That we will (be allowed to) use our gifts (Homily for 2nd Sunday of the Year)

On October 5th, 2011, Steve Jobs died. I’m sure you remember who he was – the co-founder of Apple. He was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. A visionary and technology genius who made his company one of the most valuable in the world.

Steve Jobs was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPad, all those gadgets starting with the letter i. I wrote this homily on an iMac computer as I was checking football scores on an iPhone listening to iTunes on an iPad. At the time he died, Jobs was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies.

Steve Jobs was a gifted man who used his gifts to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s almost a decade ago now, but those who witnessed it will never forget the moment. It was Britain’s Got Talent and a frumpy, middle-aged woman with a goofy smile and dreadful hairstyle, came out to sing. The judges sniggered, as did many of those watching. Here was another desperate wannabe who would make a fool of herself in public. But then she began to sing and people’s jaws dropped. This dowdy-looking woman could sing – beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully. She was blessed with a rare talent – and now, at last, the entire world could hear it and appreciate it. Susan Boyle’s gift.

When Christopher Nolan was born in 1966, his parents Bernadette and Joseph, were devastated to discover he had severe brain damage. The doctors told them he would not be able to talk, or to walk or use his hands; he would never be independent.

His parents did all they could to make Christopher’s life as normal as possible. They involved him in daily events; took him to the park, read to him, told him stories, prayed over him, surrounded him with love and laughter – though it seemed he couldn’t really engage or respond. When he was about 10, they bought him an electric typewriter. Bernadette strapped a unicorn stick to his forehead, like a pencil, and holding his head in her hands, encouraged him to stab at the keys. She did that day after day, and nothing happened.

And then one day, August 20, 1977, Bernadette watched, as slowly Christopher began to put words together. It was a poem, beautifully written, called “I learn to bow.” Christopher was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 he had published a book of poems called ‘Damburst of Dreams’ and six years later an amazing autobiography, called ‘Under the eye of the clock.’

This boy, whom people thought couldn’t communicate, was able to write. So good a writer was he that he won the Whitbread Prize for literature. Inside that broken body was an extraordinary literary talent. Christopher Nolan’s gift.

In today’s second reading, St Paul speaks about gifts. There are a variety of gifts, he says, working in different ways in different people, and these gifts are given to us by God. They are given to each person for a good purpose – to give glory to God. One person may have the gift of preaching; another of teaching or instructing in the faith; another of healing, another of being prophetic, and so on. All these, St Paul says, are the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different people for the sake of the kingdom.

We are given a similar message in the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana. The miracle Jesus works of turning water into wine has been described as a gift miracle. It wasn’t just Jesus getting the bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation – one barrel of cheap wine would have achieved that. It is the sheer abundance of wine and its quality that is the significant thing. All that wine is an image of God’s generosity to us. God has gifted us abundantly; gifted us in so many ways, and Jesus’ life and ministry is a sign of that.

What do today’s readings say to us?

First, to acknowledge our gifts. We are all gifted. God has gifted every one of us. We don’t all have the same gifts – but we are all gifted. Many of us have a hard time believing this. In a world obsessed with celebrity and money and looks, we can find it hard to believe that we amount to anything much. If we have low self-esteem, we can find it really hard to believe. Yet the truth is, we are all gifted. God has blessed each of us with an abundance of gifts. We, you and I, are gifted.

Second, help those you love to identify their gifts. Nobody is good for nothing; we are all good at lots of things. Sometimes we just need to be prodded, encouraged, reminded. Make it a point to point out to those you love the gifts they possess. Point out to them what God sees in them.

Third, use your gifts. Let the Spirit work in you to bring your gifts out. Use them to build up the body of Christ, as St Paul instructs. Let your gifts flow abundantly, like the new wine at Cana. Maybe you’re good at music – can you use that gift in church and outside too? Maybe you’re good with young people. Maybe you’re a good public speaker. Maybe you’ve a gift for helping others a local charity could use. Maybe you’ve the gift of prophecy, of being able to draw attention to injustice in society and in the church. Use your gifts for goodness sake.

Finally, pray that our church will acknowledge the gifts and potential of all its members, women and men, and allow them full expression.

Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Christopher Nolan had gifts inside that, released, brought pleasure to many and glory to God.

The invitation to us today is to let our gifts flow.

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The conspiracy against Pope Francis

Even as Westminster bristles in turmoil and Washington simmers in shutdown, another battle is being fought at the Vatican. The papacy of Pope Francis is under attack from people in the upper ranks of the church. These men are not only trying to undermine him but to drive him from office. They are taking advantage of the abuse crisis as a platform to get the pope to resign.

