Old Redemptorists, still full of zeal

I studied them last night, my Redemptorist colleagues from all around Ireland. They had been gathering outside Newry for the beginning of our Provincial Chapter. Many of them had been attending chapters for fifty years, veterans now of this kind of thing.

I studied them with their grey hair, and hearing aids, and slightly bent backs, and occasional walking sticks, the weight of the years bearing obviously on so many. And I was moved and impressed, as I am every time I encounter them at an event such as this. Some of these old men did not have to be here, they could have been formally exempted from the chapter had they wished, but they chose to come anyhow. They wanted to be here. They wanted to do their bit. Their commitment to the Redemptorists and to the church compelled them to be here.

It has been the story of their lives. Many of them joined as young men in the 1950s, the so-called golden age of the Irish Church. Things were going so well during that decade that the Redemptorist provincial boasted that he was opening a new house every year. Now these same men witness the closing of these same houses. Expansion has become retrenchment. These men entered religious life when it was highly regulated and predictable, yet were able to adjust and adapt to the liberalizing changes in religious life that followed Vatican II. These men learned their preaching craft with a theology that emphasized the fear of God, and then were able to change to one that focused on the love of God. So many changes over little more than half a century, and yet their enthusiasm remains undimmed. They remain as committed and as eager as ever.

Their enthusiasm is wonderful to see. I know I need to bathe in it and take heart from it these days, because, as these men fade away, as they go to their eternal reward, there will be very few left behind to take up the challenge in a similar wholehearted way. They were a stalwart generation. We will need to look on their example and no our them by trying to follow it.

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Irish Redemptorists look to next four years

Today Irish Redemptorists gather outside Newry, Co Down for a week-long event known as a Provincial Chapter. More than 60 members of the Province will take part in the gathering, which is held every four years. A Chapter is a legislative and deliberative body which elects members of the provincial government and decides on policy and priorities for the next four years. Anyone who is a professed member of the Irish Redemptorists is required to participate (the sick and old are exempt) while some lay colleagues also attend.

A Chapter is a good example of democracy at work within the church. Our national leadership are elected by a majority of the assembly; policy is decided by the assembly, and any major decisions (whether to close a house or start an initiative) are approved by the assembly. Leaders can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms. Unlike bishops, they know it’s not a job for life and that they will return to being foot soldiers all too soon. This keeps their feet on the ground and aids accountability.

A Chapter is also an opportunity for confreres from around the country and some living abroad to spend time together, to renew friendships and to deepen bonds. It is a valuable exercise in fraternity.

Of course, Chapters are not always bloodless affairs. Not everyone agrees on the way forward. Not all have the same vision. There will be disagreements and the odd personality clash. A Chapter is a human event after all.

And a Chapter such as this will also be a graphic reminder of the perilous state of the Redemptorists in Ireland today, and of the challenges facing the church as a whole on this island. We will be reminded with our very own eyes of how old we are getting, of how frail we are as individuals and as a body, and of our steady fall in numbers. We will be reminded of the pressing, difficult decisions we will have to make if we are to maintain a tangible presence in Ireland in the years ahead, decisions about plant and personnel, about apostolic priorities and care of the old and sick.

We will be reminded, also, of our need to develop closer ties with other Redemptorist provinces and of the need for amalgamation. Whereas the Brexiteers are trying to pull Europe apart, the signs of the times are compelling the Redemptorists to forge closer bonds with neighbours throughout Europe and beyond.

I took part in my first Chapter in 1984. I was 22 years old, newly professed and full of enthusiasm. As a political buff, I loved the intrigue around the election of our leaders. The assembly looked bright and vigorous, full of men in their prime. It gave me a buzz.

Thirty five years later, there is no buzz. I have been around a long time now. I know our strengths and our weaknesses. I know the challenges and painful decisions that lie ahead. I know that the pool of potential leaders among us is shallow. We are a tired bunch, battered by the scandals and disappointments of the past quarter century. No one will need to tell us to curb our enthusiasm.

Still, we will endeavour to soldier along, doing our best, for four more years.

Last chance saloon for the US bishops

This week the US Catholic bishops are making a retreat together in a centre outside Chicago. It is an unusual occurrence. At the request of Pope Francis, they have gathered for a silent retreat to discern God’s will for the church in the United States.

