That we will (be allowed to) use our gifts (Homily for 2nd Sunday of the Year)

On October 5th, 2011, Steve Jobs died. I’m sure you remember who he was – the co-founder of Apple. He was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. A visionary and technology genius who made his company one of the most valuable in the world.

Steve Jobs was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPad, all those gadgets starting with the letter i. I wrote this homily on an iMac computer as I was checking football scores on an iPhone listening to iTunes on an iPad. At the time he died, Jobs was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies.

Steve Jobs was a gifted man who used his gifts to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s almost a decade ago now, but those who witnessed it will never forget the moment. It was Britain’s Got Talent and a frumpy, middle-aged woman with a goofy smile and dreadful hairstyle, came out to sing. The judges sniggered, as did many of those watching. Here was another desperate wannabe who would make a fool of herself in public. But then she began to sing and people’s jaws dropped. This dowdy-looking woman could sing – beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully. She was blessed with a rare talent – and now, at last, the entire world could hear it and appreciate it. Susan Boyle’s gift.

When Christopher Nolan was born in 1966, his parents Bernadette and Joseph, were devastated to discover he had severe brain damage. The doctors told them he would not be able to talk, or to walk or use his hands; he would never be independent.

His parents did all they could to make Christopher’s life as normal as possible. They involved him in daily events; took him to the park, read to him, told him stories, prayed over him, surrounded him with love and laughter – though it seemed he couldn’t really engage or respond. When he was about 10, they bought him an electric typewriter. Bernadette strapped a unicorn stick to his forehead, like a pencil, and holding his head in her hands, encouraged him to stab at the keys. She did that day after day, and nothing happened.

And then one day, August 20, 1977, Bernadette watched, as slowly Christopher began to put words together. It was a poem, beautifully written, called “I learn to bow.” Christopher was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 he had published a book of poems called ‘Damburst of Dreams’ and six years later an amazing autobiography, called ‘Under the eye of the clock.’

This boy, whom people thought couldn’t communicate, was able to write. So good a writer was he that he won the Whitbread Prize for literature. Inside that broken body was an extraordinary literary talent. Christopher Nolan’s gift.

In today’s second reading, St Paul speaks about gifts. There are a variety of gifts, he says, working in different ways in different people, and these gifts are given to us by God. They are given to each person for a good purpose – to give glory to God. One person may have the gift of preaching; another of teaching or instructing in the faith; another of healing, another of being prophetic, and so on. All these, St Paul says, are the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different people for the sake of the kingdom.

We are given a similar message in the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana. The miracle Jesus works of turning water into wine has been described as a gift miracle. It wasn’t just Jesus getting the bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation – one barrel of cheap wine would have achieved that. It is the sheer abundance of wine and its quality that is the significant thing. All that wine is an image of God’s generosity to us. God has gifted us abundantly; gifted us in so many ways, and Jesus’ life and ministry is a sign of that.

What do today’s readings say to us?

First, to acknowledge our gifts. We are all gifted. God has gifted every one of us. We don’t all have the same gifts – but we are all gifted. Many of us have a hard time believing this. In a world obsessed with celebrity and money and looks, we can find it hard to believe that we amount to anything much. If we have low self-esteem, we can find it really hard to believe. Yet the truth is, we are all gifted. God has blessed each of us with an abundance of gifts. We, you and I, are gifted.

Second, help those you love to identify their gifts. Nobody is good for nothing; we are all good at lots of things. Sometimes we just need to be prodded, encouraged, reminded. Make it a point to point out to those you love the gifts they possess. Point out to them what God sees in them.

Third, use your gifts. Let the Spirit work in you to bring your gifts out. Use them to build up the body of Christ, as St Paul instructs. Let your gifts flow abundantly, like the new wine at Cana. Maybe you’re good at music – can you use that gift in church and outside too? Maybe you’re good with young people. Maybe you’re a good public speaker. Maybe you’ve a gift for helping others a local charity could use. Maybe you’ve the gift of prophecy, of being able to draw attention to injustice in society and in the church. Use your gifts for goodness sake.

Finally, pray that our church will acknowledge the gifts and potential of all its members, women and men, and allow them full expression.

Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Christopher Nolan had gifts inside that, released, brought pleasure to many and glory to God.

The invitation to us today is to let our gifts flow.

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Why it’s time to drop mandatory celibacy

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich hit the nail on the head in a New Year’s Day homily when he spoke of the need for the church to modify tradition in response to changing modern times.

Change is needed, he said, “in light of the failure” surrounding the clergy sex abuse crisis. One long-standing tradition that must be up for “review,” he said, is celibacy for priests.

The current measures to address sex abuse are not enough without adapting church teachings, the cardinal said. “Yes, matters are about development and improvement and prevention and independent reviews — but more is also demanded.

“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of church teachings are required.”

“I believe the hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the church to renewal and reform,” Marx said.

The cardinal’s statements coincide with plans to openly debate the issue of celibacy at the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring. The bishops have said the workshop during the meeting is a direct response to the abuse crisis.

It is wonderful that Cardinal Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, has spoken so strongly about the need to examine mandatory celibacy in light of the abuse crisis, but, it seems to me, this issue needs to be discussed on its own merits.

There were good historical reasons for its introduction in the Middle Ages but mandatory celibacy serves no good purpose now. Many priests have found it an impossible burden. Many others have coped with it in unhealthy and destructive ways. The cost to the church has been incalculable. The celibacy rule has contributed to the vocations crisis that is engulfing the church in so many parts of the world. In countries like Ireland, priests are ageing and seminaries stand empty, while the number of clustered and priestless parishes continues to climb.

Meanwhile, the church loses millions of members every year to other Christian dominations and religions. Between 2014-2016, Brazil lost nine million Catholics to protestantism. Committed lay leaders do their best, but without priests the church dies. Without priests, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, and the Eucharist is the life-blood of the church. There are many former priests who would love to celebrate the sacraments again, but are forbidden to do so, and many others who feel called to the priesthood but not to the celibate way of life. Celibacy is too big an obstacle for them, and so their priestly vocation is lost. Yet, even in the face of this stark reality, most men in church leadership think that clinging to the man-made rule of mandatory celibacy is more important than meeting the urgent sacramental needs of God’s people. Celibacy trumps everything. This is not just tragic, but catastrophic.

Mandatory celibacy has forced many thousands of men out of the priesthood. They meet someone in the course of their ministry and sexual attraction takes over. They fall in love. They try hard to keep their vows but are not able. They are caught between love of their vocation and love of another person. Ideally, they should be able to love both but they cannot. So they are lost to the priesthood.

Others remain in the priesthood while not observing their vow of celibacy. These priests are conflicted. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of the emotional and psychological damage they are doing to themselves and the person they love, but they cannot stop themselves. They don’t want to or can’t give up the ministry, but neither are they able to give up their affair. And so they juggle the two. It is unfair to everyone, especially the person they love.

Then, there are the secret children fathered by priests. Nobody knows how many secret children are out there, only that it is a scandal that cannot be denied. The damage done to these children and their mothers (and fathers) is incalculable.

Mandatory celibacy is a form of control. It is easier for a bishop to exercise authority over a priest who does not have commitments or obligations as a husband and father. The priest is easier to move around. He is more dependent on his superior, more vulnerable. He costs less to support and there are no potential conflicts around property and inheritance rights. As Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall put it in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, celibacy “is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. … To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence.”

Mandatory celibacy facilitates clericalism. It leads some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege. The collar, the vestments, the titles, the role – all these offer status, identity, comfort, security, a feeling of superiority, of being part of an elite club, a special caste. The culture of clericalism compensates for the privations of celibacy. It also stokes ambition. Without a partner or children as a focus or distraction, some priests invest all their energy in climbing the clerical ladder. Promotion and deference provide them with a sense of validation, and help them feel better about themselves.

Mandatory celibacy leads to loneliness and isolation. In the past, most priests had live-in housekeepers or shared rectories with other clergy. They had company, companionship and support. Today most live alone. They are left to fend for themselves, often with little help from those in authority. Loneliness can lead to a feeling of isolation, or the risk of addiction, or a tendency towards melancholia. Some use work as a coping mechanism. They need to be busy, so they don’t have to acknowledge the emptiness they feel inside or cope with the painful reality of spending every night in a cold, empty house. Others have found solace in the bottle, or on internet chatrooms, or in a particular obsession.

