Author: Michael T R B Turnbull (5th August 2003)
Fr John Barry, born in Edinburgh, for many years a leading canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, was the oldest of five boys in a large family originally of Irish stock, owners of the rag merchants, John Barry Ltd., of Leith, established in 1850. His parents were deeply involved in Catholic affairs, his father, John, being secretary of the Catholic Truth Society in Edinburgh, his mother, Dorothy founding the influential Union of Catholic Mothers in 1942.
From the Abbey School, Fort Augustus John went up in 1935 to Trinity College, Cambridge, intending to enter the diplomatic service. By 1937, he had resolved to become a priest. After graduating the next year with a double First in French and German, he began his seminary studies at the Albertinum of Freiburg University, before proceeding to St Mary’s, Oscott in Sutton Coldfield. Following his ordination in 1944, he first served as a curate at Kilsyth (1944-46) and then attended the Gregorian University, Rome (1946-49) where he was a gold medal winner and was awarded a doctorate in canon law (DCL). Upon returning to Scotland, he became an assistant priest at St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh (1949-50) and then at St Anthony’s, Polmont (1950-53).
When, in 1953, the diocesan seminary of St Andrew’s, Drygrange opened in the Borders, he was appointed one of its professors and later became rector (1960-77), in which capacity he guided generations of students during the heady but precarious years following the end of the Second Vatican Council, at a time when (in the words of Cardinal Gordon Gray) priestly celibacy was being attacked and authority questioned. In the late 1960s every diocese in Scotland suffered heavy losses of men leaving the priesthood. He also found time to found and edit the influential journal Canon Law Abstracts. Retiring from Drygrange in 1977, Fr Barry went back to parish work, first at St Mark’s, Oxgangs in Edinburgh (1977-89) and then at Our Lady, Star of the Sea, North Berwick in 1989, where he died at the local Eddington Hospital on 19 July 2003.
Fr Barry’s role during the Second Vatican Council is not widely appreciated. In 1960, as rector of Drygrange, he had enthusiastically answered the Congregation for Seminaries’ request to start discussion among his students, many of whom strongly supported the ecumenical movement. When it came to compiling Archbishop Gordon Gray’s suggestions for Council debate (vota), Barry advised him, for example, on whether to question nuclear weapon testing and stockpiling (a subject close to the Archbishop’s heart) and also translated Gray’s vota into elegant Latin. In October 1962 he accompanied Gray to Rome as his canon law expert, but was obliged return to his duties at Drygrange shortly after. Throughout the Council, however, he continued his advisory role to Gray, such as the production of a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
As a canon lawyer, often approached by ordinary Catholics for advice on marriage problems, Fr Barry was deeply aware of pastoral needs. He had warned Archbishop Gray in September 1963 that the clergy believed a marriage guidance council was an urgent necessity. Barry continued to press the diocesan authorities on the subject and by August 1965 the CMAC staff had been selected and were ready to begin work.
For all his erudition, Fr Barry enjoyed telling jokes against himself. He chuckled as he recalled that he had once been described as ‘like Morecambe Bay on a sunny day, bright but shallow!’ His boyish sense of humour masked the fact that he was an incisive thinker and always a challenging speaker, especially from the pulpit. He was a man of wide-ranging interests who revelled in debate and discussion. It was fitting, therefore, that he was chosen to take part in the examination of the cause for the beatification of the Edinburgh-born trade unionist and Poor Clare nun, Margaret Sinclair. Fr Barry was also for some years a consultor to the pontifical commission for the revision of the Code of Canon Law.
Having been a chaplain in the 1960s on a National Trust for Scotland cruise to Mull, Skye, St Kilda and Scapa Flow, he became a distinguished lecturer and cruise-leader himself on more than a dozen cruises. In his leisure time, Fr Barry, endeared himself to the whole community of North Berwick through his informative and witty slide-lectures. He was a frequent contributor to periodicals and in 1957 (with Dr A. T. Macqueen) published his translation of François Leuret and Henri Bon’s Modern Miraculous Cures: a documented account of Miracles and Medicine in the 20th Century. In 1967 the Stair Society issued his translation (from the Latin) of William Hay’s (c 1470-1542) lectures on marriage.
Then, in October 1994, while walking at Tollcross in Edinburgh, Fr Barry suddenly collapsed with a cardiac arrest. Although in his own words ‘clinically dead’, he was resuscitated by a passing first-aider and made a successful recovery. ‘God gave me a second chance and I’m not going to waste it’, commented Fr Barry typically. The result was that his series of newspaper articles on I am a Catholic Protestant were republished in book form in 1997, giving answers to 57 questions which he believed often puzzled Catholics, such as: ‘Is God in Hell?’; ‘Devotion to the Devil’; ‘I am a Sacrament’ and ‘Peter’s Pence and the Vatican Finances.’ Another publication, Naval Battles that never were (1999), investigated a number of tragic incidents at sea where ships were sunk with no enemies within hundreds of miles – the Battle of May Island involving K-boats (steam-driven submarines); Tripoli Bay (1893); Bloody Foreland (at one of the northernmost points of Donegal).
A man of great humanity and perception, Fr Barry was widely known and respected. He also understood very well the direction in which the Catholic Church in the Scotland was heading. In 1997, bearing in mind the growing shortage of priests, Fr Barry had written with his usual mixture of controversy and prophetic common sense: ‘Before long we shall have priestless parishes and Massless Sundays. Lay people will conduct the Sunday liturgy and give Holy Communion. There will be plenty of opportunities of exercising your priesthood. That’s vocation. That’s God’s call. God’s blessing will be guaranteed.’
Michael T R B Turnbull, 5, Orchard Court, LONGNIDDRY East Lothian EH32 0PE
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