Just how humble are you? Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

I’m a natural backbencher. I’m shy around people I don’t know well. I don’t mix easily. I prefer the background.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t like doing weddings, unless they are of family or close friends. The church part is ok, but the hotel part – the eating and dancing part – I find taxing. When it comes to mealtime, I try to sit at an inconspicuous  table, but almost invariably I am told to sit at the top table. Usually, I end up at the end of the table, with nobody on one side of me and the deaf granny of the bride on the other. After a few minutes, the conversation runs dry, and I sit there uncomfortably waiting for the meal to end. I prefer the backbenches.

Today’s readings stress the importance of being humble. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, the author advises that “the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. There is no cure for the proud person’s malady,” the author says, “since an evil growth has taken root in him.”

In the Gospel, Jesus advises that if you’re a guest at a party, go to the lowest place and sit there, so that when your host arrives, you may be told to move higher. Jesus also proposes that when you hold a party, don’t invite the rich and influential, who can pay you back, but rather the poor and the outcast.

His advice sounds like a recipe for social suicide, but the point Jesus makes is clear: The Christian isn’t concerned with image or status or power or social standing but with service of others. Humble service of God and neighbour is what counts.

Jesus, the servant king, is the best example of humility. Jesus identified with the least of all. He chose the sick over the healthy, the weak over the powerful; the poor over the rich, sinners over the pious. He washed his disciples’ feet. He mixed with outcasts. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Hr is our model. We imitate Jesus by living humble lives.

Today’s social media world, with its focus on beauty and bling, makes it harder than ever to live humbly. Our competitive environment promotes individualism, the survival of the fittest, vanity, vaulting ambition. To get on in life, you must be aggressive, driven, obsessive. To succeed, you must be selfish, self-centred, ruthless.

Humility is different. Humility is the opposite of Me First individualism. It’s the ability to stand in the other’s shoes; to consider experiences that are not our own. It is revolving our actions around others rather than ourselves. It is being least, being last, being servant, being little, being insignificant.

How, then, must we be humble? Three ways, I suggest. 

Humility is self-awareness, acknowledging our smallness before God. Despite our best efforts, we sin all the time. No matter what our role or rank in society or church, we sin all the time. We know we’re not perfect. And so the humble person never has a big head. The humble person is without ego or vanity or pride. The humble person doesn’t rush to judge. The humble do not look down on anyone based on race, sexuality, gender, religion. They never discriminate against, bully, exclude. How can we look down on another when we know how imperfect we are?

We acknowledge our littleness before God at Holy Communion when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy…” I am not worthy that you should come into my house. I am not worthy of being in your presence. I don’t deserve you. Humility is honest self-awareness writ large.

Humility is selflessness. Pope Benedict caused a sensation six years ago when he announced he was resigning. For age and health reasons, he was stepping down. Popes didn’t do that. No pope had done it in over 600 years. Few had ever done so willingly. Benedict did. He voluntarily relinquished the top job in the church. He renounced power, and the perks, privileges and pomp that accompany it.

What he did was rare because people are not inclined to give up office or status, if they can help it. We want to hold onto what we have attained for as long as we can. The world is full of people desperately scrambling for the top. Humility is the opposite of that. It’s not self-seeking, not lording it over anybody, but placing ourselves at the service of the other, any other, all others. Washing feet. Humility is selflessness writ large.

Humility is simplicity of life. It’s an attitude Francis has trademarked since becoming pope – his refusal to live in the papal apartments or use a limousine. His insistence on wearing the same black shoes. His use of ordinary language.

Our world is greedy and grasping. It brainhacks us to believe we need to look young and perfect, never to be content with how we look. It encourages reckless narcissism; more bling; persuades us we can never have enough. We always need more to provide that extra security, extra comfort – because we’re worth it.

Humility is being satisfied with enough. It’s knowing that our biggest treasure, our ultimate security, is God. Always wanting more gets in the way of putting God first. Simplicity of life is also a way of cherishing the earth, which is facing imminent catastrophe, and of showing solidarity with the poor, who through others’ greed are denied life’s basic comforts. Humility is simplicity of life writ large.

Today’s readings aren’t about shunning the limelight, or being invisible, or staying silent. They’re a summons to a selfless, wholesome way of living that imitates Jesus, the servant king.

Advertisements

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.

Plain speaking – homily for 7th Sunday of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gay clergy can hardly be blamed for abuse of nuns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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