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.

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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.

That we will (be allowed to) use our gifts (Homily for 2nd Sunday of the Year)

On October 5th, 2011, Steve Jobs died. I’m sure you remember who he was – the co-founder of Apple. He was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. A visionary and technology genius who made his company one of the most valuable in the world.

Steve Jobs was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPad, all those gadgets starting with the letter i. I wrote this homily on an iMac computer as I was checking football scores on an iPhone listening to iTunes on an iPad. At the time he died, Jobs was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies.

Steve Jobs was a gifted man who used his gifts to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s almost a decade ago now, but those who witnessed it will never forget the moment. It was Britain’s Got Talent and a frumpy, middle-aged woman with a goofy smile and dreadful hairstyle, came out to sing. The judges sniggered, as did many of those watching. Here was another desperate wannabe who would make a fool of herself in public. But then she began to sing and people’s jaws dropped. This dowdy-looking woman could sing – beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully. She was blessed with a rare talent – and now, at last, the entire world could hear it and appreciate it. Susan Boyle’s gift.

When Christopher Nolan was born in 1966, his parents Bernadette and Joseph, were devastated to discover he had severe brain damage. The doctors told them he would not be able to talk, or to walk or use his hands; he would never be independent.

His parents did all they could to make Christopher’s life as normal as possible. They involved him in daily events; took him to the park, read to him, told him stories, prayed over him, surrounded him with love and laughter – though it seemed he couldn’t really engage or respond. When he was about 10, they bought him an electric typewriter. Bernadette strapped a unicorn stick to his forehead, like a pencil, and holding his head in her hands, encouraged him to stab at the keys. She did that day after day, and nothing happened.

And then one day, August 20, 1977, Bernadette watched, as slowly Christopher began to put words together. It was a poem, beautifully written, called “I learn to bow.” Christopher was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 he had published a book of poems called ‘Damburst of Dreams’ and six years later an amazing autobiography, called ‘Under the eye of the clock.’

This boy, whom people thought couldn’t communicate, was able to write. So good a writer was he that he won the Whitbread Prize for literature. Inside that broken body was an extraordinary literary talent. Christopher Nolan’s gift.

In today’s second reading, St Paul speaks about gifts. There are a variety of gifts, he says, working in different ways in different people, and these gifts are given to us by God. They are given to each person for a good purpose – to give glory to God. One person may have the gift of preaching; another of teaching or instructing in the faith; another of healing, another of being prophetic, and so on. All these, St Paul says, are the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different people for the sake of the kingdom.

We are given a similar message in the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana. The miracle Jesus works of turning water into wine has been described as a gift miracle. It wasn’t just Jesus getting the bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation – one barrel of cheap wine would have achieved that. It is the sheer abundance of wine and its quality that is the significant thing. All that wine is an image of God’s generosity to us. God has gifted us abundantly; gifted us in so many ways, and Jesus’ life and ministry is a sign of that.

What do today’s readings say to us?

First, to acknowledge our gifts. We are all gifted. God has gifted every one of us. We don’t all have the same gifts – but we are all gifted. Many of us have a hard time believing this. In a world obsessed with celebrity and money and looks, we can find it hard to believe that we amount to anything much. If we have low self-esteem, we can find it really hard to believe. Yet the truth is, we are all gifted. God has blessed each of us with an abundance of gifts. We, you and I, are gifted.

Second, help those you love to identify their gifts. Nobody is good for nothing; we are all good at lots of things. Sometimes we just need to be prodded, encouraged, reminded. Make it a point to point out to those you love the gifts they possess. Point out to them what God sees in them.

Third, use your gifts. Let the Spirit work in you to bring your gifts out. Use them to build up the body of Christ, as St Paul instructs. Let your gifts flow abundantly, like the new wine at Cana. Maybe you’re good at music – can you use that gift in church and outside too? Maybe you’re good with young people. Maybe you’re a good public speaker. Maybe you’ve a gift for helping others a local charity could use. Maybe you’ve the gift of prophecy, of being able to draw attention to injustice in society and in the church. Use your gifts for goodness sake.

Finally, pray that our church will acknowledge the gifts and potential of all its members, women and men, and allow them full expression.

Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Christopher Nolan had gifts inside that, released, brought pleasure to many and glory to God.

The invitation to us today is to let our gifts flow.

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?

Six men who’ve inspired me

We honoured them last night, six men who have devoted lifetimes of service to the Irish Redemptorists. It is an annual ritual – whether we are gathered on retreat or on chapter, as we have been this week, we take one night out to remember and celebrate our jubilarians, those who have significant anniversaries this year. Two of those present were celebrating 60 years as Redemptorist priests; one was celebrating 50 years of priesthood, another 40 years of profession as a Redemptorist, while the two younger ones were marking 25 years since they made their first vows. In age they range from the mid-eighties to the late forties; a couple are frail now, dependant on walking sticks to get around but all six remain full of life and vigour.

After the celebratory Mass and dinner, brief speeches were made, little tributes to each of these men, who have served God in many parts of the world. The older among them joined the Redemptorists in the peak period for religious life and the church in Ireland. Churches and seminaries were full; new missions were opening up abroad almost every year. Times were good. The younger among them joined at a time when scandals were beginning to shame the church at home and abroad and religious life was no longer a popular choice for men or women to make. And yet they chose to join and to remain even in the face of scandal and disappointment and the questions about our future viability as a religious congregation in Ireland.

And during those years – 60 and 50 and 40 and 25 – these six have ministered with distinction. That is why, in a world full of celebrities and reality TV stars, they are amongst my top heroes. They have dedicated their lives completely to the service of others; they have sacrificed their ambitions and independence in order to be at the disposal of the poor of Africa and of the Philippines and of Brazil and Ireland; they have taught and preached and listened and washed feet. They have gone places they would not have normally chosen to go. They have been good and faithful servants. And I admire their selflessness and their love and witness. Confreres like these six men keep me going when I’m feeling low. They remind me of what religious life is all about. Their love of God helps me to deepen mine.

Three ways to be a good news person

There’s been so much bad news over the past year, indeed over the past decade, that it can feel overwhelming. It’s a situation made all the more toxic by the Trump White House and the Brexit mess.

Aware of the prevalence of bad news stories, and the impact they have on readers, The New York Times newspaper decided some time ago to introduce a feature called The Week in Good News. This weekly newsletter, it explains, is meant to send the reader into the weekend with a smile, or at least a lighter heart. It includes little items of good news that readers otherwise might have missed, little stories that act as a welcome counterpoint to the surfeit of bad news that fills the rest of the paper.

A good approach to the new year would be for us to focus more on good news and less on bad news, those stories or opinion pieces that agitate or divide. While we can’t avoid the news if we wish to be informed, we can choose how to process it.

My advice to self this January is to remember three words beginning with  the letter ‘c’ that I hope to incorporate into my daily living:

1. Be clean. English is a rich language with about one million words. We don’t need to use bad language to express ourselves, even if an image of Trump or Jacob Rees Mogg pops up on the screen.

2. Be courteous. Use only words that are respectful, that honour rather than dishonour the other. This is hard to do, especially if we get angry easily or suffer from road rage, as I do.

3. Be constructive. Use words that are positive, not negative; that build up rather than knock down, that are life-enhancing rather than life-diminishing. This means resisting the urge to gossip or to damage another’s character, which is also hard to do, especially in the highly inflamed social media world of today.

The power of language is extraordinary. We should try to use it in a positive way.

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.