A message from St Patrick (homily for St Patrick’s Day)

St Patrick’s Day was one of my favourite days of the year when I was growing up. There was the fact that we had a free day from school and the big parade in Limerick. Plus there was the fact that we all wore shamrock – the bigger the sprig the better.

I always wore the biggest sprig I could find – and I loved doing it because, after all, it was a badge of my identify. It represented who I was, how I saw myself, and it made me feel proud. Proud to be Irish and proud of the faith St Patrick is credited with bringing to these shores 1,600 years ago.

So proud was I of my Irishness and my faith it was no surprise that for my confirmation, at the bright old ago of ten, I chose the name Patrick. 

Pride, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins, but it also can have a positive aspect. Pride can be about appreciating what we have; acknowledging what we have to celebrate; it can be about standing tall, conscious of our achievements.

And that’s what we do on St Patrick’s day, and what countless others do across the world, as they celebrate their Irishness, or become Irish for the day. They take pride in their heritage.

I wonder what St Patrick would say to us Irish if he paid a return visit today. I think he would start by acknowledging all the good things we should celebrate and be proud of:

  • Our extraordinary generosity – which shows itself in good times and bad. Think of the service and sacrifice of Michael Ryan, the Lahinch-born engineer killed in the air crash in Ethiopia last week; of our long history of giving and compassion.
  • He would celebrate the strong community spirit which is still evident, the support people in local communities offer each other, especially in difficult times. Think of the hundreds of thousands of euros raised in the past week for cancer-stricken former Cork All Ireland winning footballer, Kieran O’Connor.
  • He would point to our wonderful creativity – which expresses itself in the arts and music and culture. Think of our current generation of great Irish writers who continue the proud tradition of Heaney and Yeats and Swift. Recall that it’s 25 years since Riverdance was first performed and how Irish music and dance has entertained the world.
  • He would thrill to our sporting success in so many fields, our ability to punch above our weight (though not in Cardiff yesterday). Fourteen winners at Cheltenham this week. An organisation in the GAA which is probably the most professional amateur body of its kind in the world.
  • He would note the resilience we have shown, especially in those difficult years of economic distress and hardship. No rioting, no civil unrest – just quiet determination and forbearance.
  • He would spotlight the talent of our young people, the demand for their skills by the world’s top tech companies, almost all of which have a major campus here.
  • He would praise our tolerance and openness in a world increasingly less tolerant and open. Ireland is no longer the dull, monochrome country it was when I was young. It is more diverse, cosmopolitan, inclusive, mature.

 

 

All of these Patrick would tell us to celebrate. And I think, too, he would encourage us to use these strengths to build a more just society, that offers a decent standard of living to all our people, that is welcoming and inclusive and more equitable, a world leader in care of the sick, the poor and the earth.

Pride in our church has taken a tremendous battering in recent years. For so long we were rightly proud of our missionary tradition, of the extraordinary work Irish missionaries had done in every corner of the world, not only to spread the faith, but also to introduce education and health care.

And we were proud of our faith that had stood firm for centuries – the Mass rocks dotting the countryside giving testament to the faith of our forbears; the sturdy, stone churches built after the famine as a bold proclamation of resilience and hope. And so we wore the shamrock proudly as a symbol of that enduring faith.

Now, after years of revelations of wrongdoing, we look on a demoralised church, from which so many have walked away.

I wonder what message Patrick would have for our church if he visited Ireland in 2019. I think he would highlight the many good things we should celebrate and be proud of:

  • parents eager to pass on the faith despite all the challenges
  • religious like Fr Peter McVerry and Br Kevin Crowley who stand alongside the poorest and most vulnerable
  • organisations like the St Vincent de Paul who are Christ to so many in need
  • catechists, pastoral workers, and all those who give of their time to serve their parishes, keeping the faith alive.

All of these he would tell us to celebrate today.

And he would remind us, also, that whatever about losing faith in the church and its leadership, we should never lose faith in God. He would tell us to not let go of God because of the failures of the church. He would tell us to hang onto our faith, for there will be times when we will need it. It was his faith that kept him going, that sustained Patrick, in his captivity as a young man.

And he would remind us that the church isn’t just the hierarchy, weary men in collars and mitres – the church is the People of God, all the baptised. He would ask us to claim it, to work for a new evangelisation, a new spring, a vibrant Christian community, a church on fire – lay-led, welcoming, inclusive, prayerful, just, compassionate, tolerant, loving – a church of which he and all of us could be rightly proud.