Mandatory celibacy promotes a warped notion of sex and sexuality. It implies that sex and sexuality are bad, and over-identifies holiness with sexual abstinence. It inhibits healthy, open relationships that people need if they are to be fully alive. To live a life empty of physical affection is a tremendous burden for many.

Of course, abolishing mandatory celibacy would be no panacea for the church. It’s not going to pack the pews again or solve the vocations crisis. It would create problems of its own but ministers of other denominations and religions have to deal with these challenges all the time, and they do. Whether there is a married or unmarried priesthood, there will always be scandals, because priests are human.

And even if abolishing mandatory celibacy does nothing to address the sexual abuse crisis or produce a single new vocation, it is still the right thing to do because it would make for a far healthier priesthood and a far healthier church.

Christian humility – homily for 25th Sunday of the Year

The 17-year-old was working on a gang building a dirt road on the isolated hill country of Texas in the 1920s. The road was being built by hand, and the tall, gangly teenager was pushing a scoop, a plough-like instrument with a sharpened front edge, that was pulled by four mules. It was back-breaking work, difficult even for older, stronger men. At lunch break each day, as the gang sat eating, the teenager would talk big to the older men. “He wanted to do something big with his life,” one of his workmates recalls. “And he was quite specific about what he wanted to do: “I am going to be president of the United States one day,” he predicted.

They laughed at him, this poor son of a bankrupt from nowhere. It was the sort of idle boast many young people make, except this youth was deadly serious. And he began to work towards making that dream a reality – first as a school teacher, then a congressional aide, then a congressman, then a senator, then vice-president of the United States, and finally – on November 22, 1963 – president. Lyndon B. Johnson’s life-long ambition was fulfilled, albeit in the most tragic circumstances. His life story is a study in ambition, how to realise it, how to have a goal, a target, and to never let go of it until it happens.

Ambition takes many forms. It can be political, like LBJ. Or to be rich; or to succeed in business; or to be famous; or to play for Limerick or Munster or Ireland; or for Liverpool, if you’re smart as well as ambitious. We have our goal, our target, and, like LBJ, we work and work and work to make it happen.

But what about the Christian? What does ambition mean for the follower of Jesus? Christian ambition is the opposite of worldly ambition. It turns our usual understanding of ambition on its head; it’s an upside-down way of being. Being least, being last, being servant, being little, being humble.

Jesus was big into humility. Indeed, you could say it was his favourite virtue. Again and again in the gospels, Jesus chose the most humble. He chose the sick over the healthy…the weak over the powerful…the poor over the rich. He didn’t choose scholars and big shots as his apostles but fishermen and ordinary types. He practised humility. He washed feet, and mixed with outcasts and died with criminals. “I have given you an example,” he said, “that you also must follow.”

In today’s gospel, we see this again. The apostles are arguing over who is the greatest, when Jesus tells them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” And he puts before them the least significant person in the room: a small child—someone utterly dependenct. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me,” he said.

Humility is challenging. It’s hard to be humble, as the song says. What does it mean to be humble? Three qualities, at least.

First, to be humble is to be self-aware. It is to know we are not perfect, we are all pilgrims on the journey. No matter how hard we try, we come up short. Despite our best efforts, we sin all the time. It is the one thing we all have in common. Humility is being aware of our unworthiness, our shadow side. Humility is not having a big head. Humility means being without ego or conceit. How can we look down on another when we know we are not perfect ourselves?

We acknowledge our humility before Holy Communion at every Mass when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…” I am not worthy that you should come into my house. I am not worthy to be in your presence. I don’t deserve you. Humility is honest self-awareness.

Second, to be humble is to be selfless, other-centred rather than self-centred. It demands that we set aside our obsessions, our ambitions, our desires. It demands that we give ourselves for the other.

Humility washes feet. Humility loves without exception. Think of Matthew 25. At the last judgement, on what basis will God separate the saved from the lost? I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome, I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to see me. For as often as you did this to one of the least of these sisters or bothers of mine, you did it to me. Washing feet; loving till it hurts, loving even those who seem least significant, like the child in the gospel. Humility is selflessness.

