Words spoken at the funeral of Sr Helen Ryan (April 25, 2019)

Sometimes people surprise us. They catch us slightly off guard, and that’s what Sr Helen did on Monday. She slipped away before we had a chance to say goodbye. But she was always her own woman, and always did things her way.

Aunt Peggy chose a good time to die. She died in Easter week, the greatest week in the church’s year, the week we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, the greatest event in salvation history.

She fully subscribed to the message of today’s Gospel, of this Easter season. She knew in her bones that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. She sought to live his Way, to know his Truth, to experience his Life. She spent her long life honouring Jesus.

So, from Sr Helen’s point of view, she couldn’t have chosen a more opportune time in which to go to her heavenly home.

Today, as we celebrate this liturgy of farewell, our dominant mood is one of thanksgiving, gratitude for a long life lived well.

And she lived a long life and lived it well. She would have been 96 in June – an age she was sure she’d never reach. And for more than 90 of those years she was blessed with a sound mind and reasonable independence. A great blessing.

Peggy Ryan was born in Doon Co Limerick in June 1923, as the nascent Irish Free State struggled to recover from bitter civil war. Being a delicate child, it was recommended that a goat be purchased to nourish her with its milk. She had no great interest in school and wasn’t the most assiduous student – but still she passed the Leaving Cart without difficulty. Afterwards, helping out on the family farm, she was unsure what to do with her future, until she felt the Lord inviting her to try religious life. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1945, as Nazism was collapsing in Europe and tumult reigned across a broken world. She said that from the first day she entered, she knew she had made the right choice. She never doubted her vocation for a moment afterwards. Though lonely for home, she was happy, as happy as could be. She had found what she was looking for.

The young Sister of Mercy trained as a nurse and was assigned to St Finbar’s hospital, (still known to some as the Poor House). After receiving that appointment, she wrote home to her father, “You were threatening me that if I didn’t get a focus in life, I’d end up in the Poor House. Well, I’m in the Poor House now!”
She nursed there for several years (her only time outside St Maries), before taking charge of the House of Mercy, to which she devoted most of her life. She loved that ministry and those she worked with.

She treated them with care, respect and unfailing devotion, and they loved and appreciated her in return. I got to know several of these women during my many childhood trips to Cork, as did my sisters. Sr Helen’s solicitude shone through. They were like extended family.

But not only was Sr Helen a wonderful carer, she had also great business acumen. She ran the knitwear enterprise in a professional way. She was able to negotiate with tough clients like Dunnes Stores and earn their loyalty and respect. I always thought that had she pursued a career in the outside world, she would have been a millionaire. It seemed that everything she touched turned to gold.

After she retired from this work in the mid-1990s, she had responsibility for the ministry to the poor here in St Maries, a task she took on with relish, a task central to the Mercy Sisters’ charism. She committed herself totally to every ministry she undertook, recognising that it was in service to God.

Several words come to mind when I think of Sr Helen. The first is determination. Once she decided to do something it was going to be done. She never countenanced failure. Twice she broke her leg badly, but each time she came back more resolute than ever. I picture her slowly climbing the hill on Cape Clear island on top of which stood our rented house, a hill so steep the owner was shocked the day we arrived on the island and he saw how old our little group was. But foot by foot, she climbed, never hesitating, til she reached the top. And she would do it all over again the next day. A metaphor for her life.

In her fifties she decided to learn to drive. I don’t know how she passed the test or negotiated Cork city’s crazy roads without incident, or found her way around the country – but she did. Her determination saw her through. She felt safe because her choice of car was based on religious considerations – a Fiat 131. Fiat – confidence or trust in God. 131 reminded her of the Holy Trinity – one in three and three in one.

She taught my sister Margaret how to drive, and after two or three quick lessons, had Margaret drive all the way from St Maries of the Isle to Doon. How both arrived home unscathed can only be attributed to the intervention of the Holy Trinity.

Another word is obsession, or in teen speak, fangirling. She was a fangirl before the term was invented. She would become interested in an individual, a tv show, a celebrity, a politician and be utterly devoted to them. Bobby Ewing, Princess Diana, David Beckham, Ian Paisley, CJ Haughey, Jack Lynch, in the very old days – an eclectic collection. She loved gardening too, and spent hours arranging and rearranging her patch of garden, inveigling the help of Bertie. It was a mystery how she was able to lift rocks so large they were almost heavier than herself.

She was a bit of a gatherer/collector, and her desk and room would be crammed with trinkets and assorted paraphernalia of all kinds. To confirmed minimalists like myself, it was hard on the eyes. The decluttering expert Marie Kondo would have her work cut out with Sr Helen. All her possessions gave her joy.

Another word, of course, is home/family. Though away from Doon for three quarters of a century, she still called it home. She must have been one of the 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, by car or train, until just a few years ago. She was fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could. She doted on her nieces and nephews and her grandnieces and grandnephews, Ryans and Moloneys. She showered us with love, offered us opportunities – my sisters got summer jobs in Cork because of her – helped my mother promote her knitting enterprise.

With her sturdy old camera, she chronicled our growing up, filling albums with photographs neatly captioned. She joined us on family holidays, took us on pilgrimage, filled us with goodies. She loved Vienetta ice cream. She kept a daily diary that recorded all the her thoughts and activities, as well as how often she rang my mother (which was almost daily) and how often she came home (almost every other week). She loved us and we knew it. I think of all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, going door to door, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied. It was a difficult chore to do, month after month, year after year, and I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.

The word I associate with her most of all is faith. Sr Helen gave her life completely to God. Everything she did was rooted in her unwavering faith in God. Never afraid of exploring new avenues to God, she enthusiastically embraced the new religious movements in the church that followed after Vatican II. In the 70s, it was Charismatic Renewal. We spent several Easters at giant Charismatic Renewal meetings with her in Limerick. She never received the gift of tongues but she was loquacious enough in one language. Later it was the neo-Catechumenate. Every week she had prayer meetings to attend, and every year pilgrimages to go on. She didn’t just know about Jesus, she knew Jesus. She was a wonderful ad for the religious life and the Christian faith, a woman of compassion, a sister of Mercy. Knowing that she was in God’s safe hands, she had no fear of death.

Though wonderfully cared for and comfortable in her last years, it wasn’t easy to watch this irrepressible, vivacious, dynamic little woman slowly fade to skin and bone. To see her mute and disengaged, smiling but not really comprehending, living but not alive.

For almost three quarters of a century she served God as a Sister of Mercy in this place. She was a rock of faith, a fount of love, a model for how a religious should live. She conveyed, in the words of Pope Francis, the joy of the Gospel. She lived the Sermon on the Mount.

In his apostolic letter, Gaudete et Exsultate, published last year, Pope Francis examines what it means to be a Christian, what makes a saint. He describes the beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as “the Christian’s identity card.” He says, “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”

We gain true happiness by aligning our wills and our actions with the will of God, as expressed in the beatitudes. In living like this, Pope Francis says, we become the saint next door. That is how I remember Sr Helen, a saint next door, who espoused the beatitudes. Pure in heart, poor in spirit, righteous, meek, merciful, empathetic, a peacemaker.

We commit her soul to God today, relieved that she is free at last from infirmity and the burdens of old age, thrilled that she is now able to enjoy, with her family and loved ones gone before her, the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God. We rejoice and are glad.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

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.