14 March 2016

Laurence Wren: a man of faith, service, justice, honesty and integrity

Laurence Wren
(1922 - 9 March 2016) [Photo: RTÉ]

Laurence Wren was the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána (The Guardian of the Peace), the head of the police force of the Republic of Ireland, from February 1983 till November 1987 when he retired. He and his wife Maureen lived on the same road as my brother Paddy and his family and my then widowed father who had moved there in 1979. Since then I have been going home to that house in Castleknock, in St Brigid's Parish, Blanchardstown. When I was a child it was a rural village northwest of Dublin city. Now it is part of the Greater Dublin sprawl.

Over the years I had an occasional chat with him, after he had retired, usually on the way to Mass in St Brigid's. He went to Mass every day, as my own father had done till his death in 1987, until the last year or two when he wasn't able to go out very much.

The thing that struck me most about Mr Wren - that is how I always addressed him; I would never dream of calling him 'Larry' the name he was known as to everyone - was his humility. He was a very active member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, which helps many people in difficult financial circumstances. Once a month its members - they were all men in the parish branch - had a collection in the church grounds after Sunday Mass. Even when he was Garda Commissioner he stood there with his box and a visitor would have no idea that this was the head of the Irish police force.

I have often told that story in homilies and retreats here in the Philippines. And I'm happy that I once told Mr Wren himself about this in one of our occasional chats when we met each other on the way to Mass.

According to a number of reports after his death he used his own car when going to work and used his official car only on official occasions. 

Peter Murtagh wrote in The Irish TimesTo those who did not know him, Wren, who has died aged 93, might have come across as a slightly grey, ordinary man. He was anything but. If a single word can ever be used adequately to describe an individual, in the case of Larry Wren that word would be 'upright'.

Shortly before he was appointed Garda Commissioner by the government he led an investigation into the illegal phone-tapping of two journalists under the previous government. This led to the resignation of Mr Wren's predecessor and of another very senior Garda. Peter Murtagh noted: Wren did not court the media; he did not play media games. But he had a steely ethic about right and wrong. He also said: He was a man of few words, but those spoken were important.

Peter Murtagh quoted an old colleague and friend of Larry Wren: He was always straight. You knew where you stood with him. The writer said of Mr Wren's time as Commissioner: He was no revolutionary in the discharge of his duties as head of the force, but a stickler for standards and for doing the job in the correct way.

Claude Grange's statue of St Columban, Lueuil, France

As I write this I am struck by a certain similarity between Laurence Wren and St Columban, whose 1,400th death anniversary we celebrated on 23 November last year.. He too was a stickler for standards and for doing the job in the correct way. And, Like St Columban, Mr Wren wasn't afraid to stand up to anyone when it was a matter of right and wrong. As St Columban stood up to kings and argued with popes about the date of Easter, while showing deep respect for the office of the Bishop of Rome, Laurence Wren stood up to senior officers and to members of the government when it was a matter of right and wrong, of truth against falsehood.

Vatican II said in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, No 43This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation.

Laurence Wren's whole life was a living out of his Catholic Christian faith, according to his proper vocation as a husband, father, grandfather, as one concerned about those with little in life - and as a policeman serving the people of the Republic of Ireland, always with a sense of service, justice, honesty and integrity.

Peter Murtagh concluded his tribute with these words: Of Larry Wren, it may truly be said that he did the State considerable service in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

St Brigid's Church, Blanchardstown [Parish website]

The funeral Mass of Laurence Wren takes place here at noon today, Monday. May he rest in peace.

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