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.

Words delivered at the funeral of my aunt, Mary Kelly (Oct 20, 2016)

As we know, a bitter presidential election campaign is slowing drawing to a close in the United States. It has had many low points, and few high points. But there is a statement Michelle Obama has made a couple of times now that has resonated with many people, and that I thought of too, as I looked back on the life of my aunt, Mary Kelly. Speaking of her opponents, Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.”

Go high…

That is what Aunty Mary did all her life, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense – go high. She went high. She always went high.

She was born and bred on high ground in the hill country of Croughmarka almost 93 years ago. She crossed those hills every day to go to school. She met and fell in love with and married a young man called Paddy, also born and bred on high ground in the same hill country. They spent most of their wedded lives together living on high ground, in a house nestled in the hills of Commonaline, rearing a family in often challenging conditions, when farming was tough, and frugality a necessity, and the weather not always hospitable. But being high up in the hills didn’t matter to Mary. She loved the mountains and she loved the outdoors.

Towns, cities, exotic foreign destinations, overseas travel – none of these held the slightest attraction for her. It was on the high ground – enjoying its grace-filled natural beauty, imbibing its unspoilt, invigorating fresh air, feeling the mountain dew beneath her feet, living in tune with the rhythm of the seasons – it was in Commonaline where she felt at home and happy and fully alive.

Go high. Aunty Mary went high.

But her going high wasn’t just a geographical thing, a matter of physical location. Aunty Mary went high in so many other ways too, the ways that define and describe one’s character, the essence of who a person truly is.

She had a high moral compass – a just woman who lived by the simple truth and did not tolerate wrongdoing; values she inculcated in her children and grandchildren.

She had a highly developed work ethic and sense of responsibility. Whether outside or inside the house, she worked long hours for long years for as long as she could, no cribbing about it. For her, it was simply doing her duty.

She had high standards of cleanliness – the yards and sheds always immaculate, her house spotless, too. One marvelled at how it could be done and how she did it.

She had a high sense of respect for others, was slow to speak ill of anyone, and was always warm in her welcome. She had a knack for making everyone feel special. Her constant smile reflected that. The way those in the nursing home loved her confirmed it.

She had an extraordinarily high capacity to love. She loved Paddy in a way that words cannot capture. A long, long love stretching back almost all their lives, broken only by his passing in 2005. His unexpected death was the beginning of her end. She loved her children and grandchildren in the same lavish, selfless way. The bond she had with them and they had with ‘granny’ was a thing of rare, high beauty. She was so proud of them. The way that Anne loved and cared for her deserves special mention.

It was easy especially to witness those love bonds these past few days as she grew smaller in her bed and her breathing grew shallow and the end drew near. The love, the togetherness, the unity, the sadness were all on display and yet also a profound sense of gratitude for having had this woman among us for so long, for being lucky enough to know her and be part of her family. I found my encounters with her to be almost sacramental – an audience with a gentle, simple, smiling woman who radiated something of the warmth and tenderness of God.

And, of course, that was no surprise, because she was a woman of faith. Her love of and trust in God was high. Her faith nourished her; strengthened her; it was what sustained her through the setbacks that came her way. Dying didn’t faze Aunty Mary. Just as in life she always went high, so also when she was faced with the prospect of death.

There are many today who believe that death is the end, period. That once you breathe your last, you’re gone forever, done and dusted. The best you can hope for is to leave behind some sort of positive legacy and happy memories, and a big gap in loved ones’ lives.

For us Christians, it is different. We know that death is a door, not a wall. Death isn’t an exit to oblivion, a sorrowful slide into nothingness. It is, rather, the threshold to a new, transformed life with God forever. On Monday morning, at 6.50am, Aunty Mary crossed that threshold from life to death, from life to life. Her earthly body is empty of life now; her strong heart is quiet; her big smile has given way; all we are left with are her mortal remains. But having crossed that threshold on Monday morning, she did not journey from life to death; from a breathing, smiling, pulsating, warm, wonderful human being, a granny to everyone, into some cold, dank abyss of darkness and destruction, she passed in that moment from this life to a completely new glorified life, life with God forever.

The second reading from St Paul, read to us by Noel, contains one of the most reassuring statements in all of scripture. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love we share in Christ Jesus. “For I am sure of this,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Mary, our beloved one, knew and subscribed to that good news all her life. Now, reunited with Paddy and all she loved and lost, nothing separates her from the warm embrace of Jesus, her saviour. In our liturgy today, as in every liturgy, we are reminded that in Christ Jesus, we remain united with those who have died. Mary is gone from us but not forever. She is separated from us, but not for good. In this knowledge, we find our solace, our inspiration, our consolation, our hope.