“There are people who simply don’t like this pontificate,” says German Cardinal Walter Kasper. “They want it to end as soon as possible to then have, so to say, a new conclave. They also want it to go in their favour, so it will have a result that suits their ideas.”

Some powerful enemies have never liked Francis’s style or his policy of glasnost or his efforts at reform and at giving more power to local churches. These same enemies were appalled by his letter on Marriage and Family, which they feel is confusing to the ‘simple faithful’ and not doctrinally sound. Four of them, lead by Cardinal Raymond Burke, published an open letter criticising the pope’s teaching and demanding clarifications.

Last August, on the last day of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, ex papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published a letter accusing Francis of ignoring allegations of misconduct against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and calling for the pontiff to resign. The letter and its timing were deliberately calculated to cause the greatest possible embarrassment to the pope. While most senior clerics publicly defended Francis, dismissing the allegations as a smear, some on the Burke wing of the church did not. The irony is that McCarrick wasn’t promoted by Francis but by Francis’s predecessors.

To many casual observers, the Catholic Church gives the appearance of being a monolith and that a monolithic unanimity exists at the top. This has never been the case but the divisions and dissension at the top are clearly visible today. These divisions exist also in the lower ranks of the church. They are especially strong in the American church, aided by right-wing Catholic media such as EWTN. Just check out the twitter accounts of cardinals like Joe Tobin of Newark and Blaise Cupich of Chicago. Every day they are viciously trolled on social media by ‘good’ Catholics, defenders of the faith, who abuse these men because they see them as Francis supporters. The level of vitriol is astonishing.

The sad irony is that the very churchmen and their supporters who attack Pope Francis are the same people who would not tolerate any criticism of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. In the years before Francis, they used to demand total obedience to the Holy Father, and were eager to publicly discipline small fry like me who stepped out of line. They don’t seem to be aware of their own hypocrisy, or maybe they couldn’t care less.

I have no doubt Francis is doing his best, but it is difficult to make progress when there are enemies in the camp.

We must reform how bishops are elected (and why I would never make one)

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will soon be coming to the end of his time as Archbishop of Dublin, and already speculation has started as to his successor. But there are several other dioceses in Ireland that have been waiting for months and even years for new bishops, and several bishops who have been obliged to minister deep into retirement age. It’s not easy for them, or their priests and people.

Perhaps the Nuncio and his Vatican colleagues are taking their time, giving thought to a radical reorganisation and reduction of the number of dioceses in Ireland. (They could easily be cut by 12 or 14). Or perhaps they have a problem finding suitable candidates. A man is invited to the nunciature to be offered a diocese, but he politely declines, or makes his intentions known even before that.

It’s understandable why good men would be reluctant to become a bishop in Ireland today. He’d be destined for a life of dealing with crisis.

The pool of potential bishops is made smaller by the reduction in the number of eligible candidates. There are not many fit and able priests between the ages of 45 and 60.

And then, of course, the criteria a candidate must fulfil to be considered for a bishopric reduces the pool even more. You have to be sound on Church teaching, a defender and supporter of the party line, with a patron or two in Rome (though, hopefully, this may have eased a little under Francis, who prefers shepherds to culture warriors). It’s why I, or anyone like me, will never be made a bishop. (I always wanted the See of Cashel in order to be patron of the GAA and get the best seats at matches!)

It’s clear that something is wrong with the method for choosing bishops. It’s clear that it needs to be reformed. It’s clear that much wider consultation needs to take place, and it must involve all interested parties in the diocese.

Imagine if we were to go back to the manner of selection that was the norm in the early church.

Each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He (or, hopefully before long, she) would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would have an intimate knowledge of his flock and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.
The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, many bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese.

Given the challenges it faces, the Irish church requires good bishops, people with the smell of the sheep. In order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, maybe it’s time to look closely at how bishops are chosen and to return to our ancient practice.

And, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the medieval titles and robes and headgear. These are anachronisms from the past, but today only invite ridicule especially from younger people. The bishop’s authority will be seen by what he says and does, not by what he wears.

True love, which always speaks the truth, is the only antidote to the lies and fake news of today

Love is an overused word today. We find it everywhere from graffiti-laden locker room walls to the heart emojis in anonymous internet chat rooms. It sells everything from underwear to Ferraris. It is confused with every kind of feeling and state and emotion. I’ve been thinking of the casual way I misuse the word love:

I love chips

I love a nice lie-in on a Saturday morning

I love Liverpool FC

I love preaching

I love salt

I love a good game of hurling

I love a book that captures my imagination

I love relaxing on Cape Clear island in the summer

I love Munster rugby

I love history and politics

I’m sure all of us can come up with our own list of ways we misuse the word love.