Third, to be humble is to be prayerful. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said: “Only the humble can pray, for prayer presumes we need someone and something.” Prayer presumes humility. When we ask God for something, when we thank God for something, we are admitting our need for God, that we can’t live without God, that on our own we can do nothing. And so we turn to God in our need, our gratitude, our joy, our heartbreak. We place ourselves before the God who gives us life. That is what we do every time we pray. That’s why we must pray. Humility is prayerfulness.

Humility is self-awareness, selflessness, prayerfulness. As the catchy song reminds us, to be humble is far from easy.

Just how humble are you?

Homily delivered at the funeral Mass of Sr Anthony Moloney (Feb 21, 2017)

The sun had just broken through the clouds on Saturday afternoon last when Sr Anthony breathed her last. It was a warm, gentle sky and I couldn’t help thinking that it was only right because that servant of God had lived a gentle, beautiful life and God was now smiling on her, beckoning her home. Her many years on this earth were a long ray of sunshine that illumined the lives of the countless people she touched.
Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.
There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Ballyvalode, Oola, Co. Limerick in 1923, just as the civil war was coming to an end. She joined the Presentation Sisters in Midleton, Co. Cork in June 1945, just a couple of weeks after the Allied victory in Europe, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and autonomous convent units to greater freedom and unification of Presentation convents into provinces, in which role she played a major part. Two years ago she celebrated her platinum jubilee of profession – 70 years as a Presentation Sister, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1775. An extraordinary achievement.
Her mother, Bridget, fell just short of hitting the centenary mark. She was almost 98 when she died. Sr Anthony didn’t quite make it that far, but she made a good fist of it. She was in her 94th year when she died. And she was of sound mind and memory right until the end. For that we thank God.
Sr Anthony was intimately acquainted with adversity. Indeed, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, she too had many swords that pierced her soul. Her father, Michael, died when she was just four years old. He died in 1927 – 90 years ago. Hard to imagine. He left behind a wife and young family and a farm to manage. Of Sr Anthony’s nine siblings, five died in infancy. In fact, one of them was dying on the very day his father died, and baby, Michael, who was born just six weeks after his father’s death, himself died at just two and a half.
Her four siblings who grew to adulthood all died long before her. Her sister, Jude, who remained at home, was always in poor health and was never strong. Her brothers, Denis, Patrick and James, all died long before their time. One wondered how Anthony could deal with all this, how she could process it, how it didn’t leave her diminished or cynical or broken – but Sr Anthony was a strong woman, a resolute woman, and a woman of great faith. Even in the darkest of times she trusted in God and felt God’s comforting presence. Sr Anthony knew adversity, but adversity did not break her.
I often think of the relationship Anthony had with her mother, Bridget. It wasn’t merely the typical mother/daughter relationship you’d expect between two loving, good women. It was a relationship made immeasurably closer by the common suffering they shared throughout their long lives and the heartbreak they endured. Sr Anthony was a wonderful support to her mother.
Sr Anthony had great devotion to the founder of the Presentation Sisters, Nano Nagle. She never missed an opportunity to promote Nano’s cause and make her better known. Some years ago a cousin of mine suffered from severe headaches for which she could get no relief. When Sr Anthony heard about it, she sent her material about Nano and a prayer to say. My cousin’s pain eased after a while, and Anthony was thrilled. She wanted my cousin to give a detailed account of her cure so that it could be introduced as evidence in promotion of Nano’s cause. Sr Anthony’s work in Ballygriffin and here in the South Pres. to protect and promote the heritage of Nano Nagle was exceptional. It is fitting that today she will share the same burial ground as Nano. They will rest together in that holy place, enjoying the rewards of the heavenly kingdom.
Sr Anthony was a secondary teacher, and an excellent one, it is said. She was a teacher of Commerce, Irish and Religion, and taught in Midleton, Listowel, Tralee and the South Pres. during the times she lived in each of these places. After retirement, she did social work here in the parish, and was strongly associated with the Legion of Mary.
But Sr Anthony was more than a teacher; she was a leader and a visionary. In 1966, at age 43, she became superior or local leader of the convent in Midleton. 1966 was a difficult and challenging time for leaders of religious orders throughout the world. It was just after Vatican II, and tumultuous changes were beginning to take place in religious life. The old ways were going out and there was a lot of uncertainty around. Sr Anthony had the task of guiding her community through this challenging time.
