Friday 17 March 2017

St Patrick's Day Sermon - Thoughts on Anger and Injustice in the wake of Tuam

Sermon for St. Patrick's Day 2017 - Christ Church Celbridge

We are a strange and mixed up people! A land from which so many great Christian missionaries set forth to spread the Good News - a land whose patron Saint Patrick we celebrate today, and who is the most popular Saint on the planet and who is the reason for all the festivities around St. Patrick's Day which have made it increasingly a worldwide event.

We are also a people in whose history and heritage the Christian faith
is interwoven to the point that it is inseparable and indistinguishable from that history and heritage. It is part of who we are, the fabric of our being,  and even those who do not share that faith today have been shaped and formed by its influence through the ages.

And yet despite all of that (and especially here in the Republic) we are becoming a people who despise that faith and the Church which proclaimed it. It has come to a head in recent weeks with the horror of the Tuam revelations but it has only been a catalyst for a process that was already well underway.

Speaking on the announcement of the Commission of Investigation on the Tuam Mother and Baby Home last week one of our own local TDs in Kildare, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats launched a wide ranging and scathing attack on the role of the Church in Irish society and said among other things that "we have got to take the Church from our schools, from our hospitals and medical care and from our politics.....
......These are relics of a bygone era and if Tuam has shown us anything it is this – the State must take responsibility for its citizens and the Church has no legitimacy in the healthcare or education of those citizens.”

I think this was an appalling attack, laden with lazy generalisations on a whole swathe of people including priests, nuns, religious orders and members of the majority church and indeed by implication all the churches on this island who with rare exception are working faithfully and with integrity in a multitude of areas providing compassionate and generous service to society. In many if not most cases they are subsidising, supporting and filling the gaps in provision by State services which are stretched to breaking-point and beyond!

There is no doubt that there is an increasing hostility towards
religious involvement in public life and it is also clear that it is
the Roman Catholic Church that is bearing the brunt of this but as Brothers and Sisters in Christ this is about us as well. As sisters and brothers in Christ their pain is our pain.

I can only speak from my own experience but as one who attended a variety of schools of every denomination my happiest experience was in the co-ed Roman Catholic convent in Mayo (yes such things exist) where I had the privilege of being educated by a beautiful body of religious women
whose sense of vocation and care for their students was palpable and
which left a deep and lasting impression on me. They supported me in
my vocation and when I was ordained they filled a pew in Christ Church Cathedral. 
I think too of another community of  nuns in North Tipperary who governed the special needs school my son attended and who when he was at death's door thousands of miles from home kept vigil in prayer and kept a candle lit on their altar until the word came that he was going to make it against all odds.
They were and are good people who do not deserve to be written off and they and their whole life's work described as 'relics of a bygone era'.

I could equally say the same of my current colleagues in the Roman
Catholic priesthood in this parish and indeed in my previous parishes
who are among some of the most dedicated and generous Christian people I know. They work tirelessly for and on behalf of the whole community and if they were to withdraw overnight as our local representative seems to be suggesting it would leave a void that no government could fill.

None of this is to deny the terrible things that happened in Tuam and
other places, some of them under Protestant management lest we get too comfortable. There is though a real danger that we blame the Church and the churches for all ills (and yes the churches including our own have really difficult questions to answer) but let us not fail to acknowledge that the Church of times past did not exist in a vacuum but was part of a wider society which also contained a certain amount of systemic cruelty which we would not tolerate today but is part of our heritage. When we pin it all on the institution of the Church we are perhaps subconsciously depersonalising it, letting ourselves off the hook and creating a distance between us and those terrible events.

        There is a lot of hurt, pain and anger being expressed at the moment but there is also a need for healing and that is our vocation as Church. It is not easy but we need to hang in there even when we are despised - That was after all the example of our Lord and that was the message of the Gospel that St Patrick brought to these shores - he too persevered against all kinds of obstacles and like us was part of a Church that is not perfect but yet I believe still has a positive contribution to make in the lives of all the people on this Island. 
May we be a Church that lives up to the example of St Patrick and may we together serve our Lord in ways that bring healing and hope to Creation.

Amen.