The retreat is in response to the terrible year that Catholics in America have suffered. Revelations about the appalling actions of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and their cover up) as well as the fall out from state-level investigations into clerical sexual abuse have had a devastating impact. Many in America thought that, after the crisis had first blown up in Boston in 2002, the bishops had got a handle on it. The fact that someone like McCarrick could have been promoted afterwards, and that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye, has shattered trust between people and their bishops.

And so the US bishops were asked by Pope Francis to go on retreat together to pray and prepare to take action to deepen their commitment to keeping young people safe.

Bishops from around the world will then gather in Rome with Pope Francis from February 21-24 to discuss abuse and child protection. A lot is expected from this February summit. If nothing decisive comes out of it, if it is back to business as usual for bishops’ conferences and individual bishops throughout the world, if the Vatican itself does not act more decisively, then those who have remained loyal to the church through the trauma of the last 25 years will feel utterly betrayed.

This is last chance saloon time for the church to get it right. We can only hope the US bishops’ retreat and the prayers of the rest of us will move those in church authority to do what they should have done all along.

Five little wishes for 2019

Nothing too ambitious, of course:

For an end to the stupidity that is Brexit. That sensible politicians on all sides of the House of Commons will insist on a People’s Vote, which will lead to a reversal of the decision made on the basis of lies and disinformation in June 2016.

For an end to the treachery that is the Trump administration. That publication of the Mueller report will finally force Republican members of Congress to realize that the rule of law and even personal self-interest far outweighs loyalty to a president who is loyal to no one but himself and his crooked family.

For an end to the scandal of homelessness in Ireland. An economy that is doing as well as ours should have no problem providing shelter for all its people. What is missing is the will to do it.

For an end to the sin of racism and xenophobia. That the increase in racism that has been enabled and encouraged by trumpism, Brexit and the growth in right-wing populism will be resisted and repelled by all right-thinking people at home and abroad. Calling out racists and shaming them on social media is a good way to go.

For an end to the culture of clericalism and cover up in the church. Despite Pope Francis’ best efforts, unreconstructed clericalism continues to do untold damage to the body of Christ. The careerists in the Curia are simply biding their time until Francis is gone. What is needed is a new council of the church, Vatican III, an assembly where voting rights would extend to lay men and women and not only to ordained clerics, to consider the mountain of pressing issues – vocations crisis, sex abuse scandals, the rights of women, mandatory celibacy, financial transparency, sexual ethics and attitude to those who are gay – that confront the church and threaten its future in large parts of the globe. It’s unlikely to happen this year, but then back in January 1958, no one expected that John XXIII would call a council that year either.

Miracles do happen, as the Limerick hurlers showed last year. And so we hope.

My response to the Tuam Babies scandal from three years ago

This is what I wrote in the Irish Times back in June 2014 after the Tuam babies scandal first broke. I was on sabbatical in the USA at the time. The pain, shame and sadness feel far worse now.