At this time, too, efforts began to bring the different convents of the Presentation Sisters closer together. Up to that point, each convent was an independent unit and sisters in one convent probably wouldn’t know their counterparts in other convents in the area. Now, there was encouragement from on high to bring about a closer union of Presentation convents. Sr Anthony was at the forefront of the drive and, in 1971, after five convents came together to form the Cloyne Diocesan Amalgamation, she was elected their leader. During her time as leader she pushed hard towards forming a larger union.
In 1972, Sr Anthony set the ball rolling towards the acquisition of Ballygriffin, near Mallow, Co. Cork, birthplace of Nano Nagle by sending a letter to all Presentation convents worldwide. Her suggestion was well received, but the project needed careful nurturing. Finally, on April 26, 1974, representatives of the Presentation Order from all over Ireland and the UK gathered at Ballygriffin for the formal taking possession of Nano’s birthplace by the Presentation Sisters… and Sr Anthony was presented with a symbolic key by the former owners of the land. Today the Ballygriffin Centre is visited by sisters from all over the world, and it provides programmes in Spirituality, Ecology and other areas that are of benefit to people from the locality and further afield. The Ballygriffin Centre is a monument to Sr Anthony’s leadership and vision.
Because she held leadership positions in the Presentation Order, Sr Anthony for some years was known as Mother Anthony. When I first got to know her, it was as Mother Anthony. I was impressed. I had four aunts who were nuns and none of these was called Mother, so I figured that Anthony must be a very important woman.
Titles such as Mother were dropped years ago, and Mother Anthony went back to simple Sr Anthony again, but I still think there was something special about being called Mother. It suggests care, protection, warmth, love, friendship, wisdom, understanding, patience, forbearance. And Sr Anthony had all of these qualities. She was a mother to those in the communities where she lived and served, she was a mother to her mother for many years, and she was a mother to her big, extended family of nephews and nieces, grand nephews and grand nieces, and great grand nephews and great grandnieces, all of whom she loved very much.
She was proud of her family and its heritage – the Moloneys and Traceys from the hill country around Doon, Co. Limerick. She was especially proud of her granduncle, Fr Patrick Moloney, a Vincentian priest, who was one of the first Irish priests in China. She collected newspaper and magazine cuttings about him, and also had possession of his diary, which she gave me several years ago.
She was proud, too, of her aunt, Mother St Anne Moloney, who was a Presentation Sister in Midleton. It was following her example that Sr Anthony decided to enter in Midleton. She took pride in all her family and their achievements and kept close tabs on all of them. She even kept an eye on me. She was afraid my writings might get me in trouble with the Vatican and told me to be more careful. But I didn’t listen, and she was right – I did end up in trouble with the Vatican. With her passing, the Moloney family loses a titan, the last of her great generation.
In the Gospel I just read, Jesus assures us that if our faith is built on rock it can withstand anything, even the harshest storm. Sr Anthony was a rock of faith, and a rock of solace and stability and common sense and kindness to so many people – in Midleton, Listowel, Tralee, Ballygriffin, in the South Pres, and in this parish, and to her family and friends in Oola, Doon, Dublin and beyond. She bravely battled the many storms that erupted throughout her long life, and her faith was her strength, her rock, her shield. We thank God for her and it.
Sr Anthony’s religious vocation was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Presentation. She had a deeply rooted prayer life and, according to the sisters in Midleton, never lost her first fervour. She had the same zeal, same enthusiasm, same commitment at the end of her life as she had at the beginning. Indeed, she was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple woman, without airs or issues or graces, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.
She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Sr Anthony to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. Some of the convents where she lived are gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Sr Anthony, nor will the Irish church. I am reminded of the words from Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til’ it’s gone…”
But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister and cousin and friend, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her warm, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.

The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.

Remembering one of my worst days

I remember vividly almost every waking moment of this day last year. It was the day of my father’s wake.

