Words spoken at the graduation celebration for the Leaving Cert girls of Laurel Hill Secondary School, Limerick (22 May 2019)

I know you won’t believe it but it’s 40 years since I did the Leaving Cert. Yep, I know. Looking at me, you wouldn’t think it could be any more than 35! Another thing I know is just how short life is. Life flashes by. It’s fleeting. There are four rules for life I’d like to offer you, four lessons I’ve learned as I’ve turned grey, four ways to grow. Each begins with the word ‘love.’

The first is this: Love life. It may seem obvious but live while you’re alive, from the beginning of the miracle to the unwinding of the miracle. Your school-leaving is a moment of opportunity, a time to blossom and grow. Boundless possibilities await. Grasp them. Don’t somnambulate. Don’t be curtailed by glass ceilings or self-doubt. Don’t allow anyone to put limits on what you can do, or where you can go, or who you can be. Research published last week by Cornell University found that our biggest regret in life could be never becoming who you want to be. Our world brims with colour and wonder and potential. See people and the world in all their diversity, individuality, richness. Practice present moment awareness. Be slow to judge. Be curious. Be woke. Grow in wisdom, knowledge, grace. Become the person you’d like to be. Always grow in love of life.    

Second rule: love others. Expand your heart. Tragically, ours is a cut-throat, super competitive world; a Darwinian jungle that champions rugged individualism, survival of the fittest. A ‘me fein’ battlefield with little room for idealism or solidarity or tenderness. One where, in the words of Abba: The winner takes it all.

But to grow is to open ourselves up to others, to love others, all others. It is to look beyond ourselves. The lessons of Brexit, of Trump, of impending climate catastrophe, of narrow nationalism, are that we need each other. We are codependent. It’s what the Gospel advocates – to welcome and include, to be just and tolerant, to give and forgive. It’s what climate activist Greta Thunberg has been doing for the past six months. It’s what top American opinion writer, David Brooks, advises in his new book, currently a New York Times bestseller. He explores what gives life meaning. Ultimately, he says, “We are defined by how we treat the stranger and the least among us.” Even if God doesn’t rank high in our priorities, he says, live by the values of the Sermon on the Mount. Love others. Love indiscriminately. Scatter seeds of love. Always grow in love of others.

Third rule: love yourself. Have an infinite sense of self. Our world is  suffocating and pressure-filled. Preparing for exams, you know all about that. The pressure to be successful, with a rewarding career and a big income, and a perfect family and a nice house, is huge. Social media, with its obsession with looks and money and celebrity, makes self-love even harder. It’s a reason why sales of make up, even for young men, are booming. Image trumps integrity, honesty, authenticity.

And this pressure costs. It can affect our self-esteem. We look at ourselves and think we don’t measure up, that we’re worthless, even that we’re failures. It can have other negative effects too – like self-harm, bulimia, anorexia, addiction, depression, even suicide. We become damaged, dispirited, disappointed.

For years, I struggled with self love. I had persistent acne, thick glasses, a weak left side due to cerebral palsy. I hated mirrors. I remember one day, three other student priests and I got talking to some random young women. They were shocked to discover we were becoming priests, and I’ll never forget what one of them said. Gesturing toward my three friends, she said, “You don’t look like apprentice priests,” then turning to me, she said, “but you look like one.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment. What she was saying was I was so unattractive that priesthood was all I was fit for.   

The fact is: each of us, every single one of us, is unique, irreplaceable, priceless, precious. The bible tells us God created each of us in God’s own image and likeness. God shaped us after God’s self. We reflect God, and God is perfect. God never creates failures. God, and our families, wants us to see ourselves as God sees us.

So, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether you get 600 points in the Leaving or 100; it doesn’t really matter whether you attend Oxbridge or never get to college; it doesn’t really matter whether you make the Irish tag rugby team or the Irish hockey team or are allergic to sport; it doesn’t really matter whether you become a social media influencer with a million followers or are followed by a few Russian bots; it doesn’t really matter whether you are 200 pounds or 100, or a size 8 or a size 18, or are ambidextrous or have one good hand like me – the only thing that matters is that you see yourself the way God sees you and love yourself the way God loves you.

