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.

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.

Last chance saloon for the US bishops

This week the US Catholic bishops are making a retreat together in a centre outside Chicago. It is an unusual occurrence. At the request of Pope Francis, they have gathered for a silent retreat to discern God’s will for the church in the United States.

The retreat is in response to the terrible year that Catholics in America have suffered. Revelations about the appalling actions of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and their cover up) as well as the fall out from state-level investigations into clerical sexual abuse have had a devastating impact. Many in America thought that, after the crisis had first blown up in Boston in 2002, the bishops had got a handle on it. The fact that someone like McCarrick could have been promoted afterwards, and that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye, has shattered trust between people and their bishops.

And so the US bishops were asked by Pope Francis to go on retreat together to pray and prepare to take action to deepen their commitment to keeping young people safe.

Bishops from around the world will then gather in Rome with Pope Francis from February 21-24 to discuss abuse and child protection. A lot is expected from this February summit. If nothing decisive comes out of it, if it is back to business as usual for bishops’ conferences and individual bishops throughout the world, if the Vatican itself does not act more decisively, then those who have remained loyal to the church through the trauma of the last 25 years will feel utterly betrayed.

This is last chance saloon time for the church to get it right. We can only hope the US bishops’ retreat and the prayers of the rest of us will move those in church authority to do what they should have done all along.

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.

Words delivered at the funeral of my Aunt Mary, Sr Peter, Cork (November 16, 2016)

The last time I saw Aunty Mary really fully alive was two and a half years ago when we gathered in the nursing home in Boherbue to mark an extraordinary achievement – her platinum jubilee of profession. Alongside two others, she was celebrating 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1831.

Aunty Mary was in her element that day. She may have been in her 92nd year, dependent on a walker to get around and on others to manage her getting up and laying down, but her mind was sharp, and there was that familiar twinkle in her eye and bubbly smile of enthusiasm and anticipation that I always associated with her. It was the last of many wonderful times we celebrated together.

Her memory began to fail soon after that milestone event, so that for the past two years she had been gradually losing touch with home and family and community and world. A frail little woman, still smiling, but without life in her, the twinkle in her eye now no more. To see her like that, little more than a shell, not knowing who we were, not able to initiate conversation, not asking about grandnephews and grandnieces, especially whomever she had deemed was her current pet, was distressing and we are relieved that she is now free at last, enjoying the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God.

Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.

There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Doon, Co. Limerick in 1921, just as Ireland was gaining its independence. She left home to join the Sisters of Mercy in faraway Macroom, Co. Cork as war raged across Europe and the Far East. She made her first vows in 1944, as D-Day was about to get underway in France, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and uncomfortable religious garb to greater freedom and less restrictive dress. Though she was no fashionista and came late to the world of fashion, she liked a nice suit and a healthy splash of colour.

The changes in the church also made it possible for her to go home more often. And that, she did. She must have been one of the very 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, until just a few years ago. She was so fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could.

She was, of course, a teacher. But she wasn’t just a dedicated teacher, good at her job. She was an outstanding teacher, great at her job. Time and again, her primary school classes won prizes at local and national level, in essay writing and in other competitions. One prize was a replica copy of the Book of Kells. But Aunty Mary, or Sr Peter as generations of Macroom students would have called her, wasn’t obsessed with winning prizes. She was focused on educating children, encouraging them to realise their full potential, as in one example of two special needs pupils who floundered at school until they came under Aunty Mary’s tutelage. She changed their lives, and enabled them to flourish, to be the best they could be.

There was her strong work ethic and commitment. In 1988, upon reaching retirement age at home, she headed off to Africa for two years, to teach there. She could have taken it easy, put her feet up, or got involved in some local project, but she would have none of that. She wanted to do more, to teach a while longer, if she could, while she could, and so she went to Kenya. She wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about having to adjust to such a different culture at her age. Instead, it invigorated her.

And once back home in Macroom, she remained active – arranging readers for Mass, promoting Reality magazine, assisting the local parish and community in any way she could, until finally, into her 90s, worn out, she could do no more. No one can question Aunty Mary’s zeal.

There was her love of life. She spent almost a century on this earth and she embraced it with relish. She had what seemed like an almost childlike enthusiasm about her, an effervescence, that made it easy for people to engage with her and for her to accept and embrace whatever challenges came her way, whether they were the changes in the church and religious life or the changing circumstances of her own.

There was her love of family. Everything she did, outside of her commitments in the classroom and the convent, she did for us. I experienced that love personally in so many ways throughout my life. She took me on my first grown-up holiday, to Ballyferriter in Kerry, when I was all of 10 years old. We spent a week in a B&B over a pub, she and two other sisters and myself, alongside Americans and all kinds from far and wide. Her wonderful ability to make friends meant that a nice Dublin couple with two young daughters took the three nuns and myself along with them on their daily trips to the beach. I remember, too, that every day during that week she had me do some reading. Even while on holiday, she continued to teach.

I remember all the stories she typed out for me before I got a typewriter of my own, and all the books she bought for me when I was in the Philippines and couldn’t get them myself, and all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied to the last penny. I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.

