How to make your house a safe home

In December 1989 Nicholae Ceaususcu was overthrown as dictator of Romania. Afterwards, the world became aware of his horrendous legacy – the thousands who had been placed in mental institutions without proper care, the abandoned children and children with disabilities who had been locked away in desolate places.

Children were forced to live in cage-like cots, seldom let out, seldom washed or nourished properly or given a change of clothes. Many could not walk, could not talk, couldn’t even smile.

And when rescuers examined these emaciated children they discovered that many had never been touched affectionately by another human being. They had seldom been picked up and hugged, or had their cheeks stroked, or experienced a tender embrace, or been kissed. They didn’t know what it’s like to be held close. They were deprived of the most basic need of every person – to be touched tenderly by another, to feel his or her warmth, the security and love that flow from it.

Jesus knew the importance of touch. We see it over and over again in the Gospels. Remember how Jesus reaches out and touches Peter’s mother-in-law. A gentle touch is all it takes and she is healed. She is able to get up and wait on him. His touch alone is sufficient.

Time and again in the Gospels we find the same story repeated. Jesus meets someone in distress and reaches out to touch them. He touches them, and their health is restored. The blind see, the crippled walk, haemorrhages dry up, the dead are restored to life. All because Jesus touches them. They are made whole again through his healing touch.

Jesus didn’t need to physically touch them, his words alone were sufficiently powerful, but he is tactile. Intentionally tactile. He knew the power of physical touch.

It seems strange now, but when I was ordained 30 years ago, I had never heard of the word pedophilia. I didn’t know what it meant. Sadly, we are well aware now of the sorry tale of sexual abuse in the church and in society. We all know what that word means now.

Whenever another church scandal breaks, I feel tremendous shame; the shame of being an official representative of an institution associated with such awful acts. I feel guilt by association.

We know that abuse isn’t confined to the church. We know too that abuse doesn’t have to be sexual in nature and doesn’t just happen to children. It takes many forms – physical, emotional, psychological, bullying, trolling, stalking, neglect, exposure to danger. The child who is malnourished or dirty, who sees parents constantly fighting, who is allowed stay up all hours or has unfettered access to the internet, who is left home alone or uses language about sex inappropriate for someone her age – this child may be a victim of abuse just as much as the one who shows obvious signs of harm.

The dependent person who is left dirty or unattended, the care home resident who receives few if any visits, the elderly parent who is shouted at or beaten or left without money – these also are victims of abuse. It happens to a frightening number of elderly.

Today we are reflecting on family as safe house, as a safe place, how we treat each other, specifically how we treat our most vulnerable. Three things strike me about home as safe place.

First, how we touch others. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.

We can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis condemns the sexual abuse of children and other forms of abuse, especially domestic violence. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” he says. That’s why the church encourages separation in situations that are violent or unsafe.

We can touch someone with a word of encouragement or gratitude or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do. Think about how you touch others.

Second, we have a responsibility to protect each other. In the film Spotlight, about a newspaper investigation into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, a victims advocate tells reporters: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

In other words, each of us has a duty of care to the young, old and vulnerable. Safeguarding is a responsibility of everyone. Each of us must keep a watchful eye for any signs of abuse or neglect of any person. This doesn’t mean being nosey. It simply means being responsible for each other’s welfare.

Third, we must respect the dignity of others. In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis stresses the importance of respect. Respect means never using our power to control or abuse or dominate. Every person – young, old, female, male, able-bodied, those with disabilities, family, stranger – is created in God’s image and so must be treated with dignity.

Every person is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so can never be used simply to satisfy my own appetite. That’s what film maker Harvey Weinstein has been accused of doing. Using his power over young actresses for his pleasure.

“In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of ‘use and discard,’” Francis says. This is a distorted understanding of sexuality. When we see other people’s bodies as temples of God’s Holy Spirit, each precious, each wonderful and unique, then we will always treat them with love and reverence. We will never consciously hurt another. Or fail to notice when abuse or neglect may be taking place.

