapel on the Rock of “Cashel of the Kings.”

MacCarthys ruled over Desmond until 1395. After that, however, their power was bitterly contested by the Anglo-Norman Fitzgeralds, who represented British encroachment. Gerald, Earl of Kildare, was their dominant leader during the late fifteenth century.

Thaddaeus MacCarthy, born in Cork, was educated by the Franciscans of nearby Kilcrea Friary, and ordained a priest by the bishop of Cork, William Roche. The young priest was in Rome in 1482 when Pope Sixtus IV learned of the death of Domnal, Bishop of Ross. The pope, having become acquainted with Thaddaeus and been impressed by him, named him successor to Domnal, despite the fact that he had not yet reached the canonical age for bishops. MacCarthy was consecrated in Rome.

Unfortunately, the pope, when he appointed MacCarthy, did not know the full situation back in the diocese of Ross. Domnal, before his death, had resigned his see to Odo, whom he delegated to go to Rome to report on the resignation and Odo’s succession. When Thaddaeus got back to Ireland, therefore, he found that Odo considered himself rightful bishop of Ross. The death of Pope Sixtus only complicated the question of which claimant really possessed the see.

MacCarthy was strongly supported by Bishop Edmund de Courcy, but the Fitzgeralds stood firmly against Thaddaeus, and he had to take refuge in a Cistercian monastery. It quickly became a political and cultural battle between the native Irish and the Anglo-Normans. The latter denounced Bishop Thaddaeus as an intruder; and the new pope, Innocent VIII, taken in by them, excommunicated MacCarthy.

Bishop MacCarthy, to prevent continuing scandal, appealed to the pope to investigate the case further. As a result, Pope Innocent found that he had been misinformed by the Geraldines. He confirmed Odo as bishop of Ross, but by way of recompense, appointed Thaddaeus bishop of Cork and Cloyne, praising his merits.

Unfortunately, the Anglo-Normans rejected this Roman solution. When Bishop MacCarthy returned to assume his duties at Cork and Cloyne, he found that his enemies had gained control of the diocesan property. For two years thereafter, the bishop went from village to village in his diocesan territory trying to prove his rights by means of the papal documents. Nobody would listen to him, so at length he wearily returned to Rome.

On July 1, 1492, Pope Innocent VIII gave MacCarthy another document. It sternly ordered Gerald, Earl of Kildare, and all others, to protect the episcopal properties of the bishop of Cork and Coyne and to acknowledge his right to those sees.

Bishop MacCarthy set out for Ireland once more. There was nothing triumphant about his journey. He traveled north alone, on foot, wearing no signs of his rank, but only the scallop-shell of the pilgrim. That night the pilgrim retired early.

At dawn, the servants of the hostel, noting a light streaming from his cell, investigated its cause. The weary churchman had died peacefully during the night. Now the local bishop of Ivrea, who had dreamt he saw a stranger bishop ascending into heaven, came over to investigate. In the dead pilgrim’s wallet he found his episcopal cross and ring and the papal document testifying to his rights as bishop of Cork and Cloyne.

If the Irish Geraldines had spurned their bishop, the citizens of Ivrea gave him an honorable burial among them. When miracles were wrought at his tomb, they hailed him as “blessed,” and promptly enshrined him in their cathedral, where his relics are still venerated. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII confirmed the title “Blessed Thaddaeus” long since given to him at Ivrea.

For many of us, life is one frustration after another. But if frustration is our cross, and we bear it with patience and humility, it can gain us heaven as well as any other mortal trial. That is how blessed Thaddaeus MacCarthy won his crown.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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