Be your authentic self. Authentic self-love is not selfish or narcissistic; it is never obsessive or jealous. It’s acknowledging the beauty and gifts you have in abundance, celebrating them, nurturing them, using them well. Love yourself. Always grow in love of you.

Final rule: love God. Religion in Ireland is going through a hard time. Many don’t bother with the church. Many are angry with it. Understandably so. But I say: love God. Don’t let go of God. Be open to the transcendent, because you will need God.

Life is difficult. No one escapes setbacks. Everyone hurts sometime. But remember, even though friends and classmates may let you down, God won’t let you down; even though individuals may break your heart, God will never break your heart; even though the church may disappoint you, God will never disappoint you. Always remember that God is with you – in the good times and the bad, the happy and the sad. Even though we may abandon God, God never abandons us. The seed of faith has been planted in you, nourished by your family and school. Cultivate that seed. Let it burrow deep in you. Water it. Always grow in love of God.

Love life; love others; love yourself; love God – four rules for life, four pathways to growth. They can be summed up in five wise words written long age by St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. He encourages them to live a life of love. Easy to remember. Three little ‘l’s. Live a life of love. Live a life of love – and you will grow in wisdom, fulfilment, peace. Live a life of love, and you will live a life that’s full, and you will be happy.

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.

Remembering the 96 – words I delivered at a memorial service for the fallen of Hillsborough

Today I have been weeping, but not just because of the pain in my back. I have been weeping for the 96 Liverpool fans whose lives were taken from them unlawfully 27 years ago, and who were finally declared innocent only today. I have been weeping for their families too, who suffered so much but never gave up, and for all who have had to fight to have their voices heard.

Two years ago, I was privileged to preach at a memorial Mass for those 96 men and women, boys and girls, parents and children, who perished 25 years earlier at Hillsborough. These are the words I spoke that night to a church-full of fellow Liverpool fans in south Dublin, all clad in our famous red strip. (I was wearing my Luis Suarez autographed shirt under my vestments).

It’s something we have all experienced. The thrill of going to a match – the joy of anticipation as the days and the hours count down till kick off; the excitement of getting ready, of putting on the scarf or jersey that you wear with bursting pride; the buzz as you and thousands of soul mates approach the stadium – the banter, the colour, the singing, the noise, the little tingling in the tummy as the teams take their place.

And so it was on Saturday, April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough in Sheffield as Liverpool prepared to take on Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi final – another step on what we expected would be an almost routine League and Cup double for our heroes.

Thousands of Liverpool fans had travelled that day to support their team as they had done so often in the past. Fans young and old and in between; native Scousers as well as wannabe Scousers from towns and villages far from Anfield Road; seasoned supporters who had attended games too numerous to count as well as first-timers and those who only got to the occasional game.

It was going to be another great day. And luckily for those of us who weren’t able to go, the game was on the telly. We would be able to see it live.

Liverpool supporters were allocated the Leppings Lane stand. And, well, we know what happened as 3 o’clock approached. Twenty-threedecrepit, constantly jamming turnstiles had to cope with nearly 25,000 eager fans. Inadequate stewarding, disastrous policing and appalling crowd management meant that, as the numbers swelled outside, a gate was ordered opened, allowing fans into two enclosures that were already full.

Too many people squeezing into too small a space. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier broke, and fans began to fall on top of each other. Those poor innocent, excited fans at the front – those who had taken up position early so as to be close to their heroes or who had been carried to the front by the momentum of the crowds – were trapped, the breath sucked out of them.

I was watching the game at home that day, and it took some time for the commentators and officials and for any of us to realize that something terrible was happening. And then as people began to scramble desperately, and fans were lifted by fellow supporters onto the stand overhead and others climbed over side fences onto the pitch side, and as Bruce Grobbelaar and other players tried to draw attention to what was unfolding, the game was stopped.

