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

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

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The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.

A God deaf to my appeals

I have written countless Gospel commentaries and preached countless homilies over the years and I have always done my best to offer them as Good News. Challenging, consoling, uplifting words.

But I am coming up short now.

Tomorrow’s readings are all about perseverance in prayer. Keep on knocking on the door, and eventually God will answer. Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives, the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will have the door opened to them.

Except it’s not the case.

I have asked and I have sought and I have knocked – and there has been no response from on high. Many others have asked and sought and knocked on my behalf too – and have found only silence. Candles burning to the quick, prayers unheeded, the door left firmly closed. After two years of hell, my pain is more intense and more deeply rooted than ever. My despair beyond despair.

In my old pre-pain, preaching days, I would have found ways to explain or make sense of this silence from beyond. God will answer in God’s own good time, God knows what’s best for us, God’s ways are not our ways. 

Maybe that’s true, except that’s not what tomorrow’s readings promise. All I know from long, painful experience is that the God to whom I have dedicated my life has been dead to my appeals, and, whatever about miserable me, God has been dead to the appeals of my saintly mother and my aunts and of so many, many others.

All I am left with are tears. I’m not even sure that it’s worth my while screaming with the psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” for all I seem to encounter is the sound of silence.