A letter from St Patrick

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

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

It starts…

Dear Fr Gerard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your friend in Christ,

Patrick

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

P.

A decade of highs and very lows

I’m not sorry to see the back of the teens. The last decade has been the most difficult of my life, and while it hasn’t been all bleak, I have little reason to look back on these years with any fondness.
It was a decade of losses. I lost my parents and many other close loved ones. This was the first Christmas without my mother, whom I miss beyond words.
I lost my health and have had to live with daily chronic pain since the summer of 2014. During the first couple of years, the pain was so intense and my self-pity was so all-consuming that I did not want to go on living.
I lost my innocent belief in the power of medicine and medics to alleviate pain and not merely to treat a patient as just another client to cross off their list as soon as convenient.
I lost my job in Redemptorist Communications that gave me joy, routine and a sense of purpose.
I lost my reputation as a responsible, ‘reliable’ priest, having been officially sanctioned by the Vatican.
I lost my home in Dublin and my parish chaplaincy in Rathgar where I felt stimulated as priest and pastor.
I lost any lingering delusion of being a young man. I had to accept the reality of rapidly advancing middle age and that my best years, and any possibilities of new beginnings, were now behind me.
I lost hope for the future of the Redemptorists (and of religious life as we knew it) in Ireland and the Western world. I am one of the last generation of Irish religious.
As fascism, narrow nationalism and right-wing populism gained momentum across the world, I lost hope that people, brought together through the potentially unifying power of social media, would focus on what unites rather than divides.
I lost the naive assumption that social media would bring people together and be a force for good rather than become an easily manipulated tool that undermines democracy, spreads fake news, and feeds people’s worst instincts.
From being a life-long lover of US politics and the US presidency, I lost respect for the office of president and for the party of Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower which allowed itself to become the willing poodle of an insane, dangerous demagogue.
The tragedy of Brexit damaged the affection I had built up for Britain following the Good Friday Agreement and the queen’s successful visit to Ireland in 2011. Now we see the worst of England, a country pining for a glorious past it will never recover. It’s hard to forgive the injury the Brexiteers are doing to the cause of harmony in Europe and especially to the welfare of the people of the island of Ireland.
The last decade brought many positives too.
I have gained four family members, grandnephews and grandnieces, that are a source of wonder and joy.
I found a warm welcome and extraordinary support from the Redemptorist community in Limerick, which helped me through my early days of physical pain and wallowing self-pity. It reminded me of the value of religious life.
I have discovered that my preaching has improved with age and enjoy the task of putting a challenging and engaging homily together.
I have – I think – become more tolerant and pleasant to live with. Suffering has made me more human and improved my sense of humour.
Without deadlines to meet, I have read far more and more widely than in the past and would like to think I am more educated now.
As I have aged, I have become more liberal/progressive/lefty in my views. The downside is that I am also more intolerant of those with whom I disagree.
My reading has helped me to see the world from a feminist perspective and to be even more ashamed of my church’s failure to include women as equals.
The election of Pope Francis filled me with hope, to which I continue to cling. He is trying to effect real change in the face of stiff opposition from powerful forces in the curia and in the church who seek to stifle him at every turn.
I am delighted that the 2010s has been a good decade for the LGBTI community in Ireland and many other countries with the introduction of marriage equality and other rights. However, much remains to be done, especially concerning protecting those who are transgender.
The last decade has been good too from a sporting point of view. Limerick won the All Ireland hurling title in 2018. Having attended five finals which they lost, I thought I would never see the day when the McCarthy Cup would come back to Limerick. Their unexpected triumph filled me with happiness.
The same goes for Liverpool FC. Under the wonderful Jurgen Klopp, the team is playing with a style and panache I never dreamed possible ten years ago. When they win the Premiership in May, most of my dreams will have been completed.

The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

Words delivered at the funeral of my mother, Breda Moloney (4 July 2019)

My mother always hoped she’d die before my Dad. That way, due to my father’s popularity, she’d be guaranteed a reasonable turnout at her funeral. Though my father predeceased her by more than three years, mother’s worries were unfounded. She was loved, respected and admired in her own right as witnessed last night and today.

