The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

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.

Plain speaking – homily for 7th Sunday of the Year

Ten days ago soccer player Declan Rice announced he was switching his international allegiance from Ireland to England.

London-born Rice had represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level throughout his teen years. He had earned three caps for the senior international team, but these were friendly games, and due to a loophole in the law, the fact they were not competitive fixtures meant he could still switch allegiance if he wished. And he did. He was earning rave reviews for West Ham, and England came calling. Even though he had represented Ireland with pride for years, the lure of greater money and glory with England was too tempting. He couldn’t resist.

Naturally, Irish fans weren’t happy. Some were very angry. Twitter was on fire. I wrote an angry tweet myself. Sarcastic, bitter. Not a good look for a clergyman. Not a good look for one preaching on today’s readings.

I put my hand up. If I were in court and today’s Gospel was a charge sheet assessing how successful I am at following Jesus, I’d be found guilty, guilty of failing to do always as Jesus asks, guilty of failing to live always as Jesus commands.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give to those who beg from you, treat others as you would like them to treat you. 

All of these charges I have failed to keep at one time or another, in one way or another. Do not judge; do not condemn; forgive those who hurt you. But when it came to Declan Rice, I judged, I condemned, I didn’t forgive. While this might seem minor, it’s not an isolated incident. For even more incriminating evidence, I refer you to my Twitter account and what I’ve said about Brexiteers.

Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ manifesto, his vision, for how his disciples are to live. It’s a fleshing out of the ten commandments, a going into the nitty-gritty of what they mean, an explication of the attitudes and outlook Christians are called to have. It’s a demanding action plan; even an almost impossible one. It’s what Jesus presents to us.

So, what should we do? How must we respond?

First, we must adopt Jesus’ action plan, his template for living, and make it our own. This isn’t easy, as we know. The vision of Jesus is at odds with the way the world operates. It turns the standard way of behaving upside down. For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our development in human rights, we still have a lot of evolving to do if we are to live like Jesus.

Eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-semitism is increasing again. Last week 80 swastikas were daubed on Jewish graves in France; while in Britain anti-semitic bullying is ripping the Labour Party apart. Last week in America, a white newspaper editor called on the KKK to ride into Washington DC and start hanging liberals from trees. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, more than half of immigrants say they experienced racism in the past year.

Today, there are more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War, while millions of young women are trafficked into sex slavery every year. Bullying, domestic violence, sexual discrimination, homophobia are as rampant as ever. Social media has facilitated an explosion of hate speech.

Our church, which should live to a higher standard, has also failed abysmally to live by the vision of Jesus. A synod in Rome this week has been discussing clerical sexual abuse and its coverup. Clerics abused the vulnerable and abused their status while those in church authority did nothing.

To adopt Jesus’ vision is to change how we behave. It is to treat everyone as we would like to be treated.

Second, Jesus asks us to keep returning to his vision, never to give up. Of course, we will fail. Of course, we will behave in shameful ways. Of course, we will rush to judge and condemn and treat badly. We do these things because we are human after all. We give into selfishness and anger and tribalism because we are frail and broken and imperfect. But Jesus knows this – after all, he knew his disciples. The challenge he poses is to brush ourselves clean every time we fail, and start over again. Never to give up trying to live his way.

In the 1980s, civil war raged in Nicaragua in Central America. The left-wing Sandinistas eventually claimed power. The Sandinistas had a lot of support in the church from those who advocated Liberation Theology, those who believed the church should be actively on the side of the poor. One Sandinista government minister was a Catholic priest, called Ernesto Cardenal. The Vatican didn’t approve of Cardenal’s political activism, and when Pope John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1984, a famous photograph shows him wagging his finger at Cardenal, who is kneeling before him seeking his blessing. Fr Cardenal’s faculties were removed, and he could no longer function as a priest.

Fast forward to last week and another photograph. This time, Fr Cardenal, now 94, is in a hospital bed. He is dressed in priestly garments, and he is celebrating Mass. Pope Francis has restored his priestly faculties. Pope Francis has rehabilitated him, treated him with compassion. The old man is at peace. Happy.

The message of Jesus in today’s Gospel is simple and clear: let love be our guiding motive; let mercy dictate all we do; treat others as we would like to be treated. Seek, like Jesus, to turn our broken world upside down.

What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

Having just finished a fine biography of Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman, I have been struck by some striking similarities between Gorbachev’s career and that of Pope Francis.