But what is the true meaning of love? For those who are Christian, if we want to know what true love is, we need only look at God. God is love, St John tells us. God not only loves, God is love. And God showed us what true love is like by sharing it, by shaping us like himself, with an inbuilt capacity for loving. By sending his only Son among us to show us how to live.

The nature of true love is spelled out for us in St Paul’s famous ode to love that is read at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious, boastful, rude, and arrogant. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, love takes joy not in wrong-doing but only in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

That is the definition of true love.

True love does not change with the times. It can be cheapened by misuse and overuse but its essence never changes. Love is not infatuation or lust or obsession. It is not servile submission or putting up with. It is not grasping or abusive or domineering. It is not a one-night stand or a casual fling with someone whose name you forget the next day. True love overcomes, forgives, endures, sacrifices, empathises. It never gives up on anyone. It sees the good in everyone. Love, true love, is our best nature because it is God at work in us.

True love is never selfish, never all about me. When you love it’s not all about you anymore, you empty yourself for the one you love. You die to yourself for the one you love. Think of the give and take in a marriage or a committed relationship. Think of the parents of a handicapped child who spend themselves for that child every single day. Or the one who cares for an elderly parent. Patience, sacrifice, devotion, willingness to be there for someone always – that’s love.

True love speaks the truth. Or, as St Paul puts it, love delights in the truth. It always speaks the truth, no matter how difficult or dangerous that might be. Love speaks uncomfortable truths, whatever the cost. We can think of politicians, presidents and others throughout history, and especially today in this era of fake news, for whom that concept is alien.

Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant scientist who helped develop the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme. The Communist authorities honoured him for his achievements. But then he began to speak out in favour of social justice and human rights and against the bomb. So he was stripped of his honours and sent into internal exile in the city of Gorky, where he could contact no one. He was punished severely for telling the truth, as so many of his country men and women were. But he did not back down and he was vindicated in the end. Love speaks the truth no matter what the cost.

Love risks everything. It pays any price; lays everything on the line. Think of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who willingly gave his life in Auschwitz for a man he did not know. 

True love risks everything.

The Bee Gees were onto something when they asked: How deep is your love?

Mrs May’s exercise in hypocrisy

There are many things I like about Theresa May. She has great stamina and determination. She has the ability to bounce back after repeated humiliation. She is a woman of faith who takes her Christian convictions seriously. She is a politician serious about politics.

But one thing I cannot understand, and never will, is how she could change her mind on a fundamental principle literally overnight and then fight will all her might for the very opposite of what she claimed to believe before. She campaigned as a Remainer, though not a vociferous one. She argued that Britain should be at the heart of Europe, that the claims made by the Brexiteers were wrong. But as soon as Cameron left Downing St for life in a hut in his back garden, she grasped the Tory leadership by repeating over and over “Brexit means Brexit.” She became a convinced Brexiteer, one of their loudest cheerleaders.

I understand the nature of politics and that one must sometimes sacrifice conviction in the interests of ambition. But I don’t know how one could do so on an issue as vital as Brexit. It is to go from advocating one point of view to then championing its very opposite. It would be like me becoming an advocate of the Tridentine Mass after long being a supporter of women’s ordination (if I was angling for a bishopric). It would be an act of hypocrisy or duplicity. If I believe something strongly enough, if I believe it with all my heart and soul, then I could never become a champion of the opposite position, even if a majority of electors agreed with opposite the position, even if it would be in my personal interests to do so.

If I am a Remainer, I could never become a Leaver overnight, unless convinced by some new overwhelming evidence (that does not exist) or out of naked ambition and the desire to reach No. 10. But how do you live with yourself in such a scenario? How can Theresa May live with herself (and trust in God that she’s doing the right thing)? I know I couldn’t.

Maybe that’s why I’m a clergyman on the bottom rung of the ladder and she is prime minister.

Six men who’ve inspired me

We honoured them last night, six men who have devoted lifetimes of service to the Irish Redemptorists. It is an annual ritual – whether we are gathered on retreat or on chapter, as we have been this week, we take one night out to remember and celebrate our jubilarians, those who have significant anniversaries this year. Two of those present were celebrating 60 years as Redemptorist priests; one was celebrating 50 years of priesthood, another 40 years of profession as a Redemptorist, while the two younger ones were marking 25 years since they made their first vows. In age they range from the mid-eighties to the late forties; a couple are frail now, dependant on walking sticks to get around but all six remain full of life and vigour.