Even though I am currently in Indianapolis on sabbatical 4,000 miles from home, it’s impossible not to feel people’s shock at reports of what may be a mass grave of children and infants in the grounds of a home run by nuns in Tuam, Co Galway, up to the 1960s.
The story has reverberated around the world, including to Indiana. Hopefully, the investigations that are promised will proceed quickly, because the full truth needs to emerge, about this and other similar homes.
When a story like this breaks, it’s like deja vu all over again for the Irish church. One had hoped that after all the inquiries of recent years, the church’s dirty linen had been exposed, and it could begin the process of recovery.
Then another storm erupts, and it’s as if we’re plunged back to the beginning – except it’s worse now. The cumulative effect of all the scandals means that each new one has a more devastating impact than the one that went before.
Anger is the predominant emotion. People are angry at the church. They wonder how these things could have been allowed to happen; how such a culture could develop in the church and nobody said stop.
Church people are angry too. It’s easy to say that was then and this is now, that society was different 50 years ago, but one expects the church to operate to a higher moral standard, irrespective of time or place.
Church people are also angry that this story has been spun in a sensationalist way that presents the church in the worst possible light.
There is also the gleeful anger of those presented with another opportunity to crucify the church. They are genuinely outraged by the Tuam revelations, but they are thrilled that the church is on the defensive again. Comments on social media reveal the depth of their antipathy.
No one doubts that a growing anti-Catholic element exists in Irish society. But the church has provided its opponents with weapons of mass destruction. It has no one to blame but itself.
For church people like myself, there is also a tremendous feeling of shame.
It’s the shame of being an official representative of the institution caught up in yet another storm. The shame of seeing church leaders once more having to express regret; of outside agencies once again stepping in to uncover truths about the church’s past.
There is also self-pity. The home in Tuam closed before I was born. The scandals of the last two decades had nothing to do with me. The abuse and cover-up were not my fault. The culture of moral rectitude and dark secrets that facilitated such behaviour can’t be blamed on anything I did or said.
Self-pity is pointless. Still, I can’t avoid feeling a little self-pity right now.
Tempting though it is to put on my Liverpool jersey and walk away, I still stick with the church. I stick with it because when it comes to safeguarding children and the vulnerable, the church, like the rest of society, is different from 30 years ago.
Though some critics will never believe it, and no institution can ever be perfect, the church is a far safer environment now for the vulnerable than ever before.
I stick with it because it’s a humbler church. A humble church is an authentic church. You don’t need to read the letters of John Charles McQuaid to know there was too much fear, arrogance and control in the Irish church in the time of Tuam.
A poor church for the poor is what Pope Francis advocates. A church not interested in power or privilege, but that is out on the streets, in the margins, where its founder was to be found.
I stick with it because of so many in the church who show me the true meaning of Christianity. Clergy who are there for people in their despair, whose doors are open all hours. Religious who live in difficult housing estates, present to those in most need. Advocates, like Peter McVerry, who point to the importance of economic fairness. Groups like the St Vincent de Paul who demonstrate practical Christianity at its best.
I stick with it because of so many ordinary Catholics who have stuck with it despite all the times the church has let them down. Like those in parishes in Leixlip and Rathgar, where I have served.
They have been disappointed in the church enough times, but still they stay, because they do not confuse belief in God with faith in the church, and they know that every institution is made up of broken people, and they find nourishment and support in gathering as part of a believing community to worship and pray.
These are the people who keep me going when I begin to waver, as I have this past while.

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.

There is room for liberals in the Catholic church

I have always considered myself to be a liberal. Instinctively, since as long as I was able to think for myself, I subscribed to what was known as the ‘liberal agenda.’ Though I was a committed Catholic, and came from a devout Catholic family, I had no time for theocracies. I believed in the separation of church and state. I believed that any church or religious institution that relied on the state to enforce its teachings was, by definition, a weak church or institution. I felt that an unhealthy codependency had developed between civil and religious authorities in the decades after Irish independence that would be detrimental to both of them in the long run.

The relationship between de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the latter’s interventions in almost every aspect of Irish life, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with church and state in 20th century Ireland.

When the ban on artificial contraception was being discussed in the 1970s and 80s, I was with those who wanted reform. It was the same when it came to divorce. I might personally subscribe to what the church teaches about the sanctity of marriage, but I didn’t think it should be imposed on those who were not Catholic or who disagreed profoundly with the church’s position. Similarly, when it came to legalising homosexual acts and to the vote on marriage equality, I was on the side of the reformers. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times in support of marriage equality.

And many years ago, when I had just emerged out of my teens, I voted against the 8th amendment to the constitution, not because I was in favour of abortion, but because I thought the proposed wording was weak and was going to lead to a whole pile of trouble.

Meanwhile, I had joined the seminary straight out of school and so found myself in the difficult position where some of the views I held were at odds with the official teaching of the church. When it came to internal church politics I also found myself on the liberal side – favouring the ordination of woman and the introduction of optional celibacy, as well as a more compassionate approach to those who were gay or divorced and remarried. I identified strongly with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. I was enthused more than anything by the idea of a church and a clergy that stood alongside the oppressed and were willing to lose all in solidarity with them. An open, welcoming, inclusive church.

But the odd thing is that not only did I find myself in conflict with the Vatican over the years, and run into trouble with the authorities for my views, I found that many so-called liberals had no time for church people like me either. I remember being taken aback one time when Fintan O’Toole referred to me in his column as a conservative. I certainly didn’t see myself as a conservative. Then I understood that in the eyes of many secularists, being a Catholic priest was synonymous with being a conservative. That if you were a card-carrying member of the clergy then, ipso facto, you had to be a conservative. And, therefore, an ogre and an obscurantist.

Given its arrogance and abuse of power in the past, I don’t blame people for being angry at the Irish Catholic church. But what I don’t like is the way in which everybody in the church is viewed through the same lens, how all clergy and religious are regarded as the enemy, and as opponents of all that is good.

Sure, the church as institution has much to answer for, but the church is not a monolith. There is diversity within and much goodness too. To deny that fact, or refuse to see it, as some liberals do, is to replace one form of arrogance and intolerance with another.