It was barely seven minutes after three. Seven minutes for 96 innocent people to be killed; for over 90 families to lose loved ones; for hundreds to be injured and traumatized; for thousands to be shattered, bewildered, devastated and broken.

None of us who were alive that day will ever forget it. I will never forget the sight of broken and battered bodies being ferried frantically across the pitch on make-shift stretchers; I will never forget the look of horror and disbelief on the faces of those desperately trying to help or who stood frozen in shock; or the picture of that one ambulance entering the ground far too late while others stood outside.

And then as the day went on and minutes turned to hours, hearing the tally of the dead rise relentlessly. Twenty dead, 35, 50, 70, 85, 95. Could it really be 95? (later 96 after the death of Tony Bland in 1993). How could that be possible? They were just ordinary football fans, after all. All they had done was go out to support the club they loved, and now they were dead. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old – dead. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who perished on that dreadful day.

Trevor and Jenny Hicks were at the game with their daughters, 19-year-old Sarah and 15-year-old Vicky. The parents had stand tickets; the girls were at the Leppings Lane end.

“On a beautiful day,” Jenny Hicks recalls, “we left home in the morning for a lovely day of football with our daughters. We came back to the house at about two o’clock the following morning without the girls.”

Their beautiful girls, their only two children, gone.

Eddie Spearrit took his 14-year-old son Adam to the game. It was to be Adam’s first ever semi-final. Like Eddie, Adam loved football. He was a good player and a keen Liverpool fan. Both had tickets for the Leppings Lane end.

Adam was killed, and Eddie still hasn’t a clue what happened to him between losing consciousness at 3pm and being admitted to hospital at 5pm.

And so it goes … 96 lives lost; so many individuals and families broken beyond repair.

It could have been any of us.

But if what happened on April 15, 1989, wasn’t devastating enough, what followed was utterly scandalous. The systematic conspiracy to blame the fans, and so cover up for the abject failure of the authorities, rubbed salt into gaping wounds, and compounded the suffering of the bereaved. For the families, it meant not just grief suffered but pain inflicted with cold calculation; not just devastation experienced but a city cruelly maligned; not just heartbreak felt but justice deliberately denied.

Thank God, at last, at last, after all these years, after botched judicial inquiries and malicious reports and altered witness statements and tabloid lies and an establishment that displayed callous contempt towards a club and its people, justice is dawning for the 96.

What has been extraordinary over the past quarter century has been the dignity of the families. Through grief and mourning, in the face of media indifference, even as their loved ones were called beasts and their reputations besmirched, they held their heads high, for they knew that right was on their side.

What has been extraordinary has been their perseverence. People like the late, brave Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin, would not give up. They kept campaigning and lobbying and and insisting and demanding that the truth be told. The powers that be hoped that eventually they would fall silent, that their campaign would grow tired, that with the passage of the years people would lose interest, but the families would not be denied. They could not be denied, and thank God, their perseverence has paid off. They haven’t been denied.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel, in its report published on that great day in September 2012, concluded what we knew all along – that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster. Justice is dawning, and the new inquest now taking place, and the prosecutions soon to come, will be their vindication.

And so, 25 long years after that dark and dismal day, we remember our 96 lost. We celebrate their lives, so cruelly cut short, and we commend them to our God who is just and honest and loving.

Last Sunday, the hairs stood on the back of my head as our fans sang our anthem and observed the minute’s silence with impeccable intensity. It was impossible not to shed a tear – for the 96 we lost, who are our family, for the families of the 96 and their long years of struggle; and for the club in whose cause they died, and which has stood shoulder to shoulder with its family in their suffering and their campaign for justice. The call-cry of our anthem has never rung as loud or as true as it did last Sunday, as it does on this anniversary, as it will hopefully in less than four weeks time when we win the Premiership in what would be the perfect fitting tribute to the 96, and as it will every time we remember and commemorate our fallen dead:

At the end of a storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone,

You’ll never, ever walk alone.