Emotions are raw at one’s mother’s passing. No matter how old she was or well prepared, no matter how eager she was for the journey, or how frail her body and mind had become, nothing can prepare you for the loss of your mum. The longer the life the harder the letting go; the more intense her presence the more jarring her absence; the deeper the love the more broken the heart. We don’t feel cheated or betrayed (she lived a long and good life), but neither are we satisfied, for there was life in her yet, and she died in a way we would not have wanted.

Our dominant emotion is one of gratitude. She lived for four score and ten years, a noble and full life. For almost all of that time she was robust, independent, physically and mentally sharp, our undisputed reigning monarch. We marvelled at her wisdom, the well of knowledge and insight she had accumulated and dispensed unsparingly. Her sagacity always astonished us. We delighted in her sharp brain, still on top of things after decades of active service, always clued in, figuring out practical solutions to problems we couldn’t solve, a brain that, even in her final illness, could rattle off epics like Young Lochinvar to anyone willing to listen.

So much has changed since she was born the year of the Wall Street crash; society today bears no comparison to the stable, rural setting of her younger years, but she took all those changes, whether in technology or social mores, or in understanding of the complexities of human relationships and gender and sexuality, in her stride. Change never flustered her.

We adored her quick wit and telling phrase and sharp retort. A skill she passed on to many of the next generations.

We marvelled at her gritty determination. I think of her undertaking those steep, almost perpendicular, lung-bursting walks around the loop on Cape Clear island. One morning, at the summit of the hill, pausing for breath, we encountered a young couple breathlessly pushing a buggy toward us. “Tough walk, this,” the man observed. “Especially if you’re 82 and a half,” my mother retorted. Just as with being faithful to her recent physiotherapy exercises, she met every challenge head on. She refused to be defeated.

We admired her strong work ethic. The Redemptorist founder, St Alphonsus Ligouri, made a vow never to waste a minute; to make good use of every second God gave him. Though she never made a formal vow, my mother also never wasted a second. She always had to be doing something constructive. For years she got up at dawn to milk cows, feed calves, wash churns, care for her growing family, her bed-bound mother.

In her twenties, with her brother George, she trained greyhounds, won lots of races, knew almost every dog track in the country. Later, she kept a large coop of hens and ducks, supplying local shops with free-range produce.

Almost 50 years ago, we installed an ultra-modern milking parlour, capable of milking eight cows simultaneously. It was marketed as a ‘one man milking parlour,’ but my mother asserted there must have been a flaw in the product or marketing plan, because the one man always required the presence of one woman too.

She made and repaired our clothes, knit thousands of jumpers and cardigans, supplied schools with their uniform knitwear. During peak season, she knit five jumpers a day. At night, she would sow or knit as she watched TV. She frowned on idleness. She couldn’t understand how my father and I could watch TV with idle hands and empty heads.

We worshipped her supremely gifted hands. Hands that not only washed and milked and baked and cooked and crafted and wallpapered and sowed and gardened and farmed, but also that bathed the ulcered feet of her own mother, and helped raise 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and cleaned and changed my ailing father when he could no longer do so himself; hands that enthusiastically rubbed my back, easing my chronic pain. Hands that cut her sisters’ hair when they visited from the convent. Dexterous, industrious, sensitive, soothing, graceful, gentle, healing, Godly hands. Hands at rest at last.

We were privileged in her love. There is a classic devotional book by St Alphonsus Ligouri called The Practise of the Love of Jesus Christ, that offers prescriptions for living a holy life. My mother never read it, but she didn’t need to. She lived it. True love is not grasping or self-obsessed or begrudging. It is never selfish or manipulative or self-seeking. True love forgives, serves, sacrifices, empathises, always makes allowances. True love lives for others. My mother was the most other-centred person I have ever known. What made us happy made her happy; what made us sad made her sad; what troubled us troubled her; what delighted us delighted her. She loved us when we did our best; loved us when we let her down. She loved us unequivocally, unconditionally. 