Touch the other with love. Protect the other’s safety. Respect the other’s dignity – three keys to ensuring every house is a safe house. A place of care, peace, tranquility, protection, a place of joy, a place of love.

The power of forgiveness

It took Gary Ridgway nearly 20 years to be brought to justice. Ridgway, from Seattle in the USA, was a serial killer who told police he was missing the part of humanity that makes people care about others.

By the time he was caught, he had murdered at least 49 women, including a 16-year-old called Linda Rule. For years Linda’s father, Robert, and her family sought justice for Linda. Finally, in 2003 Ridgway was arrested. The lead investigator called his bespectacled eyes “two dark holes that go into a deep, dark pit.”

In court, Ridgway remained cold and without remorse. One by one, his victims’ loved ones stood up and spoke from their hearts, expressing their contempt for the killer sitting before them. The courtroom was full of anger and pain, understandably so. But  Ridgway sat unmoved. The judge lambasted him for his “complete absence of compassion.”

Then it was Robert Rule’s turn to address the court. Rule was old by now; he worked as a Santa at a shopping centre and he looked the part. He was plump, with a big white beard, and for his day in court he wore a pair of rainbow suspenders. While family members of other victims had sobbed or screamed or wished death on Ridgway, Rule was extraordinarily composed as he faced his daughter’s killer. What he said shocked everyone, including the cold-hearted killer.

“Mr Ridgway, um, there are people here who hate you,” he said. “I’m not one of them. I forgive you for what you’ve done. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. And he doesn’t say to forgive just certain people. He says to forgive all. So you are forgiven, sir.”

As the father spoke, Ridgway’s chin began to quiver. He blinked rapidly. He started to weep. And then he took off his glasses.

Robert Rule’s words of forgiveness got to Gary Ridgway’s heart in a way no other words could.

The power of forgiveness.

Today we are celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, the beautiful sacrament of God’s forgiveness. In his letter on marriage and family, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis uses three words or expressions that are worth remembering as we reflect on forgiveness and healing.

The first expression is “wounded families.” We are not perfect. Our families are not perfect. We know this. We know this all too painfully. We know from hard experience that the ideal of Christian marriage and family life is hard to live, and people fall out and couples live in imperfect situations. Francis calls them “wounded families” – and he says that pastors must “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and to “be attentive to how people experience distress because of their condition.”

Wounded families is an apt description. All families are wounded in one way or another. All of us are wounded in one way or another. And it’s okay to acknowledge it.

The second word is ‘gradualism.’ We are a work in progress, Francis says. Families are a work in progress. No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; “families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love… All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse.” We must always keep aiming towards being better. Growing all the time; growing in holiness, in mercy, in compassion, in forgiveness. Always growing in perfection.

The third expression is ‘field hospital.’ Francis uses the image of a field hospital to describe the church. The church must be a field hospital that cleans and heals wounds. The home must be a field hospital. Field hospital is a lovely image of church – out there tending to people.

So many families are wounded in one way or another. We have heard about them during this novena – people who don’t talk to each other, or who hurt each other sexually, emotionally, physically; people who disappoint those they love, or make decisions that let them down. The family is the primary battlefield where these hurts are experienced, and so the family must be the primary field hospital that cleans and heals these wounds. It means a willingness to forgive, to talk, to listen, to spend time together, to seek to understand differences, to appreciate one another. The family is the field hospital that must never leave wounds untended.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean watering down church teaching. Jesus proposed a demanding ideal, Francis says, but “never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.” This must be our attitude also. To always show mercy.

That’s what we celebrate today. Confession is a type of field hospital – the sacred space where we have a personal encounter with the God of love and compassion. We gather as wounded families, wounded individuals, to be healed, restored, made whole again. New people forgiven, absolved, transformed.

Feel it – the power of forgiveness. Celebrate it – the power of forgiveness. Let it change you – the power of forgiveness. As Robert Rule demonstrated, and as Gary Ridgway discovered, forgiveness sets you free.

(Celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Mother of Perpetual Help novena, Mt St Alphonsus, Limerick.)

Open House – Homily for Day 3 of Mother of Perpetual Help novena

Just over two years ago, on June 12, 2016, a mass shooting took place in Florida. An Islamic fundamentalist opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring 59. The nightclub was a favourite of the gay community, and those who died were LGBTI.

Afterwards, heartbroken families came to claim their dead – but one body remained unclaimed. His father identified him alright, but would not take possession of his remains. He couldn’t cope with the revelation that his son was gay. Even in death, he didn’t want anything to do with him. He couldn’t open his heart to his own dead son. Fortunately, other family members did. But how sad that families could be divided like that.

Difference can challenge us, upset our equilibrium, make us uncomfortable. Thirty years ago, I was a young Redemptorist working in the Philippines. Sometimes in the town or in the countryside, I would be the only European around. I drew attention, especially from children. They would stop and look. It gave me a sense of what it is like to be different.

The striking thing about Jesus was his attitude to others. He had a big heart. Jesus was a master of welcome, generosity, accommodation, inclusion, tolerance. The only people he couldn’t deal with were those who thought they didn’t need him – the superior ones, the self-righteous ones. Jesus embraced everyone else. Zaccheaus, Bartimaeus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery. Prostitute, outcast, corrupt public official, it didn’t matter to Jesus. All are part of God’s family. God’s Kingdom is a place of one hundred thousand welcomes.

Jesus knew all too well that no one is perfect and no family is perfect, and families and relationships are complicated. This is a truth that, as individuals and as a church, we must never forget.

In his encyclical on marriage and family, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis makes it clear that no one should feel excluded from God’s love. All have a home in the church, he says. All are welcome. The church must help families of every sort, and people in every state of life, know that, even in their imperfections, they are loved by God and can help others experience that love.

Family relationships are a dynamic process. Marriage is a dynamic process, hopefully always growing, always deepening. We need to encourage each other, accompany each other, help each other grow, especially those in difficult domestic situations.

It is important, Francis says, for pastors to assist those whose marriages have faltered and help them feel part of the church community. He outlines a process that could lead divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to the sacraments, and points out that these couples “are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such, since they remain part” of the church.

Francis is a realist. He upholds traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality, but when it comes to assisting people, he says, the church must not apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at a person’s life.” People in “irregular situations” or non-traditional families, like single mothers, or those who are LGBT, need “understanding, comfort and acceptance.”

An open house, a big heart is what we must have. Hold fast to the ideal of marriage and family and sexuality, as the church teaches, but with compassion, always showing mercy, taking people’s complex situations into account.

In her memoir The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird tells of the power of acceptance in her own life.

“I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, garbled speech.

“When classmates asked, ‘What happened to your lip? I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.

“There was, however, a teacher in the second grade that we all adored—Mrs Leonard was her name. Every year we had a hearing test. Mrs Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back—things like ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ I waited for those words that God must have put into her mouth, seven words that changed my life. Mrs Leonard said in her whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’”

Everything changed for Mary Ann Bird that day. For the first time outside of her own family, she felt accepted and loved and lovable. The attitude we should have toward everyone.

Francis sums it up in three words. “A big heart,” he says. That’s what we must have for each other as families and as family of church. A big heart. A big heart toward those who carry visible wounds like Mary Ann Bird, a big heart toward a loved one whose marriage is in crisis, a big heart towards the sibling caught up in a world of addiction and ruin, a big heart toward the teenager struggling with her sexuality or gender identity, a big heart, Francis says, even toward “those who have made a shipwreck of their lives.” What a consoling, challenging statement!

A big heart, a big heart, a generous heart – our duty, our challenge as Christians, as families, as family of church.

Modern family

I grew up lucky. I grew up the eldest of five on a family farm in Co Limerick. My parents were hard working and devoted to each other and to us. I never saw them having a big argument, I saw the casual way they showed affection to each other; I experienced the unconditional love they had for me and my siblings.