Both reached the top against the odds. Gorbachev’s background and private views should have ensured he was never promoted to a position of real power. Both his grandfathers had been arrested and tortured by Stalin; as a young boy growing up in the countryside, Gorbachev saw and disapproved of Stalin’s vicious policy of collectivisation and murder and deportation of innocent peasant families; he believed the system urgently needed reform. A brilliant student and organiser, he worked his way to the very top and began his reforms, by which time it was too late for the system to stop him.

After coming a surprising second in the 2005 papal conclave, it was thought that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope had passed. Most observers knew little about him; his opponents made sure to highlight his stormy early career as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. By the time of the surprise conclave in 2011, it was thought his advancing years would eliminate him from consideration. Yet he was elected, despite the efforts of traditionalists to stop his candidacy.

Both made an extraordinary initial impact on the world. Gorbachev was young, energetic, open, charismatic – a Soviet leader unlike any of his predecessors. From his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis made an indelible impression on those watching. His simplicity, humility, and humour were a breath of fresh air.

Both had a reformist agenda. Gorbachev spoke about the need for glasnost and perestroika, and began to try to transform the Communist Party and the USSR. Pope Francis spoke of a ‘church on the street,’ emphasising the need for mercy and compassion in dealing with people in difficult personal situations, and for a synodal model of church where there would be greater dialogue and openness to change.

Both encountered strong opposition from within almost from the start. In the beginning Gorbachev was able to placate or outmanoeuvre his opponents but eventually, they began to get the better of him. His finally stepped down several months after a failed coup against him in August 1991.

Opposition to Pope Francis has been intensifying in conservative circles for several years. They have agitated against him in public, tried to block his initiatives, and even to force his resignation so they can get a more like-minded man in his place. That battle continues.

Despite the tremendous pressures they faced, both had an innate optimism and remarkable energy that kept them going even in the face of extraordinary obstacles and setbacks.

Gorbachev achieved great things – an end to the old cold war and to communism in the old CSSR, the freeing up of eastern Europe without bloodshed, the reunification of Germany. Pope Francis has promoted inclusion and reform. Though his vision has not been realised he has given us hope. We pray that the transformation and renewal he has promised may come about.

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.

The conspiracy against Pope Francis

Even as Westminster bristles in turmoil and Washington simmers in shutdown, another battle is being fought at the Vatican. The papacy of Pope Francis is under attack from people in the upper ranks of the church. These men are not only trying to undermine him but to drive him from office. They are taking advantage of the abuse crisis as a platform to get the pope to resign.

“There are people who simply don’t like this pontificate,” says German Cardinal Walter Kasper. “They want it to end as soon as possible to then have, so to say, a new conclave. They also want it to go in their favour, so it will have a result that suits their ideas.”

Some powerful enemies have never liked Francis’s style or his policy of glasnost or his efforts at reform and at giving more power to local churches. These same enemies were appalled by his letter on Marriage and Family, which they feel is confusing to the ‘simple faithful’ and not doctrinally sound. Four of them, lead by Cardinal Raymond Burke, published an open letter criticising the pope’s teaching and demanding clarifications.

Last August, on the last day of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, ex papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published a letter accusing Francis of ignoring allegations of misconduct against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and calling for the pontiff to resign. The letter and its timing were deliberately calculated to cause the greatest possible embarrassment to the pope. While most senior clerics publicly defended Francis, dismissing the allegations as a smear, some on the Burke wing of the church did not. The irony is that McCarrick wasn’t promoted by Francis but by Francis’s predecessors.

To many casual observers, the Catholic Church gives the appearance of being a monolith and that a monolithic unanimity exists at the top. This has never been the case but the divisions and dissension at the top are clearly visible today. These divisions exist also in the lower ranks of the church. They are especially strong in the American church, aided by right-wing Catholic media such as EWTN. Just check out the twitter accounts of cardinals like Joe Tobin of Newark and Blaise Cupich of Chicago. Every day they are viciously trolled on social media by ‘good’ Catholics, defenders of the faith, who abuse these men because they see them as Francis supporters. The level of vitriol is astonishing.

The sad irony is that the very churchmen and their supporters who attack Pope Francis are the same people who would not tolerate any criticism of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. In the years before Francis, they used to demand total obedience to the Holy Father, and were eager to publicly discipline small fry like me who stepped out of line. They don’t seem to be aware of their own hypocrisy, or maybe they couldn’t care less.

I have no doubt Francis is doing his best, but it is difficult to make progress when there are enemies in the camp.

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?