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.

Hounded by the black dog

The black dog has been hounding me for the past week or so, that feeling when you are low and listless and each day becomes a struggle.
The black dog grabbed me and held on tight. Only now is his grip beginning to loose. It’s not always easy to identify what springs him from his kennel but, I think, several factors have been at play.
The usual January blues have done their thing. It’s that time of year when the Christmas buzz has dissipated, but the all-enveloping seasonal darkness remains.
There has been a spike in my chronic pain. Cold weather exacerbates the constant ache in my back, which of course is not helped by the January blues. Medication does little for my pain. Doctors can do nothing. All I can do is struggle on.
The state of the church in Ireland and the world has left me feeling low. The post-Christmas assembly of Irish Redemptorists demonstrated with crushing clarity just how fragile we have become as a body of men and how fragile is the state of religious life in the western world. What will we be like in ten years’ time? How can we plan for the future when it appears there is no future? How different it seems now from the organisation I joined straight out of school almost 40 years ago.
The state of the world hasn’t helped. The Madness of King Donald and the British Tory Party, as well as the coming to power of extremists such as the new Brazilian president and the clinging to power of autocrats such as the current Venezuelan president, has left one feeling angry, bemused and worried for the future. Our bright, progressive, tech-driven world is threatened by the primal forces of fearful populism and narrow nationalism.
There is also the peculiar loneliness of the long-distance celibate, the tsunami of aloneness, of lack of intimacy, of disappointment and regret, that occasionally washes over and engulfs and almost drowns.
There has been nostalgia for days past, when I was busy and occupied, and thrilled to the buzz of the editor’s office.
So I wonder in the midst of all of this, what have I achieved over my almost 57 years of life? What, if any, difference have I made to the world or the church? What have I contributed over 30 years of active ministry? It’s a desperate seeking after validation, scratching beneath the surface of my existence to see if I have left any visible imprint for good. I know I have, though, when hounded by the black dog, I see just the trace of a blurred line on a tattered copybook.
All I can do at this stage is to try to be good, be honest, be loving, and a little prophetic if I can. And if I can manage any of that, and smile a bit more, then I am doing something meaningful.

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?

Why it’s time to drop mandatory celibacy

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich hit the nail on the head in a New Year’s Day homily when he spoke of the need for the church to modify tradition in response to changing modern times.

Change is needed, he said, “in light of the failure” surrounding the clergy sex abuse crisis. One long-standing tradition that must be up for “review,” he said, is celibacy for priests.

The current measures to address sex abuse are not enough without adapting church teachings, the cardinal said. “Yes, matters are about development and improvement and prevention and independent reviews — but more is also demanded.

“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of church teachings are required.”

“I believe the hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the church to renewal and reform,” Marx said.

The cardinal’s statements coincide with plans to openly debate the issue of celibacy at the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring. The bishops have said the workshop during the meeting is a direct response to the abuse crisis.

It is wonderful that Cardinal Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, has spoken so strongly about the need to examine mandatory celibacy in light of the abuse crisis, but, it seems to me, this issue needs to be discussed on its own merits.

There were good historical reasons for its introduction in the Middle Ages but mandatory celibacy serves no good purpose now. Many priests have found it an impossible burden. Many others have coped with it in unhealthy and destructive ways. The cost to the church has been incalculable. The celibacy rule has contributed to the vocations crisis that is engulfing the church in so many parts of the world. In countries like Ireland, priests are ageing and seminaries stand empty, while the number of clustered and priestless parishes continues to climb.

Meanwhile, the church loses millions of members every year to other Christian dominations and religions. Between 2014-2016, Brazil lost nine million Catholics to protestantism. Committed lay leaders do their best, but without priests the church dies. Without priests, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, and the Eucharist is the life-blood of the church. There are many former priests who would love to celebrate the sacraments again, but are forbidden to do so, and many others who feel called to the priesthood but not to the celibate way of life. Celibacy is too big an obstacle for them, and so their priestly vocation is lost. Yet, even in the face of this stark reality, most men in church leadership think that clinging to the man-made rule of mandatory celibacy is more important than meeting the urgent sacramental needs of God’s people. Celibacy trumps everything. This is not just tragic, but catastrophic.

Mandatory celibacy has forced many thousands of men out of the priesthood. They meet someone in the course of their ministry and sexual attraction takes over. They fall in love. They try hard to keep their vows but are not able. They are caught between love of their vocation and love of another person. Ideally, they should be able to love both but they cannot. So they are lost to the priesthood.