When my sisters got married, she did their wedding booklets. Whenever we had a major family celebration, she got the younger participants to practice the readings, just as she always encouraged them with their study. She might have lived in Macroom and elsewhere for periods during her long life, but the house in which she was born always remained home.

And, of course, there was her religious vocation, which was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Sister of Mercy. She was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple, happy, smiling woman, without airs or issues or graces, without arrogance or resentment or regret, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.

She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Aunty Mary to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. The convent where she spent most of her life is gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women like Aunty Mary entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Aunty Mary, nor will the Irish church.

But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose or nostalgic today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her soft, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.

My problem with saint-making

All Saints is one of my favourite feasts. It’s an opportunity for me to remember the many saints I have known over the years who have passed from this life – family members, colleagues, friends – and to celebrate also the countless others who have lived saintly lives throughout history. I think this year especially of my father, who died 11 months ago, and my Aunt Mary, who died two weeks ago, as well as Fr Jacques Hamel, brutally beheaded in France, and of all those Christians who are being martyred every day in Syria and Iraq.

It’s a reminder also of my call to become a saint, even if I will never get to join the list of those in the official calendar of the church’s saints.

One thing’s for sure – there is no shortage of saints in the Catholic calendar. Pope John Paul II made sure of that. During his 26-year pontificate he canonised 482 saints and beatified 1,300 – far more than any pope in history. Indeed, between 1000 a.d. and 1978 a.d., fewer than 450 men and women were made saints by the Catholic Church. In other words, John Paul doubled this number all on his own.

He loved making saints. Many people would see that as a good thing. After all, we are all called to be saints, and surely we can never have too many of them.

But I have a number of problems with the saint-making process, especially as it developed under John Paul.

The first has to do with changes that made canonisation easier. The ‘Devil’s advocate’ was thrown out the window or, at least, downgraded to such a degree that the role is no longer recognisable. I’d prefer the more stringent process that existed in the past.

Then there is the speed of some canonisations. Several saints have been canonised within a very short period of their deaths. Yes, that happened occasionally in the past too, but what’s the rush? A wait-and-see attitude is always wise so that nothing might emerge in later years to cast a shadow on a particular saint.

Another issue has to do with the criteria John Paul II used when saint-making. He canonised more saints in his 26 years as pope than all popes of the previous millennium combined. He canonised all types. So, it’s extraordinary that he ignored Oscar Romero. Many people in El Salvador and throughout the Catholic world consider Romero to be a martyr for the faith, and yet the Vatican under John Paul and Benedict made no move to advance Romero’s cause. Why was Romero not canonised when so many others were? One would have to conclude that ideology and politics were at play; that JPII did not want to endorse someone so publicly associated with liberation theology, even though he was himself the most political of popes.

Pope Francis, of course, has no such hesitation. One of his first acts as pope was to put Romero on the road to sainthood.

Then there is the policy of almost automatically canonising popes. People accept that those elected to the papacy, at least in modern times, are good and holy men. Why, then, the need to canonise them? And if some popes are not canonised, does that mean they were less holy or great than those who were?

Of course, a danger with canonising popes is that it becomes all about church politics. Conservative Catholics will always refer to Pope John Paul as Saint John Paul the Great, whereas liberal Catholics – who prefer Saint John XXIII – are more likely to refer to him simply as John Paul. Indeed, it was to appease both right and left that canny Pope Francis canonised JPII and John XXIII on the same day. When I hear someone talk about Saint John Paul the Great, I know exactly where he or she stands theologically. Better not to canonise any pope than to turn the whole process into a political and ideological battle.

Then there’s the money involved. Saints don’t come cheap. Unless a group or religious order has the cash and resources to promote the cause of someone they would like to have canonised, it’s not going to happen quickly or at all. There’s something unseemly about mixing cash and saint-making.

So, let’s ease off on the saint-making and focus more on All Saints, those we have known and those who have gone before us, too numerous to tally.

A God deaf to my appeals

I have written countless Gospel commentaries and preached countless homilies over the years and I have always done my best to offer them as Good News. Challenging, consoling, uplifting words.

But I am coming up short now.

Tomorrow’s readings are all about perseverance in prayer. Keep on knocking on the door, and eventually God will answer. Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives, the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will have the door opened to them.

Except it’s not the case.

I have asked and I have sought and I have knocked – and there has been no response from on high. Many others have asked and sought and knocked on my behalf too – and have found only silence. Candles burning to the quick, prayers unheeded, the door left firmly closed. After two years of hell, my pain is more intense and more deeply rooted than ever. My despair beyond despair.

In my old pre-pain, preaching days, I would have found ways to explain or make sense of this silence from beyond. God will answer in God’s own good time, God knows what’s best for us, God’s ways are not our ways. 

Maybe that’s true, except that’s not what tomorrow’s readings promise. All I know from long, painful experience is that the God to whom I have dedicated my life has been dead to my appeals, and, whatever about miserable me, God has been dead to the appeals of my saintly mother and my aunts and of so many, many others.

All I am left with are tears. I’m not even sure that it’s worth my while screaming with the psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” for all I seem to encounter is the sound of silence.