Unlike the more common practice today, we decided to wake my dad at home. We wouldn’t take his body to a funeral parlor. We wouldn’t bring it to the church for an overnight stay. Instead, we would keep him at home with us in his own house for one last night.

So the house was open to all-comers. My dad’s body was laid out in a coffin in the middle of the sitting room. All the chairs were pressed back against the walls surrounding it, allowing for a free flow of mourners around the room as they offered sympathies.

In the kitchen off the hallway was all kinds of food, mostly donated by relatives and friends. The kettle was always on the boil. Neighbours, relatives and friends acted as hosts and hostesses. We did not have to worry about any of the catering or hospitality duties.

Our only task was to gather round my father’s coffin during the official wake period from 3pm to about 7.30 and receive those who came to mourn my father and to express sympathy. The circle of chairs was occupied mostly by the female members of the family, while the men – my dad’s sons, grandsons, and sons-in-law – stood by the wall in their black suits and ties. 

I did not stand with them because I was not able. I had come out of hospital just a few days before, after my third spinal surgery in six months, and was wearing a brace to support my back. Earlier that day, just before the wake started, I had sought and received a pain-killing injection from our local GP. I was also wearing two pain patches and had taken every medicine I was allowed in order to help me get through the evening.

But nothing made any difference. The pain was excruciating and unrelenting. People in their kindness shook my hand, but even the gentlest handshake felt as if my arm was being ripped from my shoulder. The combination of physical and emotional pain was almost too much to bear. Several times, I just had to go and lie down for a while.

The wake lasted for what seemed like an eternity. Though it was a dark, winter’s night, and our farmhouse is in the County Limerick countryside, people came in numbers touching a thousand from all over the country and beyond. It was testimony to my father’s popularity but also a demonstration of Irish culture and tradition at their best. People wanted the opportunity to express their condolences in person and to offer support and solidarity to our family in its grief. 

I knew only about 10 percent of them. Younger people came, flush with youth and life, friends and colleagues of my father’s grandchildren. The old came, now bent and creased by the passage of the years, friends and contemporaries of my father. And people of my generation came too, lots of them, now in mid life, friends and workmates of my brothers and sisters. From the well-dressed, well-spoken professional to the shaven-headed, tattoo-sporting construction worker, from my elderly priest colleagues in the Redemptorists to school mates of the younger grandchildren, they came – a true cross-section of that part of rural Ireland on that dark December night, 2015. 

It was wonderful that they came in such numbers, and my father would have been delighted, but in my grief and physical distress, I thought it would never end. I wanted people to come out in their droves to acknowledge my father and his goodness, but at the same time all I wanted was peace and quiet and the solace of my bed. My back was on fire, my arm hurt, and my emotions were in turmoil. I had been in hospital in Dublin when my father was taken to hospital in Limerick for what turned out to be the last time. I had never even got to visit him (we had no idea he was going to die) and how here he was being waked and I couldn’t even stand beside my brothers as a chief mourner to greet and thank those who had gone out of their way to stand with us in our loss. The only good thing I was conscious of was that if my father had died a week or ten days earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to attend his funeral at all.

Eventually, of course, the numbers tapered off as the clock approached 10pm, and the local priest led us in some prayers for his soul. We left my dad in the sitting room with a teddy bear his great granddaughter had put in his coffin to keep him company, and we struggled our way to bed, knowing that the next day, the day of the funeral, would be another test of endurance. I wouldn’t be celebrating the funeral liturgy but I was going to preach. I wanted to do that last thing for my father, no matter how difficult it would be, and I did. I’m glad about that.

Now a year has passed, and the shock and grief have passed too. We will gather for his anniversary celebration tomorrow with sadness but also in gratitude for the person he was and the impact he made on so many. While my emotional turmoil has eased, my health problems continue. Unfortunately, my back pain is one thing that has not changed since exactly a year ago.

Words delivered at the funeral of my Aunt Mary, Sr Peter, Cork (November 16, 2016)

The last time I saw Aunty Mary really fully alive was two and a half years ago when we gathered in the nursing home in Boherbue to mark an extraordinary achievement – her platinum jubilee of profession. Alongside two others, she was celebrating 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1831.