In my naivety, growing up in 1970s rural Ireland, I thought that’s how all or most families were – a bit like The Waltons from the telly, if you remember them.

Domestic violence, conflict, marriage break up, physical and sexual abuse – all of these were outside my frame of reference because I was a sheltered child and lucky enough to come from a loving, protective family.

So it was an eye-opener when I started out as a priest. When I came across some awful cases of domestic abuse, violence in the home, domestic dysfunction, I was stupefied. I didn’t know quite how to respond. It was outside my frame of reference.

I realised that we live in a world populated by non-perfect families, of normal people caught up in difficult domestic situations, very often not of their own making.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I was ordained 30 years ago, and my own family has experienced the joys and sorrows of married and family life during that time. I am well acquainted now with the vissicitudes of family life and the difficulties and heartbreaks, as well as the joys and triumphs, associated with it. I’m sure all of us are.

And this is the context in which Pope Francis published his letter on marriage and family Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love). It is also the context in which we prepare to celebrate the World Meeting of Families in August.

When I read Francis’ letter or listen to him speak about family life, the first thing I hear him say is welcome to the human condition. He knows the reality of family life. He knows the challenges families face. He doesn’t preach pie in the sky. He knows full well that relationships can be complicated and life is not black and white. We know this, too. Many of us know this all too painfully.

And Francis says that’s okay. It’s important to be honest in our relationships and honest about them – no matter how good or bad or wonderful or messy they are. The great thing about the pope’s encyclical is that it addresses the real life issues families face. It’s not a simple rehash of church teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Another striking thing about his letter is its positivity. Francis emphasises the positive. Note the word ‘joy’ he uses in the title. The joy of love. Joy – not challenge, or duty, or obligation, or call. Joy… Joy that fuses the relationship between couples, joy that deepens as their relationship lengthens, joy that envelopes the family circle, joy in the other, joy in each other, the joy of love. Love and sexuality are wonderful and life-giving, nourishing and necessary. We should celebrate them.

And that’s important, because there is so much bad news around today. And when we think of marriage and family, we can focus on the negative. The shattering of relationships, the increase in divorce, the bitterness of the family courts.

So much about family life in the past was good – the stability of the family unit, the hard work and sense of duty of parents and children, the virtue of chastity. But, notwithstanding the many challenges we face, there is so much today that is better than in the past. Think of the culture of secrecy and shame that sent young women to Mother and Baby Homes, the crippling hangups about sex that paralysed so many good people, the crushing loneliness of those who were gay or lesbian and dared not admit it. Yes, modern family is complicated, but in many ways it is so much better too.

The third striking thing about Francis’ letter is its focus on love. Note the word ‘love’ he uses in the title. The joy of love. Francis writes about the lifelong experience of love. This is also in contrast with times past, when Christian marriage was understood in cold, legal terms as a contract; law rather than love.

Family is unconditional love shared through every heartbreak and accomplishment and family is unconditional love offered even when that love is unrequited. Our families are where we experience the power of love. Our families must be where we witness to the power of love.

Love is an overused word today. We find it everywhere from graffiti-laden locker room walls to anonymous internet chat rooms. It sells everything from underwear to Ferraris. It is confused with every kind of feeling and emotion. But true love, real love? True love does not change with the times. True love can be cheapened by misuse and overuse but its essence never changes. True love is not infatuation or lust or obsession. It is not servile submission or putting up with. It is not grasping or abusive or domineering. It is not a one-night stand or a fling with someone whose name you struggle to remember.

True love is never selfish, never all about me. True love overcomes, forgives, endures, sacrifices, empathises. It never gives up on anyone. It sees the good in everyone. Love, true love, is our best nature because it is God at work in us – God who is love.

Joy and love – two ingredients that build happy marriages, nourish strong relationships, sustain united families. It’s what I experienced growing up on the family farm all those years ago, what I still experience. My prayer is that it is your experience, too.