Homily delivered at the funeral Mass of Sr Anthony Moloney (Feb 21, 2017)

The sun had just broken through the clouds on Saturday afternoon last when Sr Anthony breathed her last. It was a warm, gentle sky and I couldn’t help thinking that it was only right because that servant of God had lived a gentle, beautiful life and God was now smiling on her, beckoning her home. Her many years on this earth were a long ray of sunshine that illumined the lives of the countless people she touched.
Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.
There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Ballyvalode, Oola, Co. Limerick in 1923, just as the civil war was coming to an end. She joined the Presentation Sisters in Midleton, Co. Cork in June 1945, just a couple of weeks after the Allied victory in Europe, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and autonomous convent units to greater freedom and unification of Presentation convents into provinces, in which role she played a major part. Two years ago she celebrated her platinum jubilee of profession – 70 years as a Presentation Sister, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1775. An extraordinary achievement.
Her mother, Bridget, fell just short of hitting the centenary mark. She was almost 98 when she died. Sr Anthony didn’t quite make it that far, but she made a good fist of it. She was in her 94th year when she died. And she was of sound mind and memory right until the end. For that we thank God.
Sr Anthony was intimately acquainted with adversity. Indeed, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, she too had many swords that pierced her soul. Her father, Michael, died when she was just four years old. He died in 1927 – 90 years ago. Hard to imagine. He left behind a wife and young family and a farm to manage. Of Sr Anthony’s nine siblings, five died in infancy. In fact, one of them was dying on the very day his father died, and baby, Michael, who was born just six weeks after his father’s death, himself died at just two and a half.
Her four siblings who grew to adulthood all died long before her. Her sister, Jude, who remained at home, was always in poor health and was never strong. Her brothers, Denis, Patrick and James, all died long before their time. One wondered how Anthony could deal with all this, how she could process it, how it didn’t leave her diminished or cynical or broken – but Sr Anthony was a strong woman, a resolute woman, and a woman of great faith. Even in the darkest of times she trusted in God and felt God’s comforting presence. Sr Anthony knew adversity, but adversity did not break her.
I often think of the relationship Anthony had with her mother, Bridget. It wasn’t merely the typical mother/daughter relationship you’d expect between two loving, good women. It was a relationship made immeasurably closer by the common suffering they shared throughout their long lives and the heartbreak they endured. Sr Anthony was a wonderful support to her mother.
Sr Anthony had great devotion to the founder of the Presentation Sisters, Nano Nagle. She never missed an opportunity to promote Nano’s cause and make her better known. Some years ago a cousin of mine suffered from severe headaches for which she could get no relief. When Sr Anthony heard about it, she sent her material about Nano and a prayer to say. My cousin’s pain eased after a while, and Anthony was thrilled. She wanted my cousin to give a detailed account of her cure so that it could be introduced as evidence in promotion of Nano’s cause. Sr Anthony’s work in Ballygriffin and here in the South Pres. to protect and promote the heritage of Nano Nagle was exceptional. It is fitting that today she will share the same burial ground as Nano. They will rest together in that holy place, enjoying the rewards of the heavenly kingdom.
Sr Anthony was a secondary teacher, and an excellent one, it is said. She was a teacher of Commerce, Irish and Religion, and taught in Midleton, Listowel, Tralee and the South Pres. during the times she lived in each of these places. After retirement, she did social work here in the parish, and was strongly associated with the Legion of Mary.
But Sr Anthony was more than a teacher; she was a leader and a visionary. In 1966, at age 43, she became superior or local leader of the convent in Midleton. 1966 was a difficult and challenging time for leaders of religious orders throughout the world. It was just after Vatican II, and tumultuous changes were beginning to take place in religious life. The old ways were going out and there was a lot of uncertainty around. Sr Anthony had the task of guiding her community through this challenging time.
At this time, too, efforts began to bring the different convents of the Presentation Sisters closer together. Up to that point, each convent was an independent unit and sisters in one convent probably wouldn’t know their counterparts in other convents in the area. Now, there was encouragement from on high to bring about a closer union of Presentation convents. Sr Anthony was at the forefront of the drive and, in 1971, after five convents came together to form the Cloyne Diocesan Amalgamation, she was elected their leader. During her time as leader she pushed hard towards forming a larger union.
In 1972, Sr Anthony set the ball rolling towards the acquisition of Ballygriffin, near Mallow, Co. Cork, birthplace of Nano Nagle by sending a letter to all Presentation convents worldwide. Her suggestion was well received, but the project needed careful nurturing. Finally, on April 26, 1974, representatives of the Presentation Order from all over Ireland and the UK gathered at Ballygriffin for the formal taking possession of Nano’s birthplace by the Presentation Sisters… and Sr Anthony was presented with a symbolic key by the former owners of the land. Today the Ballygriffin Centre is visited by sisters from all over the world, and it provides programmes in Spirituality, Ecology and other areas that are of benefit to people from the locality and further afield. The Ballygriffin Centre is a monument to Sr Anthony’s leadership and vision.
Because she held leadership positions in the Presentation Order, Sr Anthony for some years was known as Mother Anthony. When I first got to know her, it was as Mother Anthony. I was impressed. I had four aunts who were nuns and none of these was called Mother, so I figured that Anthony must be a very important woman.
Titles such as Mother were dropped years ago, and Mother Anthony went back to simple Sr Anthony again, but I still think there was something special about being called Mother. It suggests care, protection, warmth, love, friendship, wisdom, understanding, patience, forbearance. And Sr Anthony had all of these qualities. She was a mother to those in the communities where she lived and served, she was a mother to her mother for many years, and she was a mother to her big, extended family of nephews and nieces, grand nephews and grand nieces, and great grand nephews and great grandnieces, all of whom she loved very much.
She was proud of her family and its heritage – the Moloneys and Traceys from the hill country around Doon, Co. Limerick. She was especially proud of her granduncle, Fr Patrick Moloney, a Vincentian priest, who was one of the first Irish priests in China. She collected newspaper and magazine cuttings about him, and also had possession of his diary, which she gave me several years ago.
She was proud, too, of her aunt, Mother St Anne Moloney, who was a Presentation Sister in Midleton. It was following her example that Sr Anthony decided to enter in Midleton. She took pride in all her family and their achievements and kept close tabs on all of them. She even kept an eye on me. She was afraid my writings might get me in trouble with the Vatican and told me to be more careful. But I didn’t listen, and she was right – I did end up in trouble with the Vatican. With her passing, the Moloney family loses a titan, the last of her great generation.
In the Gospel I just read, Jesus assures us that if our faith is built on rock it can withstand anything, even the harshest storm. Sr Anthony was a rock of faith, and a rock of solace and stability and common sense and kindness to so many people – in Midleton, Listowel, Tralee, Ballygriffin, in the South Pres, and in this parish, and to her family and friends in Oola, Doon, Dublin and beyond. She bravely battled the many storms that erupted throughout her long life, and her faith was her strength, her rock, her shield. We thank God for her and it.
Sr Anthony’s religious vocation was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Presentation. She had a deeply rooted prayer life and, according to the sisters in Midleton, never lost her first fervour. She had the same zeal, same enthusiasm, same commitment at the end of her life as she had at the beginning. Indeed, she was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple woman, without airs or issues or graces, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.
She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Sr Anthony to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. Some of the convents where she lived are gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Sr Anthony, nor will the Irish church. I am reminded of the words from Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til’ it’s gone…”
But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister and cousin and friend, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her warm, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.

