A letter from St Patrick

Some of you might remember that on this day two years ago I opened my inbox to discover an email with a strange address: patrick@heaven.paradise

Some sort of prank, I thought – one of my friends messing with me on St Patrick’s Day. Still, always insufferably curious, I decided to open it, and it seemed authentic. I was astounded – St Patrick had taken the time to write to me for his feast day. St Patrick had written to little old me. So, naturally, I was thrilled to discover another email from St Patrick sitting in my inbox this morning. Considering that I hadn’t any homily prepared for today and that the bishop was coming, I thought I’d read it out for you.

It starts…

Dear Fr Gerard

Just a few lines to say hello on my feast day and praise you for the wonderful job you’re doing in Mt St Alphonsus. Greetings too to your confreres who are a model Christian community, and a credit to the diocese and the church. I must apologise for neglecting to write to you last year, but old age is making me increasingly forgetful.

As I told you before, I’ve always had great time for the Redemptorists, and St Alphonsus is a pal of mine. I like to hang out with the more scholarly saints like him because it makes me look more important. Still, the real reason I’m drawn to Alphonsus is that he founded the Redemptorists especially to minister to the poor goat and sheep herds on the mountains around Amalfi in Italy, and of course, I used to be a sheep herd myself and know what a tough life it is. So I admire his founding vision and hope his successors remain faithful to it today.

I’ve been around for a lot of St Patrick days, but this one is the most challenging since Famine times. Some saints up here accuse me of having a swelled head, even of being conceited, but you can get accustomed to your feast being one of the most popular throughout the whole world, even by people who can’t find Ireland on a map. You can get used to the big parades and green rivers and exuberant parties, and shamrock on people’s breasts, and rousing hymns sung in packed churches. It makes a lot of other saints very jealous. They hate that my feast is the most popular anywhere on earth. After all the hullabaloo about Brexit, St George was hoping he’d get a boost, but no sign of that yet. And, of course, Boris is a Russian saint.

So you can imagine how painful it is for me this year to see the celebration of my feast cancelled throughout the world, to have no parades or big parties, to have everything locked down. That’s bad enough, but to have churches closed in so many countries is especially difficult to accept. Today is a religious feast, first and foremost, and the fact that people can’t come together to celebrate the faith that they share, that has been handed down from generation to generation, is a big blow to me. It brings my mind back to the old penal days, when people gathered surreptitiously around Mass rocks.

So, naturally enough, I’m feeling grumpy this year. St Bridget did her best to cheer me up last night with a season ticket for Anfield. She knows that, like yourself, I’m a great Liverpool fan, but when I look at the impact of the Coronavirus and the state of the church and the world right now, it’s hard to think of football. (Speaking of sport, I can assure you that the Limerick hurlers will reclaim the Liam McCarthy cup this year. I always support the boys in green.)

Anyway, at breakfast this morning, St Bridget and St Columbanus both agreed with me that this crisis presents a real opportunity as well as a challenge.

It reminds us that the church is not a building, but is all of us, that Christ isn’t only in the tabernacle but in the midst of us. That the church is made up of families, little communities of faith, what Vatican II calls the domestic church. Each family watching and participating on the webcam is the domestic church, the church at its most basic and fundamental level.

That fact that we can’t receive the Eucharist is a reminder of how precious the Eucharist is, that it’s something we should never take for granted. Being deprived of it hopefully deepens our desire for it.

It’s also a glimpse of what the Christian community would be like without priests, a situation that already exists in some parts of the world. It reminds us of the need for reform in the church so that the Eucharist can be celebrated.

This Coronavirus reminds us, too, of our fragility and interconnectedness. We never know what’s around the corner; we need each other. It reminds us of the importance of family, of community, of solidarity. It’s great to see evidence of that around the country right now. Covid-19 respects no borders – but love recognises no borders either, and the way we show we are Christians is by our love. I hope this crisis draws peoples and nations closer together rather than tempting them to put up barriers and walls.

There are no parades today, which is a bummer. I love watching those that take place around the country – the colour and excitement and fun, the superabundance of green, people of all ages together – but we can still celebrate today. We Irish are good at enjoying ourselves. We can make today like a mini Christmas Day, a family event, a spiritual celebration. There are no trees and no gifts under them, but love is the gift we can share, our love and faith passed on through the centuries. And we can pray for each other and for care providers who are working so hard to protect us all.

So, Fr Gerard, that’s my wish for you and for the people of Ireland today. Tough times, yes, challenging times, definitely, but at least you have the comfort of knowing that after 30 long years, Liverpool FC will win the Premier League this year and in record fashion too. Sometimes the good guys do win in the end.

Slan anois and best wishes from all of us up here.

Your friend in Christ,

Patrick

PS. I’m sorry if this email reads like a bit of a lecture, but I’m rather worked up today. I know you’ll understand.

P.

Being peaceful in a hate-filled world – Homily for the 7th Sunday of the Year

Perfection is difficult.

Every Friday, the New York Times has a quiz of the week. It’s usually comprised of ten multiple-choice questions about stories that appeared in the paper over the previous seven days. After you finish the test, it tells you what percentage of people got each question right, so that you can compare yourself to others and see how well you performed. I do it every week. Last week I got one answer wrong, which seems good except that 13 per cent of participants got every answer right. They were perfect. I was not.

Perfection is difficult. Not even LFC is perfect this season. Our stats might be better than any other team in the history of Europe’s top five divisions, but we dropped two points in our opening 26 games. Staggering stats, yes, but not perfect.