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Plain speaking – homily for 7th Sunday of the Year

Ten days ago soccer player Declan Rice announced he was switching his international allegiance from Ireland to England.

London-born Rice had represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level throughout his teen years. He had earned three caps for the senior international team, but these were friendly games, and due to a loophole in the law, the fact they were not competitive fixtures meant he could still switch allegiance if he wished. And he did. He was earning rave reviews for West Ham, and England came calling. Even though he had represented Ireland with pride for years, the lure of greater money and glory with England was too tempting. He couldn’t resist.

Naturally, Irish fans weren’t happy. Some were very angry. Twitter was on fire. I wrote an angry tweet myself. Sarcastic, bitter. Not a good look for a clergyman. Not a good look for one preaching on today’s readings.

I put my hand up. If I were in court and today’s Gospel was a charge sheet assessing how successful I am at following Jesus, I’d be found guilty, guilty of failing to do always as Jesus asks, guilty of failing to live always as Jesus commands.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give to those who beg from you, treat others as you would like them to treat you. 

All of these charges I have failed to keep at one time or another, in one way or another. Do not judge; do not condemn; forgive those who hurt you. But when it came to Declan Rice, I judged, I condemned, I didn’t forgive. While this might seem minor, it’s not an isolated incident. For even more incriminating evidence, I refer you to my Twitter account and what I’ve said about Brexiteers.

Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ manifesto, his vision, for how his disciples are to live. It’s a fleshing out of the ten commandments, a going into the nitty-gritty of what they mean, an explication of the attitudes and outlook Christians are called to have. It’s a demanding action plan; even an almost impossible one. It’s what Jesus presents to us.

So, what should we do? How must we respond?

First, we must adopt Jesus’ action plan, his template for living, and make it our own. This isn’t easy, as we know. The vision of Jesus is at odds with the way the world operates. It turns the standard way of behaving upside down. For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our development in human rights, we still have a lot of evolving to do if we are to live like Jesus.

Eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-semitism is increasing again. Last week 80 swastikas were daubed on Jewish graves in France; while in Britain anti-semitic bullying is ripping the Labour Party apart. Last week in America, a white newspaper editor called on the KKK to ride into Washington DC and start hanging liberals from trees. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, more than half of immigrants say they experienced racism in the past year.

Today, there are more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War, while millions of young women are trafficked into sex slavery every year. Bullying, domestic violence, sexual discrimination, homophobia are as rampant as ever. Social media has facilitated an explosion of hate speech.

Our church, which should live to a higher standard, has also failed abysmally to live by the vision of Jesus. A synod in Rome this week has been discussing clerical sexual abuse and its coverup. Clerics abused the vulnerable and abused their status while those in church authority did nothing.

To adopt Jesus’ vision is to change how we behave. It is to treat everyone as we would like to be treated.

Second, Jesus asks us to keep returning to his vision, never to give up. Of course, we will fail. Of course, we will behave in shameful ways. Of course, we will rush to judge and condemn and treat badly. We do these things because we are human after all. We give into selfishness and anger and tribalism because we are frail and broken and imperfect. But Jesus knows this – after all, he knew his disciples. The challenge he poses is to brush ourselves clean every time we fail, and start over again. Never to give up trying to live his way.

In the 1980s, civil war raged in Nicaragua in Central America. The left-wing Sandinistas eventually claimed power. The Sandinistas had a lot of support in the church from those who advocated Liberation Theology, those who believed the church should be actively on the side of the poor. One Sandinista government minister was a Catholic priest, called Ernesto Cardenal. The Vatican didn’t approve of Cardenal’s political activism, and when Pope John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1984, a famous photograph shows him wagging his finger at Cardenal, who is kneeling before him seeking his blessing. Fr Cardenal’s faculties were removed, and he could no longer function as a priest.

Fast forward to last week and another photograph. This time, Fr Cardenal, now 94, is in a hospital bed. He is dressed in priestly garments, and he is celebrating Mass. Pope Francis has restored his priestly faculties. Pope Francis has rehabilitated him, treated him with compassion. The old man is at peace. Happy.

The message of Jesus in today’s Gospel is simple and clear: let love be our guiding motive; let mercy dictate all we do; treat others as we would like to be treated. Seek, like Jesus, to turn our broken world upside down.

