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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Jackie Onassis never wrote an autobiography. She was, in the words of her biographer Sarah Bradford, “a complex woman of many facets” but above all she had a strong “desire for privacy and concealment”. If Jackie never revealed much about her private life, that was her choice.
Recently a Catholic college was prevented from selling a cache of over 30 intimately revealing letters between her and a Dublin based Catholic priest at auction by a last-second intervention from her family. They had an estimated value of €1 million. Was her family right to intervene?
Jacqueline Bouvier first met Vincentian priest Fr Joseph Leonard CM in 1950, when she and her step-brother made a trip to Ireland. Jackie was 21, and Fr Leonard 73, but they immediately hit it off and began a correspondence lasting 14 years. It was a period in which Jackie met and married John F Kennedy, suffered the loss of two infants – and her husband.
The letters revealed her deepest doubts and insecurities, her loneliness and crises of faith, and fears about her husband’s roving eye. After her husband’s assassination she wrote, “I am so bitter against God,” adding “only he and you and I know that.”
These are things she could only reveal to a priest, assured of his confidence and trust. Whilst correspondence may not be confession, there is a confessional air to the letters, confessing not sins so much as doubts and her innermost feelings.
The letters are of obvious interest to historians, and to anyone fascinated by the life of a glamorous woman who liked to maintain an air of mystery. But reading them is like reading someone’s private diary. The writer never intended her words for public consumption.
Fr Thomas Reese SJ, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, notes “As a journalist and student of history, I find these letters fascinating. But as a priest, I am appalled. The letters should have been burnt.” He said that a person’s fame was no reason to break the confidentiality that is assumed when someone writes to a priest about their spiritual life.
The letters were made public by All Hallows College, a Vincentian-run institution and college of Dublin City University. Staff there attended an evaluation event hosted by Shephard’s Irish Auction House, and then invited local expert Owen Felix O’Neill to view their library, where he discovered the cache.
While I don’t think the letters should have been burnt (I still shudder to think of Cassandra Austen destroying much of her sister Jane’s correspondence, which would be a mine of historical and biographical information today), I am relieved they will not be auctioned. The letters should be placed in an archive, with instructions not to be released for some years. That way their historical value would be preserved but the Kennedy family would not have to suffer a breach of privacy.
The Irish Times reported Mr O’Neill as having said, “The college desperately needs money.” Catholic institutions with old buildings to maintain usually do (All Hallows was founded in 1842). All Hallows stood to gain over £800,000, but at what cost to the reputation of the priesthood? Priests are trusted with spiritual secrets: we don’t expect them to sell us out for a quick buck.
Photo: Sheppard's Irish Auction House