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 message from St Patrick (homily for St Patrick’s Day)

St Patrick’s Day was one of my favourite days of the year when I was growing up. There was the fact that we had a free day from school and the big parade in Limerick. Plus there was the fact that we all wore shamrock – the bigger the sprig the better.

I always wore the biggest sprig I could find – and I loved doing it because, after all, it was a badge of my identify. It represented who I was, how I saw myself, and it made me feel proud. Proud to be Irish and proud of the faith St Patrick is credited with bringing to these shores 1,600 years ago.

So proud was I of my Irishness and my faith it was no surprise that for my confirmation, at the bright old ago of ten, I chose the name Patrick. 

Pride, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins, but it also can have a positive aspect. Pride can be about appreciating what we have; acknowledging what we have to celebrate; it can be about standing tall, conscious of our achievements.

And that’s what we do on St Patrick’s day, and what countless others do across the world, as they celebrate their Irishness, or become Irish for the day. They take pride in their heritage.

I wonder what St Patrick would say to us Irish if he paid a return visit today. I think he would start by acknowledging all the good things we should celebrate and be proud of:

  • Our extraordinary generosity – which shows itself in good times and bad. Think of the service and sacrifice of Michael Ryan, the Lahinch-born engineer killed in the air crash in Ethiopia last week; he was part of our long history of giving and compassion.
  • He would celebrate the strong community spirit which is still evident, the support people in local communities offer each other, especially in difficult times. Think of the hundreds of thousands of euros raised in the past week for cancer-stricken former Cork All Ireland winning footballer, Kieran O’Connor.
  • He would point to our wonderful creativity – which expresses itself in the arts and music and culture. Think of our current generation of great Irish writers who continue the proud tradition of Heaney and Yeats and Swift. Recall that it’s 25 years since Riverdance was first performed and how Irish music and dance has entertained the world.
  • He would thrill to our sporting success in so many fields, our ability to punch above our weight (though not in Cardiff yesterday). Fourteen winners at Cheltenham this week. An organisation in the GAA which is probably the most professional amateur body of its kind in the world.
  • He would note the resilience we have shown, especially in those difficult years of economic distress and hardship. No rioting, no civil unrest – just quiet determination and forbearance.
  • He would spotlight the talent of our young people, the demand for their skills by the world’s top tech companies, almost all of which have a major campus here.
  • He would praise our tolerance and openness in a world increasingly less tolerant and open. Ireland is no longer the dull, monochrome country it was when I was young. It is more diverse, cosmopolitan, inclusive, mature.

 

 

All of these Patrick would tell us to celebrate. And I think, too, he would encourage us to use these strengths to build a more just society, that offers a decent standard of living to all our people, that is welcoming and inclusive and more equitable, a world leader in care of the sick, the poor and the earth.

Pride in our church has taken a tremendous battering in recent years. For so long we were rightly proud of our missionary tradition, of the extraordinary work Irish missionaries had done in every corner of the world, not only to spread the faith, but also to introduce education and health care.

And we were proud of our faith that had stood firm for centuries – the Mass rocks dotting the countryside giving testament to the faith of our forbears; the sturdy, stone churches built after the famine as a bold proclamation of resilience and hope. And so we wore the shamrock proudly as a symbol of that enduring faith.

Now, after years of revelations of wrongdoing, we look on a demoralised church, from which so many have walked away.

I wonder what message Patrick would have for our church if he visited Ireland in 2019. I think he would highlight the many good things we should celebrate and be proud of:

  • parents eager to pass on the faith despite all the challenges
  • religious like Fr Peter McVerry and Br Kevin Crowley who stand alongside the poorest and most vulnerable
  • organisations like the St Vincent de Paul who are Christ to so many in need
  • catechists, pastoral workers, and all those who give of their time to serve their parishes, keeping the faith alive.

All of these he would tell us to celebrate today.

And he would remind us, also, that whatever about losing faith in the church and its leadership, we should never lose faith in God. He would tell us to not let go of God because of the failures of the church. He would tell us to hang onto our faith, for there will be times when we will need it. It was his faith that kept him going, that sustained Patrick, in his captivity as a young man.

And he would remind us that the church isn’t just the hierarchy, weary men in collars and mitres – the church is the People of God, all the baptised. He would ask us to claim it, to work for a new evangelisation, a new spring, a vibrant Christian community, a church on fire – lay-led, welcoming, inclusive, prayerful, just, compassionate, tolerant, loving – a church of which he and all of us could be rightly proud.

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.

Celebrating what unites us (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)

In July 1949, Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, died. Political leaders and ordinary Catholics wanted to attend his funeral. But there was a problem – he was a member of the Church of Ireland and his funeral service was taking place inside a Protestant church. Catholics were forbidden from attending Protestant services. And so the Catholics had to wait outside the cathedral until the service was over.

Fast forward to November 1974 and the funeral service of Erskine Childers, the fourth president of Ireland. This also took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, for Erskine Childers was also a member of the Church of Ireland. But now times had changed, and Catholics did not have to wait outside. They were able to attend the service and pay their respects to a great man on his sudden passing.

What made things different, of course, was Vatican II and the opening out of the Catholic Church to the world, and the thawing of its relations with the other Christian churches. Steady progress towards greater Christian unity has been made in the decades since the Council. Agreements have been reached with other churches on the fundamental nature of baptism and eucharist and on the question of justification by faith.