Gay clergy can hardly be blamed for abuse of nuns

Pope Francis has conceded that priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns, including one case where nuns were reduced to “sexual slavery.” He said it’s an issue the church is trying to address. A couple of things we can say straight out:

Gay clergy cannot be held responsible for this scandal. Right-wingers in the church have tried to pin the sex abuse and harassment scandals in the church on gay clergy. Root out homosexual priests and the problem would be solved, they say. Ban gay seminarians and the clerical church would be healthier. Those with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ should never be admitted to holy orders. But those with so-called deep-seated homosexual tendencies are surely not the ones who have sexually assaulted nuns or held them as sex slaves. Right-wingers will have to come up with another group or fault to blame this on.

Mandatory celibacy is a scandal that must be addressed. The late Daniel O’Leary in his final piece of published writing described it as a ‘kind of sin’ for the damage it has done to so many men. Even those (many) who have never broken their vow of celibacy have been damaged by it. Clearly, if what Pope Francis says is true, clergy with deep-seated heterosexual tendencies are also a danger to the church. Perhaps they should be banned from the priesthood too.

The problem isn’t gay priests or straight priests. The problem is mandatory celibacy and an unhealthy approach to sexuality within the church. Church language and teaching around sexuality need to be examined. Too many innocent people have suffered because of the failure of those in authority to face up to this thorny issue.

The church, women, and the cult of virginity, Part II

It seems virginity is popular. Of all my post-Christmas posts, my little reflection on ‘The church, women, and the cult of virginity’ has got the biggest response. No surprise, I suppose, since anything to do with sex attracts attention. But I think a better explanation for its popularity is that people agree with what I wrote. The Catholic Church’s seeming fixation with sex, and with female virginity, resonates with a lot of readers. This obsession is fundamentally about the exercise (by celibate males) of power and control. Think about the ‘churching’ of new mothers, a type of ritual purification women had to go through shortly after childbirth. Think about the shame and shaming of unmarried mothers and how so many of these women were treated in the not so recent past, while the men involved suffered no major repercussions. Women were ‘fallen,’ men were not. It wasn’t just a church obsession but a societal one too.

Confession has been used for a similar purpose. In some places it still is. Asking intrusive questions, seeking intimate details, about what a penitent did or did not do, or what the penitent thought or did not think, was a method of control. It was and is an abuse of a beautiful sacrament. It is extraordinary how many (primarily) older people are crippled with scruples or worried about ‘bad thoughts’ or minor infractions which occurred long ago but that continue to torment them. In church teaching and preaching, there was a negative attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex within marriage was understood as something functional, mechanical, cold; an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sex, and anything to do with it, was dirty. And so any expression of sexual intimacy induced tremendous feelings of guilt.

But sex is good and our sexuality used constructively is a beautiful thing. Our sexuality is a gift from God and so is something wonderful. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis writes about the ‘joy’ of love.

The ‘MeToo’ movement is about women demanding respect. It is insisting that (powerful) men treat women and their bodies with the dignity that is their right. That we need a movement such as MeToo in the 21st century is sad. That the church needs to examine its language about sex and sexual morality is also not only necessary but urgent.

Hounded by the black dog

The black dog has been hounding me for the past week or so, that feeling when you are low and listless and each day becomes a struggle.
The black dog grabbed me and held on tight. Only now is his grip beginning to loose. It’s not always easy to identify what springs him from his kennel but, I think, several factors have been at play.
The usual January blues have done their thing. It’s that time of year when the Christmas buzz has dissipated, but the all-enveloping seasonal darkness remains.
There has been a spike in my chronic pain. Cold weather exacerbates the constant ache in my back, which of course is not helped by the January blues. Medication does little for my pain. Doctors can do nothing. All I can do is struggle on.
The state of the church in Ireland and the world has left me feeling low. The post-Christmas assembly of Irish Redemptorists demonstrated with crushing clarity just how fragile we have become as a body of men and how fragile is the state of religious life in the western world. What will we be like in ten years’ time? How can we plan for the future when it appears there is no future? How different it seems now from the organisation I joined straight out of school almost 40 years ago.
The state of the world hasn’t helped. The Madness of King Donald and the British Tory Party, as well as the coming to power of extremists such as the new Brazilian president and the clinging to power of autocrats such as the current Venezuelan president, has left one feeling angry, bemused and worried for the future. Our bright, progressive, tech-driven world is threatened by the primal forces of fearful populism and narrow nationalism.
There is also the peculiar loneliness of the long-distance celibate, the tsunami of aloneness, of lack of intimacy, of disappointment and regret, that occasionally washes over and engulfs and almost drowns.
There has been nostalgia for days past, when I was busy and occupied, and thrilled to the buzz of the editor’s office.
So I wonder in the midst of all of this, what have I achieved over my almost 57 years of life? What, if any, difference have I made to the world or the church? What have I contributed over 30 years of active ministry? It’s a desperate seeking after validation, scratching beneath the surface of my existence to see if I have left any visible imprint for good. I know I have, though, when hounded by the black dog, I see just the trace of a blurred line on a tattered copybook.
All I can do at this stage is to try to be good, be honest, be loving, and a little prophetic if I can. And if I can manage any of that, and smile a bit more, then I am doing something meaningful.