And so we say our farewells. We are left with our tears and our sadness but, even more, we are comforted with countless happy memories and with a joyous sense of gratitude that we could not have asked for a more wonderful wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great granny, aunt, cousin, neighbour or friend – a woman was who a bastion of common sense, a beacon of light, a rock of faith, a fountain of love, a beautiful, caring, smiling woman who always, always, always went high.

A God deaf to my appeals

I have written countless Gospel commentaries and preached countless homilies over the years and I have always done my best to offer them as Good News. Challenging, consoling, uplifting words.

But I am coming up short now.

Tomorrow’s readings are all about perseverance in prayer. Keep on knocking on the door, and eventually God will answer. Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives, the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will have the door opened to them.

Except it’s not the case.

I have asked and I have sought and I have knocked – and there has been no response from on high. Many others have asked and sought and knocked on my behalf too – and have found only silence. Candles burning to the quick, prayers unheeded, the door left firmly closed. After two years of hell, my pain is more intense and more deeply rooted than ever. My despair beyond despair.

In my old pre-pain, preaching days, I would have found ways to explain or make sense of this silence from beyond. God will answer in God’s own good time, God knows what’s best for us, God’s ways are not our ways. 

Maybe that’s true, except that’s not what tomorrow’s readings promise. All I know from long, painful experience is that the God to whom I have dedicated my life has been dead to my appeals, and, whatever about miserable me, God has been dead to the appeals of my saintly mother and my aunts and of so many, many others.

All I am left with are tears. I’m not even sure that it’s worth my while screaming with the psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” for all I seem to encounter is the sound of silence.

What I said at my dad’s funeral six months ago

It is six months today since my father died. Though time does heal the pain, it is still so difficult to believe that he is gone for good. I will never forget the six am call from the hospital summoning us all to his bedside to say goodbye.

He had been in hospital for a week with a chest infection, but we had no idea that he was never going to come home again. That phone call left me dazed and confused. It had only been a few days since my third major back surgery and I hadn’t been able to visit him in hospital. Now I was struggling to put on my shoes and socks as I tried to process the contents of the phone call. He had clearly deteriorated overnight, and I had never even been to see him.

When I got to the high dependency unit, having been picked up by my brother, most of the immediate family was already there – my mother, herself seriously unwell, my sisters and their husbands, my brothers and their wives, and several of the grandchildren. My father was propped up on the bed, an ugly breathing mask obscuring most of his face, deeply unconscious.

I held his warm hand while others held other parts of him, and we told him how much we loved him and what a wonderful husband and father and grandfather he was, and that everyone was here with him now and that all would be well. And we prayed as he received the last rites.

He lived for just under half an hour after his breathing mask was removed. He shuddered a little at first and then gasped for air, his puckered lips trying desperately to suck in as much as he could. We watched and cried and spoke to him and prayed, hoping his last agony would pass quickly and yet not wanting him to go, hoping and pleading for some kind of miracle.

And then, at about 9.40am, he breathed his last. We watched, waiting, hoping he might pick up again, hoping he might breathe once more, but he had gone from us. His battle had ended, he had finished the race. He had just turned 84.

There’s not a day when we do not think and talk about him – but it’s mostly happy talk and happy memories. For he was a good and gentle and honest and upright man, and we are so glad to have had him for so long as husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. He enjoyed life and was a happy man who showed love and knew he was loved.

He adored sunshine and would be sitting outside these days soaking in as much sun as my mother would allow. We remember him in a special way on his sixth month anniversary and pray that he is now enjoying the fruits of a live well lived.

These are the words I spoke at his funeral on December 4, 2015.

My father always had a very specific criterion by which to measure the success or otherwise of a funeral. He did not measure it on the size of the congregation; he didn’t judge it on the length or depth or wisdom of the homily; he didn’t assess it on the number of mass cards or floral wreaths placed around the coffin; nor was he swayed by the beauty of the singing or the grandeur of the liturgy or the tears that were shed or even by how good the meal was afterwards – and he loved his food. The one criterion that mattered, the only criterion that counted, was the number of priests present. The bigger the number the more successful the funeral. I think he would have judged this to be a good funeral.

