What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

Having just finished a fine biography of Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman, I have been struck by some striking similarities between Gorbachev’s career and that of Pope Francis.

Both reached the top against the odds. Gorbachev’s background and private views should have ensured he was never promoted to a position of real power. Both his grandfathers had been arrested and tortured by Stalin; as a young boy growing up in the countryside, Gorbachev saw and disapproved of Stalin’s vicious policy of collectivisation and murder and deportation of innocent peasant families; he believed the system urgently needed reform. A brilliant student and organiser, he worked his way to the very top and began his reforms, by which time it was too late for the system to stop him.

After coming a surprising second in the 2005 papal conclave, it was thought that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope had passed. Most observers knew little about him; his opponents made sure to highlight his stormy early career as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. By the time of the surprise conclave in 2011, it was thought his advancing years would eliminate him from consideration. Yet he was elected, despite the efforts of traditionalists to stop his candidacy.

Both made an extraordinary initial impact on the world. Gorbachev was young, energetic, open, charismatic – a Soviet leader unlike any of his predecessors. From his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis made an indelible impression on those watching. His simplicity, humility, and humour were a breath of fresh air.

Both had a reformist agenda. Gorbachev spoke about the need for glasnost and perestroika, and began to try to transform the Communist Party and the USSR. Pope Francis spoke of a ‘church on the street,’ emphasising the need for mercy and compassion in dealing with people in difficult personal situations, and for a synodal model of church where there would be greater dialogue and openness to change.

Both encountered strong opposition from within almost from the start. In the beginning Gorbachev was able to placate or outmanoeuvre his opponents but eventually, they began to get the better of him. His finally stepped down several months after a failed coup against him in August 1991.

Opposition to Pope Francis has been intensifying in conservative circles for several years. They have agitated against him in public, tried to block his initiatives, and even to force his resignation so they can get a more like-minded man in his place. That battle continues.

Despite the tremendous pressures they faced, both had an innate optimism and remarkable energy that kept them going even in the face of extraordinary obstacles and setbacks.

Gorbachev achieved great things – an end to the old cold war and to communism in the old CSSR, the freeing up of eastern Europe without bloodshed, the reunification of Germany. Pope Francis has promoted inclusion and reform. Though his vision has not been realised he has given us hope. We pray that the transformation and renewal he has promised may come about.

Advertisements

The world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much as the poorest 50% – an unjust situation at odds with the gospel

A shocking statistic published a couple of days ago shows the extent to which our world is messed up. The top 26 billionaires are as wealthy as 3.6 billion people, according to a report by Oxfam International. The net worth of these mostly American top 26 reached $1.4 trillion last year. Or, to put it another way, the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. Billionaires, who now number a record 2,208, are growing $2.5 billion richer every single day, while the net worth of the world’s poorest half continues to dwindle.
Since the great recession of a decade ago, the number of billionaires has nearly doubled, a gap that will only increase as China’s economic slowdown sharpens and with Brexit and Trump’s trade war creating more uncertainty.
No wonder there has been an increase in the popularity of extremist parties and individuals, especially on the right.
For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our progress in human rights, there is a growing gap between rich and poor. The rich will always find ways to protect and increase their wealth, even in times of turmoil and certainty. (Just look at how leading Brexiteers are transferring assets overseas in case their deluded project goes wrong.)
More people than ever are excluded access from a decent, sustainable, even a basic, quality of living. Women suffer the most from equality. Of course, the rich practice philanthropy, and many are genuine about it, but charity is never a substitute for social justice. It simply keeps the current system in place.
As the wealthy gather for their annual powwow at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a plan is needed to more fairly distribute the goods of the earth. Oxfam recommends that nations tax wealth at fairer levels, raise rates on personal income and corporate taxes and eliminate tax avoidance by companies and the super-rich.
Here in Ireland, as we celebrate the centenary of the first Dail, we also have a long way to go to build a more just society.
Action for justice is a Christian imperative. The church has a whole body of teaching built up over decades that speaks about the rights of workers and of the poor, a body of teaching that places the church and its members firmly on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the church teaches that action for justice is a constitutive part of living the Gospel. It is not enough for us to tell the poor, the abused, the unjustly treated, that we will pray for them or that we will give money to charity to support them. We must also do whatever we can to address the injustice. Our faith compels us to be concerned for justice and to work for it.
We must support all efforts to build a fairer, more just world.

Gillette’s new ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect. How could anyone be outraged by that?

Gillette, the razor company, released a new television ad this week that has generated lots of controversy. The ad isn’t another version of the shirtless man, gazing into a mirror, face covered in lather, as he shaves himself fresh and handsome for the day ahead, to the old jingle “The best a man can get.”

This ad adopts a radically different approach. There is no shirtless man in front of a mirror. Instead, through a series of different scenes, it provokes viewers to take on issues including sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and toxic masculinity, praising those who’ve abandoned “the same old excuses” for such behaviour in the past.

It is Gillette’s response to the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to speak out against sexual exploitation in a way they never had before.

Instead of “The best a man can get” line, the new ad challenges, “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad encourages its audience to reflect on what masculinity means, and how a man should see himself.

Many viewers were thrilled with its message of tolerance and respect. But others were outraged by what they saw as another example of political correctness gone mad. They claimed, in the words of Piers Morgan, that the ad is stating that men are bad and masculinity is a bad thing, that it is a shameless exercise in man-shaming and emasculating men.

But what I saw is a beautiful ad with a powerful message. It’s not attacking men or masculinity. It’s attacking toxic behaviour, the kind that leads to intimidation and violence, and women being afraid to be out alone at night. It’s challenging the kind of behaviour nobody – male or female – should engage in.

It’s extraordinary how so many people managed to get offended by the ad. And how the outrage came from the same predictable sources – the right-wing, the traditionalists, the Jordan Peterson fans, the Trumpsters, those who see liberal conspiracies everywhere.

Look at the ad and see if you’re offended. And if you are, then ask yourself why.

It reminds us to think about how we see and relate to each other. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” Pope Francis writes in The Joy of Love. And, of course, this doesn’t just happen within marriage.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a word of encouragement or acceptance or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do.

The Gillette ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect.

Why should anyone be outraged about that?

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.

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

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

Ten wishes for the church in 2017

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

Things that give my joy

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

• A Liverpool win

• A piece of chocolate of any kind

• Seeing my mother

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

• A Munster or Ireland rugby victory

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

• Any sign of renewal or reform of the church

• Family members doing well

• Receiving a thoughtful message or kind word

• A day when pain doesn’t spoil things