Here in Ireland, with our difficult history, great strides have been made in recent decades also, and great gratitude is due to church leaders and others who, often at considerable cost to themselves, extended the hand of friendship across the religious and political divide.

But major challenges remain. Some people are uneasy about the ecumenical movement and want nothing to do with it. For some Catholics, to dialogue seriously with the reformed churches is to risk compromising on the truth, which they believe the Catholic Church alone has in all its fullness. For some Protestants, what the ecumenical movement is about is Protestants bending the knee to Rome. To engage in ecumenical dialogue is to lose through compromise what the Reformers lived and died for.

For ecumenists, on the other hand, there is a fear that the move towards greater unity has lost urgency. They are disappointed over failure to move where movement is obviously demanded – on inter-communion, on marriage, on so much else. They are frustrated over doctrines and laws and attitudes which seem to hold the churches back rather than draw them together. Indeed, it seems that even after the great progress of the last five decades, the Catholic Church is still no closer to full communion with anyone in the West. Women’s ordination, human sexuality, the role of the pope and church authority all remain seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

But while these obstacles seem capable of keeping the churches divided for now, it is important to acknowledge all that we do hold in common. We have broad agreement on what is known as “the deposit of faith”: the creeds and the canon of scripture. We believe in the same God and are in the same business of building God’s Kingdom.

There is so much we can learn from each other. As we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we thank God for all that unites us, and pray for ever greater unity in the years to come.

Irish Redemptorists look to next four years

Today Irish Redemptorists gather outside Newry, Co Down for a week-long event known as a Provincial Chapter. More than 60 members of the Province will take part in the gathering, which is held every four years. A Chapter is a legislative and deliberative body which elects members of the provincial government and decides on policy and priorities for the next four years. Anyone who is a professed member of the Irish Redemptorists is required to participate (the sick and old are exempt) while some lay colleagues also attend.

A Chapter is a good example of democracy at work within the church. Our national leadership are elected by a majority of the assembly; policy is decided by the assembly, and any major decisions (whether to close a house or start an initiative) are approved by the assembly. Leaders can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms. Unlike bishops, they know it’s not a job for life and that they will return to being foot soldiers all too soon. This keeps their feet on the ground and aids accountability.

A Chapter is also an opportunity for confreres from around the country and some living abroad to spend time together, to renew friendships and to deepen bonds. It is a valuable exercise in fraternity.

Of course, Chapters are not always bloodless affairs. Not everyone agrees on the way forward. Not all have the same vision. There will be disagreements and the odd personality clash. A Chapter is a human event after all.

And a Chapter such as this will also be a graphic reminder of the perilous state of the Redemptorists in Ireland today, and of the challenges facing the church as a whole on this island. We will be reminded with our very own eyes of how old we are getting, of how frail we are as individuals and as a body, and of our steady fall in numbers. We will be reminded of the pressing, difficult decisions we will have to make if we are to maintain a tangible presence in Ireland in the years ahead, decisions about plant and personnel, about apostolic priorities and care of the old and sick.

We will be reminded, also, of our need to develop closer ties with other Redemptorist provinces and of the need for amalgamation. Whereas the Brexiteers are trying to pull Europe apart, the signs of the times are compelling the Redemptorists to forge closer bonds with neighbours throughout Europe and beyond.

I took part in my first Chapter in 1984. I was 22 years old, newly professed and full of enthusiasm. As a political buff, I loved the intrigue around the election of our leaders. The assembly looked bright and vigorous, full of men in their prime. It gave me a buzz.

Thirty five years later, there is no buzz. I have been around a long time now. I know our strengths and our weaknesses. I know the challenges and painful decisions that lie ahead. I know that the pool of potential leaders among us is shallow. We are a tired bunch, battered by the scandals and disappointments of the past quarter century. No one will need to tell us to curb our enthusiasm.

Still, we will endeavour to soldier along, doing our best, for four more years.

Five little wishes for 2019

Nothing too ambitious, of course:

For an end to the stupidity that is Brexit. That sensible politicians on all sides of the House of Commons will insist on a People’s Vote, which will lead to a reversal of the decision made on the basis of lies and disinformation in June 2016.

For an end to the treachery that is the Trump administration. That publication of the Mueller report will finally force Republican members of Congress to realize that the rule of law and even personal self-interest far outweighs loyalty to a president who is loyal to no one but himself and his crooked family.

For an end to the scandal of homelessness in Ireland. An economy that is doing as well as ours should have no problem providing shelter for all its people. What is missing is the will to do it.

For an end to the sin of racism and xenophobia. That the increase in racism that has been enabled and encouraged by trumpism, Brexit and the growth in right-wing populism will be resisted and repelled by all right-thinking people at home and abroad. Calling out racists and shaming them on social media is a good way to go.

For an end to the culture of clericalism and cover up in the church. Despite Pope Francis’ best efforts, unreconstructed clericalism continues to do untold damage to the body of Christ. The careerists in the Curia are simply biding their time until Francis is gone. What is needed is a new council of the church, Vatican III, an assembly where voting rights would extend to lay men and women and not only to ordained clerics, to consider the mountain of pressing issues – vocations crisis, sex abuse scandals, the rights of women, mandatory celibacy, financial transparency, sexual ethics and attitude to those who are gay – that confront the church and threaten its future in large parts of the globe. It’s unlikely to happen this year, but then back in January 1958, no one expected that John XXIII would call a council that year either.

Miracles do happen, as the Limerick hurlers showed last year. And so we hope.

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.