My father was no intellectual, and nor did he pretend to be. Like so many others of his generation, he didn’t finish secondary school. He had, however, a real wisdom, acquired not from the study of books, or from years in the classroom, or from an intellectual curiosity, but rather something innate, and richer still, rooted in the rugged turf of Croughmarka where he drew his first breath just over 84 years ago. He knew the important things, the things that mattered, the importance of family and faith and fidelity and principle. He didn’t even have to think about them. He was moral, upright, responsible, decent, humble, loving, simple and good. And these most important qualities came naturally to him.

He spent more than the first quarter of his life in the hill country of Croughmarka, on the family farm, but then in his late twenties he had one very, very lucky break – he met my mother. They were wed in 1960.

She was his fortress, his shield, his solid foundation, his rock of safety and support without whom he would not have lasted so long or so happily. He used to boast that they never had a row – and they didn’t. It helped, of course, that he knew my mother was the boss. They had a relationship that was the essence of mutuality, one of total interdependency. He loved her and she loved him; he would do anything for her and she would do anything for him. Unconditional love.

My father was sensitive. A big softie. He cried easily, and wasn’t ashamed to show it.

He was tactile. He liked to express affection, and wasn’t afraid to demonstrate it. He loved to reach out to touch people, and to hold long to your hand with his warm, calloused hands, and to give big, tender bear hugs. Every time my mother visited him in hospital this past week he tried to pull her as close to him as he could. He let those he loved know that he loved them.

He was hard-working. For as long as he was able, he put in long hours, from sunrise until nightfall. Industriousness never frightened him – he thrived on it.

He was of the land and loved it. Farming was his vocation. He lived in sync with the rhythm of the seasons, the rise and fall of nature. The soil was elemental to him.

He was progressive. He was one of the first farmers in our part of the country to remove ditches and dykes and install paddocks, to build a state of the art milking parlour, and to replace churns with a bulk tank. So forward-looking was he that in 1972 the Irish Farmers’ Journal devoted a two-page feature to him entitled ‘This young Limerick farmer has a bright future.’

He was an extrovert. He liked people and loved talking. A trip to the village always took longer than it should for he always met people he had to talk to. His severe deafness of recent years was a very big burden because it meant he could no longer interact with people the way he wanted.

He was clean living. He was a Pioneer for almost 60 years, and, fearing a very quick divorce early in his marriage, he gave up cigarettes. He didn’t gamble, and he didn’t waste money. He lived a good and simple life.

He was straight-talking. If you put on weight, he’d let you know. If you got a new spot on your face, he’d be sure to point it out. But always without malice. Forthright and honest were just the way he was.

He enjoyed sport, especially hurling. One of his biggest burdens was living in a house of Limerick supporters. He could never understand why we could not support Tipperary under any circumstances while he was generous and magnanimous enough to support Limerick, when they weren’t playing Tipp. Late in life, he developed a mild interest in the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club, because of my passion for the club. But hurling was always number one.

The highlight of his year for many years was going to the All-Ireland hurling final. It didn’t matter who was playing – it was his only day off in the year, and my poor mother was saddled with the milking and the cows in his absence.

He was an old-time Catholic. He wasn’t a traditional Catholic in an ideological sense or out of a nostalgia for the past, or fear of the future, but out of a simple faith. His religion was deep rooted, but it wasn’t unquestioning. Several times in recent years, when my mother would suggest the rosary, he would protest, thinking of the setbacks that had befallen the wider family and himself, and of the weariness of the world, and say ‘what’s the point.’ But he would take out his beads and pray. The next day he would be the one to suggest the rosary. He said his prayers every day of his life.

In recent years, he lost his hearing; then his walk, then his balance, then his independence. The one thing he didn’t lose was his appetite. And nor, thankfully, his head. He had a clear mind and a firm grasp of things right to the end.

And it was when he had lost those things that family and love took on even greater significance for him. For it was my mother who fed him and looked after his medication and helped him go to the bathroom; and it was his grandchildren who tenderly helped him get ready for bed every night; the man who had become like a child; the children caring for the man. We are comforted that he never had to go to a nursing home; that he was able to stay at home with his loved ones, almost to his last, laboured breath.

To sum him up, my father was:

Essence of decency

Paragon of virtue

Exemplar of faith

Model of love

He loved us and we loved him. He – and we – were lucky. The world was enhanced by his presence, and it – and we – are diminished by his passing.

We are sustained by our memories, but, even more, we are sustained by our hope in the resurrection. That is our Advent hope. That is our steadfast belief. We know we will meet him again one bright, shiny, day, unhandicapped by age or pain or disability or the wear of the years.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.