Note: I think it is important for me to acknowledge that in mentioning Catherine Murphy TD in this sermon to also acknowledge that she was not the only one to lash out at the churches in such an indiscriminate manner but her words were particularly strong and to my mind unjust. 
Perhaps they were spoken in anger and I can certainly identify with that - When the clerical sex abuse scandals began to break some years ago I responded very publicly in anger and said some very intemperate and unfair things about my fellow priests and religious in the Roman Catholic Church - so much so that I felt compelled to make a formal retraction in the local paper because I had caused real hurt to really good people - There is a real danger when we respond to such devastating events (and none more so than when children are involved) that we undermine the very people who may be a part of the healing process - All of us in all the churches are deeply aware that there are some who committed vile acts under the veil of trust but what hope is there if those terrible sins of the past condemn for evermore those who seek to minister God's love to the world today? 
Gone are the days (and thankfully so) when the Church and the State were so closely intertwined that this country was almost a theocracy but perhaps a Church, more humble and with less authority can actually be an effective agent of healing and transformation for at least some of those who are hurting in our world today.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Thoughts on the Eve of the Trump Presidency



Eight years ago I had the extraordinary experience of attending the 1st Inauguration of President Barack Obama - It was a hope-filled historic occasion and it is no exaggeration to say that being there on that day was both inspiring and uplifting.

Eight years later and looking back on the Obama presidency I have to confess that I am disappointed that it did not live up to all my hopes and dreams but then with the advantage of hindsight it was perhaps inevitable that it could never live up to expectations which were bordering on messianic. The odds were heavily stacked against a president who sought to overcome the divisiveness of partisan and adversarial politics and to undercut the very divisions on which the American and many other political systems thrive.

And yes I am also disappointed that he failed to close Guantanamo Bay, tackle gun control, and extract the USA from the drone warfare which so many including myself find deeply disturbing.

And yet I could not but be continually impressed by the gracious and dignified humanity of a president and First Family who visibly bore heavily the weight of his office.

And indeed there were many aspects of his presidency that deserve positive acclaim and mention. His empathy towards the victims and families impacted by gun violence, his sincere attempts to bring affordable healthcare to those on the margins of society, his willingness to be converted to the cause of marriage equality, and his nuanced understanding of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and understanding and international and inter-Nicene relations were all groundbreaking and had a hugely positive impact on the USA and arguably the western world.

So what comes next? Sadly it would appear that despite the experience of the presidency of Barack Obama the USA has voted for a 'hopeless' future based on a bankrupt vision of our world which sees enemies everywhere and seeks to build walls and barriers to protect the selfish interests of the privileged minority.

Some will protest that no - this is all about 'change' but in reality it is nothing more than looking after No. 1 and that is no vision for any society. It is traditional that the President elect would end his speech by requesting that God would bless the United States of America - On this occasion we should perhaps pray that God will help the United States of America! :(

Thoughts on the retirement of Martin McGuinness

I am conscious that many within my own Protestant tradition (especially in Northern Ireland) will find it hard to empathise with Martin McGuinness in his illness and forced retirement, not least those who have lost family and friends at the hands of the IRA. Not having had that experience I do not think it is right that I or others who have been spared such suffering would demand or expect otherwise from those whose lives have been forever damaged and even destroyed by terrorist violence.
In that respect while initially annoyed and disappointed by the dispassionate response of Arlene Foster to Martin McGuinness' illness I subsequently learnt of the horror she had experienced as an eight year old girl when her father was shot and seriously injured by the IRA and how she herself cheated death in a bus bombing when she was sixteen. She demonstrably did not rise above what happened to her but being brutally honest I am dubious that I would have been able to overcome such trauma at a formative age. Knowing my temperament indeed it is entirely possible I would have gone further and involved myself in a violent and illegal retaliation. There for the Grace of God went I!
But that was not my experience (and I am grateful for that) and while my mother grew up in Norther Ireland and my wife is from there the 'Troubles' were not a part of my formation and so I look at the retirement of Martin McGuinness with different eyes.
Yes I see in Martin McGuinness one who is a self confessed terrorist and one who may well have been responsible (either directly or indirectly) for the murder of those who through an accident of birth found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But that is not the end of it - I also see one who was able to move from the path of violence to the way of peace and in so doing was able to acknowledge the journey on which he had travelled. It is that which sets him apart from Gerry Adams whose disingenuous disavowal of his violent past undermines his credibility and his ultimate potential to help others make the transition from violence to peace.
Martin McGuinness came a long way on his political and life journey and in doing so did rise above his formative experience and brought a lot of people with him. As I have said already that is more than I believe I would have been able to do and so he has earned my respect and also my empathy. I do not condone everything that he did, especially in his younger years, but as a priest of the Church I cannot but commend one who turned from the path of violence to the way of peace. Martin McGuinness should not be defined by his worst days unless we are all prepared to be so judged. I wish him well and pray for his healing.