She was lucky in her birth family, the Ryan Georges, and in her husband, Mick Moloney, a hard-working, simple, virtuous man – and they were lucky in her. About four years ago, as my father sat wheelchair-bound and helpless, and I sat beside him crippled with back pain, we watched, as booted and rubber glove-clad, and carrying scissors and bucket, she scoured the hedgerows sourcing nettles for dinner (which she cooked with cabbage several times a year). Full of admiration, my father said, “Where would we be without her!” He knew every day of their 55 years together how deeply fortunate he was to have her. Without her he would never have reached the age of 84; without him, she would never have had the purpose and love that gave her life meaning.

She was the classic home bird, spending her life in the house in which she was born on 18 February, 1929. Her life centred on home and family. She was profoundly shy (unlike my father, who loved to talk). During her final year of school, she was sent as a boarder in Doon. She loathed it, she couldn’t bear being away from home, even if the distance was barely a mile. She stood for hours at the top floor school window facing East, hoping to catch a glimpse of any family member making their way into the village. She loved nothing more than being out on the farm with her brother, George, and her father, Tommy.

Lately, she missed no longer having a phone. It was a cry of loneliness, of grief. She didn’t have a phone because most of those to whom she spoke every day were with us no more. Not having a phone represented those she had lost.

She despised old age; hated lacking independence; hated needing constant attention; hated being a burden, hated being unable to knit or play Suduko or do the things she used to take for granted.

My father’s sudden death began her slow decline. It shocked her so much she had a breakdown, post traumatic stress. She never recovered. She used to imagine he was in bed with her, still by her side. When one loses a partner after half a century together, the one left behind is no longer fully alive.

If ever a person was ready to go, it was mother. She prayed for it. She longed to join Mick, and her infant son, and her parents and brother and sisters. Her bags were packed long ago. She was prayerful, devout, righteous, conscientious (like my Dad), who lived the beatitudes, who modelled the Sermon on the Mount. She and Dad were Christians in the proper simple sense.

Today’s gospel speaks of the wise person who built their house on rock, the rock of faith. Mam built her house on the rock of faith. Nothing could shatter it. No storm could bring it down. It protected her through the up and downs, the joys and sorrows of her long, good life. St Paul’s soul-soothing, Spirit-saturated, reassuring words to the people of Corinth were addressed to my mother also: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into people’s hearts, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Mother was our matriarch, our anchor, our stronghold, our shield, our fount of wisdom, our conscience, our rock of ages, our best selves. We were blessed, and will remain forever blessed, to have her as our mother.

Now, going to her place of rest atop her beloved Mick, she can say confidently with St Paul, when his work was done: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

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.

Words spoken at the funeral of Sr Helen Ryan (April 25, 2019)

Sometimes people surprise us. They catch us slightly off guard, and that’s what Sr Helen did on Monday. She slipped away before we had a chance to say goodbye. But she was always her own woman, and always did things her way.

Aunt Peggy chose a good time to die. She died in Easter week, the greatest week in the church’s year, the week we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, the greatest event in salvation history.

She fully subscribed to the message of today’s Gospel, of this Easter season. She knew in her bones that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. She sought to live his Way, to know his Truth, to experience his Life. She spent her long life honouring Jesus.

So, from Sr Helen’s point of view, she couldn’t have chosen a more opportune time in which to go to her heavenly home.

Today, as we celebrate this liturgy of farewell, our dominant mood is one of thanksgiving, gratitude for a long life lived well.

And she lived a long life and lived it well. She would have been 96 in June – an age she was sure she’d never reach. And for more than 90 of those years she was blessed with a sound mind and reasonable independence. A great blessing.