Aunty Mary was in her element that day. She may have been in her 92nd year, dependent on a walker to get around and on others to manage her getting up and laying down, but her mind was sharp, and there was that familiar twinkle in her eye and bubbly smile of enthusiasm and anticipation that I always associated with her. It was the last of many wonderful times we celebrated together.

Her memory began to fail soon after that milestone event, so that for the past two years she had been gradually losing touch with home and family and community and world. A frail little woman, still smiling, but without life in her, the twinkle in her eye now no more. To see her like that, little more than a shell, not knowing who we were, not able to initiate conversation, not asking about grandnephews and grandnieces, especially whomever she had deemed was her current pet, was distressing and we are relieved that she is now free at last, enjoying the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God.

Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.

There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Doon, Co. Limerick in 1921, just as Ireland was gaining its independence. She left home to join the Sisters of Mercy in faraway Macroom, Co. Cork as war raged across Europe and the Far East. She made her first vows in 1944, as D-Day was about to get underway in France, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and uncomfortable religious garb to greater freedom and less restrictive dress. Though she was no fashionista and came late to the world of fashion, she liked a nice suit and a healthy splash of colour.

The changes in the church also made it possible for her to go home more often. And that, she did. She must have been one of the very few religious sisters in Ireland to still have her own bed in the house of her birth right into her nineties. And home she came, as often as she could, until just a few years ago. She was so fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could.

She was, of course, a teacher. But she wasn’t just a dedicated teacher, good at her job. She was an outstanding teacher, great at her job. Time and again, her primary school classes won prizes at local and national level, in essay writing and in other competitions. One prize was a replica copy of the Book of Kells. But Aunty Mary, or Sr Peter as generations of Macroom students would have called her, wasn’t obsessed with winning prizes. She was focused on educating children, encouraging them to realise their full potential, as in one example of two special needs pupils who floundered at school until they came under Aunty Mary’s tutelage. She changed their lives, and enabled them to flourish, to be the best they could be.

There was her strong work ethic and commitment. In 1988, upon reaching retirement age at home, she headed off to Africa for two years, to teach there. She could have taken it easy, put her feet up, or got involved in some local project, but she would have none of that. She wanted to do more, to teach a while longer, if she could, while she could, and so she went to Kenya. She wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about having to adjust to such a different culture at her age. Instead, it invigorated her.

And once back home in Macroom, she remained active – arranging readers for Mass, promoting Reality magazine, assisting the local parish and community in any way she could, until finally, into her 90s, worn out, she could do no more. No one can question Aunty Mary’s zeal.

There was her love of life. She spent almost a century on this earth and she embraced it with relish. She had what seemed like an almost childlike enthusiasm about her, an effervescence, that made it easy for people to engage with her and for her to accept and embrace whatever challenges came her way, whether they were the changes in the church and religious life or the changing circumstances of her own.

There was her love of family. Everything she did, outside of her commitments in the classroom and the convent, she did for us. I experienced that love personally in so many ways throughout my life. She took me on my first grown-up holiday, to Ballyferriter in Kerry, when I was all of 10 years old. We spent a week in a B&B over a pub, she and two other sisters and myself, alongside Americans and all kinds from far and wide. Her wonderful ability to make friends meant that a nice Dublin couple with two young daughters took the three nuns and myself along with them on their daily trips to the beach. I remember, too, that every day during that week she had me do some reading. Even while on holiday, she continued to teach.

I remember all the stories she typed out for me before I got a typewriter of my own, and all the books she bought for me when I was in the Philippines and couldn’t get them myself, and all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied to the last penny. I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.

When my sisters got married, she did their wedding booklets. Whenever we had a major family celebration, she got the younger participants to practice the readings, just as she always encouraged them with their study. She might have lived in Macroom and elsewhere for periods during her long life, but the house in which she was born always remained home.

And, of course, there was her religious vocation, which was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Sister of Mercy. She was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple, happy, smiling woman, without airs or issues or graces, without arrogance or resentment or regret, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.

She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Aunty Mary to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. The convent where she spent most of her life is gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women like Aunty Mary entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Aunty Mary, nor will the Irish church.

But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose or nostalgic today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her soft, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.