What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

Having just finished a fine biography of Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman, I have been struck by some striking similarities between Gorbachev’s career and that of Pope Francis.

Both reached the top against the odds. Gorbachev’s background and private views should have ensured he was never promoted to a position of real power. Both his grandfathers had been arrested and tortured by Stalin; as a young boy growing up in the countryside, Gorbachev saw and disapproved of Stalin’s vicious policy of collectivisation and murder and deportation of innocent peasant families; he believed the system urgently needed reform. A brilliant student and organiser, he worked his way to the very top and began his reforms, by which time it was too late for the system to stop him.

After coming a surprising second in the 2005 papal conclave, it was thought that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope had passed. Most observers knew little about him; his opponents made sure to highlight his stormy early career as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. By the time of the surprise conclave in 2011, it was thought his advancing years would eliminate him from consideration. Yet he was elected, despite the efforts of traditionalists to stop his candidacy.

Both made an extraordinary initial impact on the world. Gorbachev was young, energetic, open, charismatic – a Soviet leader unlike any of his predecessors. From his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis made an indelible impression on those watching. His simplicity, humility, and humour were a breath of fresh air.

Both had a reformist agenda. Gorbachev spoke about the need for glasnost and perestroika, and began to try to transform the Communist Party and the USSR. Pope Francis spoke of a ‘church on the street,’ emphasising the need for mercy and compassion in dealing with people in difficult personal situations, and for a synodal model of church where there would be greater dialogue and openness to change.

Both encountered strong opposition from within almost from the start. In the beginning Gorbachev was able to placate or outmanoeuvre his opponents but eventually, they began to get the better of him. His finally stepped down several months after a failed coup against him in August 1991.

Opposition to Pope Francis has been intensifying in conservative circles for several years. They have agitated against him in public, tried to block his initiatives, and even to force his resignation so they can get a more like-minded man in his place. That battle continues.

Despite the tremendous pressures they faced, both had an innate optimism and remarkable energy that kept them going even in the face of extraordinary obstacles and setbacks.

Gorbachev achieved great things – an end to the old cold war and to communism in the old CSSR, the freeing up of eastern Europe without bloodshed, the reunification of Germany. Pope Francis has promoted inclusion and reform. Though his vision has not been realised he has given us hope. We pray that the transformation and renewal he has promised may come about.

Priesthood must change if the Mass is to continue being celebrated

As part of our service here in Limerick, Redemptorists celebrate Mass in some local convents every week day and on weekends. It’s a service we are happy to give, something that has been offered for many years now, and a service for which the sisters are most appreciative.

The graying of the priesthood and of religious life is an undeniable reality. The lack of vocations to both is keenly felt. Though many pray for a miracle, few believe it’s going to happen. Those who are able to minister are delighted to do so, and will keep going as long as they are able. But what of the future? What even of the next five years?

We will not be able to continue as we are. The church in Limerick and in the West will not be able to continue as it is. At least, Limerick diocese has held a synod to help it to plan ahead. But no local church has the authority to make the kind of radical decisions that might go some way to addressing the priest shortage. All it, or we, can do is try to involve more non-ordained in the church and enable them to use the many gifts with which the Spirit has blessed them. But priests are needed to lead the celebration of Mass, and Mass, as we know, is the heartbeat of the church. Without priests, while many good liturgies can be held, there can be no Mass.

Meanwhile, groups of religious sisters depend on elderly men to lead them in the Eucharist every day, sisters many of whom are steeped in the scriptures and in the knowledge of God. It seems a shame to me that they are prohibited from leading the Eucharist in their own religious community and that suitably qualified leaders cannot be ordained or anointed to do the same in their own parish communities.

Reform and renewal are needed if the church is to remain alive and significant in the West. A new council of the church is needed in order to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century. If the Eucharist is going to continue to be celebrated regularly, and if the church is to remain vital and alive, then we need a new way of being church, a new model of church. We need radical restructuring.

New wine, as today’s Gospel puts it.