Peggy Ryan was born in Doon Co Limerick in June 1923, as the nascent Irish Free State struggled to recover from bitter civil war. Being a delicate child, it was recommended that a goat be purchased to nourish her with its milk. She had no great interest in school and wasn’t the most assiduous student – but still she passed the Leaving Cart without difficulty. Afterwards, helping out on the family farm, she was unsure what to do with her future, until she felt the Lord inviting her to try religious life. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1945, as Nazism was collapsing in Europe and tumult reigned across a broken world. She said that from the first day she entered, she knew she had made the right choice. She never doubted her vocation for a moment afterwards. Though lonely for home, she was happy, as happy as could be. She had found what she was looking for.

The young Sister of Mercy trained as a nurse and was assigned to St Finbar’s hospital, (still known to some as the Poor House). After receiving that appointment, she wrote home to her father, “You were threatening me that if I didn’t get a focus in life, I’d end up in the Poor House. Well, I’m in the Poor House now!”
She nursed there for several years (her only time outside St Maries), before taking charge of the House of Mercy, to which she devoted most of her life. She loved that ministry and those she worked with.

She treated them with care, respect and unfailing devotion, and they loved and appreciated her in return. I got to know several of these women during my many childhood trips to Cork, as did my sisters. Sr Helen’s solicitude shone through. They were like extended family.

But not only was Sr Helen a wonderful carer, she had also great business acumen. She ran the knitwear enterprise in a professional way. She was able to negotiate with tough clients like Dunnes Stores and earn their loyalty and respect. I always thought that had she pursued a career in the outside world, she would have been a millionaire. It seemed that everything she touched turned to gold.

After she retired from this work in the mid-1990s, she had responsibility for the ministry to the poor here in St Maries, a task she took on with relish, a task central to the Mercy Sisters’ charism. She committed herself totally to every ministry she undertook, recognising that it was in service to God.

Several words come to mind when I think of Sr Helen. The first is determination. Once she decided to do something it was going to be done. She never countenanced failure. Twice she broke her leg badly, but each time she came back more resolute than ever. I picture her slowly climbing the hill on Cape Clear island on top of which stood our rented house, a hill so steep the owner was shocked the day we arrived on the island and he saw how old our little group was. But foot by foot, she climbed, never hesitating, til she reached the top. And she would do it all over again the next day. A metaphor for her life.

In her fifties she decided to learn to drive. I don’t know how she passed the test or negotiated Cork city’s crazy roads without incident, or found her way around the country – but she did. Her determination saw her through. She felt safe because her choice of car was based on religious considerations – a Fiat 131. Fiat – confidence or trust in God. 131 reminded her of the Holy Trinity – one in three and three in one.

She taught my sister Margaret how to drive, and after two or three quick lessons, had Margaret drive all the way from St Maries of the Isle to Doon. How both arrived home unscathed can only be attributed to the intervention of the Holy Trinity.

Another word is obsession, or in teen speak, fangirling. She was a fangirl before the term was invented. She would become interested in an individual, a tv show, a celebrity, a politician and be utterly devoted to them. Bobby Ewing, Princess Diana, David Beckham, Ian Paisley, CJ Haughey, Jack Lynch, in the very old days – an eclectic collection. She loved gardening too, and spent hours arranging and rearranging her patch of garden, inveigling the help of Bertie. It was a mystery how she was able to lift rocks so large they were almost heavier than herself.

She was a bit of a gatherer/collector, and her desk and room would be crammed with trinkets and assorted paraphernalia of all kinds. To confirmed minimalists like myself, it was hard on the eyes. The decluttering expert Marie Kondo would have her work cut out with Sr Helen. All her possessions gave her joy.

Another word, of course, is home/family. Though away from Doon for three quarters of a century, she still called it home. She must have been one of the few religious sisters in Ireland to still have her own bed in the house of her birth right into her nineties. And home she came, as often as she could, by car or train, until just a few years ago. She was fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could. She doted on her nieces and nephews and her grandnieces and grandnephews, Ryans and Moloneys. She showered us with love, offered us opportunities – my sisters got summer jobs in Cork because of her – helped my mother promote her knitting enterprise.

