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.

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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.

Francis reminds me why I am a Christian

Yesterday Pope Francis pulled off yet another surprise. At the end of his five-hour trip to the island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of migrants who are detained there and in similar centres across Southern Europe, he brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome aboard his papal airliner. According to reports, the three lucky families, all Muslim, had been chosen by lot from among the 3000 people held on the Greek island.

The pope expressed the hope that the world would “respond in a way worthy of our common humanity” as attitudes to the refugee crisis continue to harden in Europe and elsewhere. Francis’ actions were a calculated attempt to draw attention to the crisis, which he said was the worst since the Second World War. He wanted to offer hope to people left with nothing but the tiniest of hope, and also to prick the conscience of governments who now want to build walls as their preferred response to this humanitarian catastrophe.

Some will accuse the pope of meddling in politics and dismiss his gesture as yet another example of his genius for good PR. But what the pope is doing is simply putting the parable of the Good Samaritan into practice. He is trying to demonstrate that Christian love is about far more than sexual ethics or who should use public restrooms (as some Christians in the United States in particular seem to think) – it is about concrete love of neighbour irrespective of who he or she is. 

Francis reminds me of the reason I wanted to become a clergyman. The example of people like Jean Donovan and Oscar Romero, martyred for standing in solidarity with the poor of El Salvador, is what motivated me as an idealistic teenager to give my life to the church. Not lace or the allure of dressing in fancy garments, but grace and a message of hope and love. Not a desire to find refuge in a ‘smaller, purer church’ in combat with the modern world, but to be part of a church on the streets engaging with people as we find them.

That’s what Francis tries to do and teach. Thank God for him and his example.

Could we really continue to feel pain after death?

A medic said something to me the other day that really made me stop and think. I was talking about my pain and how I could understand why some people would choose to die rather than live with constant chronic pain. The medic’s reply went something like: “But we don’t know what happens on the other side. We don’t know if the pain ends once you die.”

I was taken aback. Could what he said be true? Could it really be that your chronic pain would remain even after you had breathed your last? That one’s soul or spirit or life force would continue to experience suffering even after the physical body was no more? Maybe that’s what Hell is, but I can imagine nothing more unjust or wrong.

When I told somebody what the medic had said, that person came up with an interesting analogy that also gave me pause for thought. Why do some people experience phantom pain in a limb that has been amputated? The limb isn’t part of the body any more, yet the person feels terrible pain where the limb used to be. Why is that? And might the same thing happen on a larger scale after an aching body breathes its last?

It’s too horrific to contemplate. And if there is a creator, as I believe there to be, why would a creator punish anyone in that cruel way? Why should I continue to suffer after death, when, through no fault of my own, I have already suffered so much in life? It goes against every concept of justice and decency. It goes against any notion of a loving God. I’d rather that there was no afterlife than think I would not be allowed to Rest in Peace.