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Medical update – Up and running for SCS surgery

For the first time in six months I travelled to the capital yesterday to attend an ‘education day’ in preparation for my spinal cord stimulator (SCS) surgery. The event took place in a city centre hotel and was facilitated by a leading member of the pain intervention team at the hospital I attend.

Seven prospective recipients of the SCS surgery and their companions attended. We were required to bring a companion so that he/she would know about the procedure and be there to offer support afterwards.

It wasn’t difficult to identify the chronic pain sufferers in the room. All one had to do was look at their faces.

I had already researched all about SCS surgery but I found the day to be both educational and entertaining. It was clear that our facilitator knows her stuff. She told us that more than 500 people in Ireland have had the surgery to date, with a success rate of more than 85 percent. Success is defined as experiencing a decline in pain levels of 50 percent or more. Some patients have done much better than that, even becoming entirely pain-free, while a few have experienced little or no relief from the procedure. They don’t know why it works for some and not for others.

Given the delicate and invasive nature of SCS surgery, there is always a trial period of about two weeks to test whether it will work for the patient or not. If it is making a positive difference, then the device will be implanted permanently.

The surgery requires that incisions are made in the upper and lower back so that leads can be placed along the spinal canal and then to the battery device itself, which is usually placed in one of the buttocks. You can turn the device on or off, or up and down, by using a remote control gadget similar to a TV remote. The device is programmed while the patient is in hospital, and can be modified remotely by the pain management team afterwards, if required.

The recovery period is lengthy. The patient is asked to be as still as possible for three to four months to give the leads a chance to take root solidly in the proper place along the spine. Sudden movement can cause the leads to move out of position, which would then require more surgery to return them to their proper spot. Nobody wants to have to go through that.

Then we were given the list of ‘Don’ts.’ Don’t bend, don’t lift, don’t pull, don’t twist, don’t stretch, don’t push; don’t make any sudden movement that might dislodge the leads. And all of this for three months. Don’t drive for four months. Don’t go back to heavy work for up to six months. Healing and recovery require that we do as little as possible for the remainder of the year, so that by the end of it, hopefully, we can live full lives again.