With her sturdy old camera, she chronicled our growing up, filling albums with photographs neatly captioned. She joined us on family holidays, took us on pilgrimage, filled us with goodies. She loved Vienetta ice cream. She kept a daily diary that recorded all the her thoughts and activities, as well as how often she rang my mother (which was almost daily) and how often she came home (almost every other week). She loved us and we knew it. I think of all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, going door to door, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied. It was a difficult chore to do, month after month, year after year, and I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.

The word I associate with her most of all is faith. Sr Helen gave her life completely to God. Everything she did was rooted in her unwavering faith in God. Never afraid of exploring new avenues to God, she enthusiastically embraced the new religious movements in the church that followed after Vatican II. In the 70s, it was Charismatic Renewal. We spent several Easters at giant Charismatic Renewal meetings with her in Limerick. She never received the gift of tongues but she was loquacious enough in one language. Later it was the neo-Catechumenate. Every week she had prayer meetings to attend, and every year pilgrimages to go on. She didn’t just know about Jesus, she knew Jesus. She was a wonderful ad for the religious life and the Christian faith, a woman of compassion, a sister of Mercy. Knowing that she was in God’s safe hands, she had no fear of death.

Though wonderfully cared for and comfortable in her last years, it wasn’t easy to watch this irrepressible, vivacious, dynamic little woman slowly fade to skin and bone. To see her mute and disengaged, smiling but not really comprehending, living but not alive.

For almost three quarters of a century she served God as a Sister of Mercy in this place. She was a rock of faith, a fount of love, a model for how a religious should live. She conveyed, in the words of Pope Francis, the joy of the Gospel. She lived the Sermon on the Mount.

In his apostolic letter, Gaudete et Exsultate, published last year, Pope Francis examines what it means to be a Christian, what makes a saint. He describes the beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as “the Christian’s identity card.” He says, “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”

We gain true happiness by aligning our wills and our actions with the will of God, as expressed in the beatitudes. In living like this, Pope Francis says, we become the saint next door. That is how I remember Sr Helen, a saint next door, who espoused the beatitudes. Pure in heart, poor in spirit, righteous, meek, merciful, empathetic, a peacemaker.

We commit her soul to God today, relieved that she is free at last from infirmity and the burdens of old age, thrilled that she is now able to enjoy, with her family and loved ones gone before her, the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God. We rejoice and are glad.

The church, women, and the cult of virginity, Part II

It seems virginity is popular. Of all my post-Christmas posts, my little reflection on ‘The church, women, and the cult of virginity’ has got the biggest response. No surprise, I suppose, since anything to do with sex attracts attention. But I think a better explanation for its popularity is that people agree with what I wrote. The Catholic Church’s seeming fixation with sex, and with female virginity, resonates with a lot of readers. This obsession is fundamentally about the exercise (by celibate males) of power and control. Think about the ‘churching’ of new mothers, a type of ritual purification women had to go through shortly after childbirth. Think about the shame and shaming of unmarried mothers and how so many of these women were treated in the not so recent past, while the men involved suffered no major repercussions. Women were ‘fallen,’ men were not. It wasn’t just a church obsession but a societal one too.

Confession has been used for a similar purpose. In some places it still is. Asking intrusive questions, seeking intimate details, about what a penitent did or did not do, or what the penitent thought or did not think, was a method of control. It was and is an abuse of a beautiful sacrament. It is extraordinary how many (primarily) older people are crippled with scruples or worried about ‘bad thoughts’ or minor infractions which occurred long ago but that continue to torment them. In church teaching and preaching, there was a negative attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex within marriage was understood as something functional, mechanical, cold; an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sex, and anything to do with it, was dirty. And so any expression of sexual intimacy induced tremendous feelings of guilt.

But sex is good and our sexuality used constructively is a beautiful thing. Our sexuality is a gift from God and so is something wonderful. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis writes about the ‘joy’ of love.

The ‘MeToo’ movement is about women demanding respect. It is insisting that (powerful) men treat women and their bodies with the dignity that is their right. That we need a movement such as MeToo in the 21st century is sad. That the church needs to examine its language about sex and sexual morality is also not only necessary but urgent.