After the celebratory Mass and dinner, brief speeches were made, little tributes to each of these men, who have served God in many parts of the world. The older among them joined the Redemptorists in the peak period for religious life and the church in Ireland. Churches and seminaries were full; new missions were opening up abroad almost every year. Times were good. The younger among them joined at a time when scandals were beginning to shame the church at home and abroad and religious life was no longer a popular choice for men or women to make. And yet they chose to join and to remain even in the face of scandal and disappointment and the questions about our future viability as a religious congregation in Ireland.

And during those years – 60 and 50 and 40 and 25 – these six have ministered with distinction. That is why, in a world full of celebrities and reality TV stars, they are amongst my top heroes. They have dedicated their lives completely to the service of others; they have sacrificed their ambitions and independence in order to be at the disposal of the poor of Africa and of the Philippines and of Brazil and Ireland; they have taught and preached and listened and washed feet. They have gone places they would not have normally chosen to go. They have been good and faithful servants. And I admire their selflessness and their love and witness. Confreres like these six men keep me going when I’m feeling low. They remind me of what religious life is all about. Their love of God helps me to deepen mine.

My 30 years as a priest have brought no little disappointment

When Archbishop Desmond Connell ordained me to the priesthood on October 2nd, 1988, it seemed a good time to be a priest in Ireland. Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I had high hopes. I was delighted to become part of a team conducting parish missions, as Irish Redemptorists had done for more than a century.

I loved going from parish to parish, preaching to full churches, visiting homes and schools, meeting clergy. Though I was aware of the increasing impact of secularisation, and the sharp decline in vocations, I presumed church and priesthood would remain largely the same into the future.

I had no idea of the tumult that lay ahead.

When measured against the vast expanse of history, 30 years is an insignificant amount of time. But when measured in terms of the story of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the past 30 years have been hugely significant indeed.

In 1988 Catholics of all ages still attended church in large numbers and confession remained important. In 1988 the church’s moral authority still stood strong, and preaching retained punch. The Irish church remained clerical and confident, as it had been since before independence.

Hard though it is to believe, back then few knew the word “paedophile”. In all my seminary years I had never encountered that word, which is linked so solidly today with the Catholic Church.

Running torment

The abuse scandals are the great running torment of my priesthood, a scar every priest carries. I am distressed by what has happened, by the layers of abuse still being exposed, by the indifference and cover-up of those in authority. I feel sorry for myself that I have to carry the can for the sins of others. It’s not what I signed up for 30 years ago.

In 1988 I seldom wore a clerical collar. Today I never wear one. I feel embarrassed to be identified as representing a clerical caste that permitted abuse, and am angry at church authority and the abusers – for the incalculable damage done to victims and their families as well as to Catholics everywhere.

Starting out, I never dreamed I would fall foul of Rome. But in May 2011, I was shocked to discover I had been secretly investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

They sought my removal as editor of Reality magazine because of its stance on women, sexuality and authority in the church. My future had been discussed at the highest levels for months without anyone telling me about it. Sentence was imposed before I knew I was on trial. I was horrified that this was how the church treated someone after a lifetime in its service.

Blocking equality

I remain disgusted at the injustice perpetrated on Catholic women, who are denied equal rights, and at a mandatory celibacy rule that diminishes many clerics. It says so much about Rome that while clergy who advocated women’s ordination were summarily silenced or sacked, bishops who engaged in or facilitated abuse were not.

Today, I bristle at the church’s hurtful language about the LGBTI community and am ashamed that a particular theology of the body has been used to make people feel unwelcome and excluded.

I dream of a restructured church that recognises the radical equality of all the baptised, that respects the sensus fidelium, repudiates the evil of clericalism, and replaces lace with grace, as Pope Francis tries to do.

A church that doesn’t insist it has all the answers to complicated moral and ethical questions but that engages with the world of science and biology so as to better respond to the signs of the times.

Though much has changed since 1988, not everything is bleak. What keeps me going is the wonderful witness of so many people who stick with the church despite all that has happened, the enthusiasm of so many lay co-workers and volunteers of every age and the selfless dedication of so many clergy and religious despite falling numbers and sapping morale.

It takes a brave person to be a card-carrying Catholic in Ireland today.

In 1988, I started priesthood with high hopes. Those 30 years have brought much fulfilment and satisfaction, yes, but also no little frustration and disappointment.

(Published in The Irish Times, October 2, 2018)