Almost as discommoding as these instructions was the news that we can’t take a shower for about two weeks after the procedure or until such time as the stitches are removed. Given the nature of the surgery, there is a high risk of infection if the wounds aren’t cared for properly. As the instructor put it, nobody ever died due to the lack of a shower for a couple of weeks, but lots of people have died as a result of serious infection.

Though the instructor didn’t downplay the risk of failure, she was keen to tell us about success stories, and there are plenty of them. She also promised that, if we wanted, she could put us in touch with a patient who had a similar pain history to our own and had successful SCS surgery, who could function as a friend and support along the way. An excellent idea.

All that remains now is to be given a date when to show up at the hospital for the two-week trial period. That could happen any time within the next few weeks.

I journeyed back to Limerick last night (after an hour-long diversion at Portlaoise had added to an already very long day) feeling optimistic that the SCS will ease my pain enough to allow me to function properly again. And that would be a delight.


 

Ten wishes for the church in 2017

  1. That the church will examine any structures, laws or traditions which hinder rather than facilitate its mission to proclaim the Good News. Our world today needs to hear the Gospel message as urgently as at any time in the last 2,000 years. Nothing man-made should be allowed to stand in the way of this overriding task.
  2. That the number of dioceses will be cut from 26 to at least13. There is absolutely no need for 26 dioceses in a country of our size with our population. This won’t happen overnight, but cutting the number of dioceses would reduce administration (and the number of bishops), and make for a more efficient church.
  3. That organisers of the World Meeting of Families will make every effort to ensure that the experience of families of all kinds will be factored into the celebration.
  4. That the church will be experienced as truly the People of God. The church teaches that it is made up of all the baptized, but many ordinary Catholics do not experience this to be the case. They see it rather as an elite club for celibate male clerics only, and who want to preserve the medieval structures of the institution at all costs.
  5. That the church will recognize and use the gifts and talents of women to build up its life and ministry. Many women feel excluded from any real decision-making or leadership role in the church simply because they are women. Women must be given true ownership of the church of which they make up more than 50 percent, and be allowed real and meaningful involvement.
  6. That Catholics will have a real say in the choice of their leaders at local and diocesan level. Bishops should not be foisted on people and priests as a result of some secret Roman process, based on how suitably conservative they are. Lay people and clergy must have a say in the selection of their leaders. The selection process must be open and transparent, allowing an opportunity for the input of all.
  7. That the church at every level will identify with and not be afraid to speak out on behalf of the weak and vulnerable in society, as Pope Francis insists. The church must not only be prophetic; it must be seen to be prophetic. That prophetic voice is needed especially in these tough economic times.
  8. That the LGBT community, many of whom feel alienated from organised religion, will feel more welcome in the family of church.
  9. That the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed and heard as Good News. Too often, in the church’s teaching and preaching, people do not hear God’s word as good news. They hear it as something that enslaves rather than liberates, as a series of forbidding rules and regulations (especially around sex) rather than as a message that is truly joyful and life-giving.
  10. That priests and religious who have left the ministry will be invited to return to it, if they so wish, thus enriching the church with the wealth of their gifts, talents and experiences.

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.

Things that give my joy

A short list of things that give me joy (in no particular order):

• A Liverpool win

• A piece of chocolate of any kind

• Seeing my mother

• The end of another day, when I can fall asleep and escape from pain for a while

• A Munster or Ireland rugby victory

• A good homily well preached (or article well written)

• Any sign of renewal or reform of the church

• Family members doing well

• Receiving a thoughtful message or kind word

• A day when pain doesn’t spoil things

Pain has beaten me

Two months ago I thought I was gaining control of my chronic back pain. I had found a new physio, I had followed her recovery plan and had cut back on my medications. I had increased my exercise and stayed up longer each day. And it seemed to be working. The pain had begun to ease to such an extent that I decided I didn’t need more surgery after all and could live without getting a spinal cord stimulator. I began to look forward to having a reasonably active, good quality of life.

Now that hope is crushed. For the past six weeks the pain has been increasing again, so that now it is as intense as it ever has been. I was hoping it was a short-term flare up, and was determined to not panic. I continued doing what my physio has recommended. But to no avail. The pain is so bad I want the spinal cord stimulator to be inserted as soon as possible. It is the last shot I have at being set free from this prison. If it fails, there is nothing left, but that is okay. Then I can choose whether or for how long more I can continue to endure this torture.

Thinking about life and end of life, I realize that I have been lucky in so many ways. I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die. I have done most of what I wanted. I have no desire to see how trump fares in office or how brexit works out. Indeed, the direction the world has taken of late makes it a far less attractive place to be.

The only reason I want to keep on fighting is for the sake of my mother and family. But the pain is beating me. All I can do is try to take each day at a time for as long as I can.

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.