Others remain in the priesthood while not observing their vow of celibacy. These priests are conflicted. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of the emotional and psychological damage they are doing to themselves and the person they love, but they cannot stop themselves. They don’t want to or can’t give up the ministry, but neither are they able to give up their affair. And so they juggle the two. It is unfair to everyone, especially the person they love.

Then, there are the secret children fathered by priests. Nobody knows how many secret children are out there, only that it is a scandal that cannot be denied. The damage done to these children and their mothers (and fathers) is incalculable.

Mandatory celibacy is a form of control. It is easier for a bishop to exercise authority over a priest who does not have commitments or obligations as a husband and father. The priest is easier to move around. He is more dependent on his superior, more vulnerable. He costs less to support and there are no potential conflicts around property and inheritance rights. As Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall put it in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, celibacy “is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. … To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence.”

Mandatory celibacy facilitates clericalism. It leads some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege. The collar, the vestments, the titles, the role – all these offer status, identity, comfort, security, a feeling of superiority, of being part of an elite club, a special caste. The culture of clericalism compensates for the privations of celibacy. It also stokes ambition. Without a partner or children as a focus or distraction, some priests invest all their energy in climbing the clerical ladder. Promotion and deference provide them with a sense of validation, and help them feel better about themselves.

Mandatory celibacy leads to loneliness and isolation. In the past, most priests had live-in housekeepers or shared rectories with other clergy. They had company, companionship and support. Today most live alone. They are left to fend for themselves, often with little help from those in authority. Loneliness can lead to a feeling of isolation, or the risk of addiction, or a tendency towards melancholia. Some use work as a coping mechanism. They need to be busy, so they don’t have to acknowledge the emptiness they feel inside or cope with the painful reality of spending every night in a cold, empty house. Others have found solace in the bottle, or on internet chatrooms, or in a particular obsession.

Mandatory celibacy promotes a warped notion of sex and sexuality. It implies that sex and sexuality are bad, and over-identifies holiness with sexual abstinence. It inhibits healthy, open relationships that people need if they are to be fully alive. To live a life empty of physical affection is a tremendous burden for many.

Of course, abolishing mandatory celibacy would be no panacea for the church. It’s not going to pack the pews again or solve the vocations crisis. It would create problems of its own but ministers of other denominations and religions have to deal with these challenges all the time, and they do. Whether there is a married or unmarried priesthood, there will always be scandals, because priests are human.

And even if abolishing mandatory celibacy does nothing to address the sexual abuse crisis or produce a single new vocation, it is still the right thing to do because it would make for a far healthier priesthood and a far healthier church.

What being pro-life really means (and why yesterday was a good day)

Yesterday, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker, making her third in line to the presidency. It was a good day for democracy and many people rejoiced.

Of course, most evangelicals and many in the American Catholic Church did not rejoice. They don’t like the Democrats or Pelosi. They have bought into a rugged individualism type of politics and religion that rewards wealth and hard work and individual freedoms like the right to carry weapons (it’s why they can support a twice-divorced, tax-avoiding, sexist, racist, foul-mouthed president as someone specially anointed by God). For others, their opposition to Pelosi and the Democrats has got to do with abortion. This one issue frames their entire political thinking.

Of course, abortion is a critical issue. Preserving life, protecting the most vulnerable and defenceless, has a particular urgency for Christians because it is literally about life or death.

But what many forget is that being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion. It is to support life from womb to tomb. It is to seek to do all we can to protect and enhance life outside the womb as much as inside the womb.

This is known as having a consistent ethic of life – that, as Christians, we support everything that is pro-life and oppose everything that is anti-life. The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago described this stance as ‘the seamless garment’ approach to life issues. Christians believe that all human life is sacred because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. And so, for us, all issues to do with life are of one piece, like a “seamless garment” (a reference to the garment Jesus wore before his crucifixion which was woven seamlessly from top to bottom).

Life issues are interrelated, interconnected, seamless. As Cardinal Bernardin put it: “Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.”

If we are committed to “preserving life” (opposing abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc), we should also be committed to “enhancing life” (supporting social justice, care of the earth, those on the margins). In other words, being pro-life is all-embracing.

That is where most in the Republican Party and in other right-wing parties get it wrong. It is certainly where so many conservative Catholics and evangelicals get it wrong. Already the newly inaugurated right-wing, evangelical president of Brazil is opening up the Amazon to even more exploitation and is rolling back hard-earned rights won by minority groups. Where is the Christianity in that?