Today’s Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount – the passage in Matthew where Jesus spells out the moral code that must guide his followers. There’s a big difference between Jesus’s teaching and the old Jewish law. Jesus takes the old law to the next level. He orientates the focus from head to heart, from convention to conviction, from the letter of the law to the intention behind it.

Jewish law was big into external observance. Keep the law, and you were all right. Stick to everything it prescribed, and you couldn’t go wrong. It didn’t matter very much what kind of person you were on the inside – in the heart – so long as you followed the law line by line.

Jesus sees it differently. It’s not just about keeping the letter of the law. It’s about the kind of person you are, how you relate to others, what motivates you. 

We see that contrast played out in today’s Gospel. Jesus says: “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked person no resistance…”

“You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemy…”

You see the pattern: “You have learnt how it was said…. But I say this to you…” The contrast is stark. The old way of living is no longer good enough. We must now live according to the far more challenging new law of Jesus. It’s a call to be our best selves, to be no less than perfect.

This new law of Jesus has vast implications for how we treat each other. Perfection is difficult. We are far from perfect. Think of the tragic story of Caroline Flack, who died last Sunday. The tabloid press harassed her, internet trolls tormented her, reporters hounded her, media circulated all kinds of nasty rumours impugning her. They were having a field day, as they have whenever there’s a juicy story to exploit. Cast into a pit of despair, Caroline Flack saw no way out. They destroyed her.

Think of how polarised and bitter politics and public debate have become at home and abroad – the anger, venom, hatred, sneering contempt that’s directed at individuals and groups. Social media – Twitter, Facebook, messaging apps – are particularly vile and vicious, and even good people get sucked into that world of cruelty and intolerance. It’s a particularly discomfiting environment if you are a woman in the public eye, or if you are gay or trans, or an immigrant. An African footballer walked off a pitch in Portugal last week after suffering disgusting racial abuse throughout a match. He was reduced to tears.

On Wednesday, in Germany, a right-wing nationalist, fuelled by online racist ideology, shot dead nine members of the Kurdish community. An increasing number of children are using racist and sexist language to taunt others in school – in America, much of it because they feel they’ve got permission right from the top.

Now listen to the law of Jesus again: love your enemies; show mercy; extend the hand of friendship; be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. A message of inclusion, equality and respect our hierarchical, patriarchal church would do well to take on board also.

Be perfect, Jesus instructs us, but perfection is difficult, and we are far from it.

There’s a line in today’s second reading that gets to the heart of why we must love and respect and forgive and seek perfection. St Paul reminds the people of Corinth that they are God’s temple. The Jewish people believed that God dwelt in the great temple in Jerusalem. The temple was where you found God; the temple was God’s earthly dwelling place.

But St Paul reminds us that God lives in each of us, that God’s Holy Spirit dwells in each of us, that the Spirit has made her home in us. Each of us is God’s temple – no matter our background, or sexuality, or gender, or ethnicity, or physical appearance, or academic qualifications, or career accomplishments, or sporting prowess, or personal history, or class or rank  – and so each of us is unique, precious, priceless, lovable, invaluable, irreplaceable.

Each of us is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit, and this knowledge must shape how we treat every other person, online and offline, in person and in absentia.

Living the Sermon on the Mount is living the law of love. It is seeing everyone – everyone – as God’s holy temple. It is to seek perfection, not only in the NYT quiz every week but in every sphere, in everything I do. What a different world we would have, and what different debates we would conduct, and how gentle and just society would be, if we were able to live like that.

Perfection is difficult; be perfect.

Trump, evangelicals and the death of democracy

Looking at what is happening in Washington these days, it appears as if the very fabric of US democracy is breaking down. The system of checks and balances the Founding Fathers carefully put in place is creaking badly and urgently needs an overhaul.
It is damaging to democracy that scantily populated states like Vermont and Wyoming should have the same power in the US senate as California and Texas. It is damaging to democracy to have an electoral system in place that gives the highest office in the land to someone who fails to win a majority of the votes. Democracy is about honouring the will of the people – something the electoral college does not. It is damaging to democracy when the three branches of government fail to hold one other in check. When the Senate fails to hold the Executive to account, as is now happening, then the constitution is being flouted, and government is breaking down.
America is in a mess, a country deeply divided. Unscrupulous players are manipulating social media to exacerbate these divisions. The occupant of the White House has no respect for truth or integrity. The party of which he is a member has wilfully colluded in his egregious machinations so that it can stuff the federal courts with right-wing judges who will remain in office for a generation. There is every possibility that should he lose the election in November, neither he nor his supporters will accept the result, leading to an even bigger constitutional crisis. Putin, and every enemy of democracy, is thrilled by what is happening.
The fact that so many Christians have publicly aligned themselves with this president is a scandal. The occupant of the Oval Office has ably demonstrated that he is a naked opportunist with no real commitment to the pro-life cause, as his rhetoric and policies show. He may claim to be anti-abortion, but he is not pro-life. Its identification with this man has irrevocably tarnished Christianity in the US. The Christian should be identified by her concern for the poor, by her support for human and civil rights, by her determination to build bridges and promote reconciliation as well as by her opposition to the death penalty and easy access to guns. If right-wing evangelical Christianity and its ‘prosperity gospel’ is forever tarnished through its association with this president, at least that is one good thing he will have done.