Sunday 22 October 2017

Sermon for Sunday 22nd October 2017 - God's Provision Not Direct Provision!

Sermon 2 for Sunday 22nd October 2017
"My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" - Our Lesson reading from Exodus Chapter 33 this morning - The Lord is speaking to Moses and reassuring him of his ongoing commitment to his people who are wandering refugees in that in between place where there is no sense of home or security or safety.
          I wasn't actually going to preach on the Old Testament today but something happened to me yesterday that changed all that.  I wasn't expecting it - but it happened and it rendered what I had prepared to say today completely superficial and shallow and I had no choice but to start again.
          I was attending a conference called RUBICON (click here for more info) organised by the Rector of Rathmines and Harolds Cross Rob Jones and Greg Fromholtz who is the coordinator of our diocesan young adults ministry. The venue was The Sugar Club on Leeson Street.  It was a very varied and stimulating programme which featured among other things a panel discussion on the Refugee Crisis and Direct Provision in Ireland - Among the contributors to the panel were representatives of Oxfam, Christian Aid,  Jesuit Refugee services and the Department of Justice.
However, and with no disrespect to the other panellists the most moving and powerful contribution came from Thiru Guru a refugee from Sri Lanka who shared his heartbreaking story with us both in a compelling narrative and also in poetry which quite honestly reduced many of us (myself included) to tears. The most tragic part of his story was that his pain didn't end when he got to our shores but that it had only begun as he got sucked into the inhumane and soul-destroying reality of Direct Provision which robs people of any sense of purpose and their lives of any meaning. He talked of a barbaric regime where supervisors in these centres told the refugees that they were lucky to have shelter and food and met dissent with a transfer to another centre where they knew nobody and had to begin again. He could not work - he could not choose or cook his own food - he had no space that was his own
- he was in a room with a Christian, a Hindu, a Bhuddist and a Muslim and no account was taken of their various religious needs  and he was still dealing with grief and trauma that he had experienced before he arrived in Ireland. He was a professional - a prominent journalist and as the years went by and forbidden to work his skills declined and he could no longer even spell properly. In a poem which he had written himself he talked about himself as a bird that had forgotten how to fly. Direct Provision had robbed him of who he was and what he could contribute to our world.
          And it wasn't just him - he talked of the men he shared a room with year after year and how they were good men who wanted the best for their families but as time went on they changed - they were changed by the hell that they were living in and became bad men - fighting, turning to drugs and crime - their lives destroyed - no going back. 
          In the same panel discussion the representative from the Dept of Justice who seemed to be a genuinely good person trying to do the right thing (against all odds) still introduced herself with the disclaimer that she had no role in making the policy on Direct provision - She knew that we have created a system of cruel and continuing dehumanisation and we all share responsibility as citizens of this state. There is no future in the blame game - It is time to put an end to this barbaric policy.
          Many have said it and after yesterday I am convinced that it is true  that Direct Provision will be seen by generations to come as the Magdalene Laundries of our time, and maybe even worse. It is hard to convey just how horrific Thiru Guru's account was - but out of all the hurt that we as a nation had added to he was able to respond with the most beautiful and yet heartbreaking poetry in which he spoke of his sense of loss and bereavement which was to our shame only added to by his experience in this land of ours.
Later on in the day we listened to an inteview with Ellie Kisyombe, an incredibly passionate and engaging young woman who is an activist and the founder of Our Table, a community-driven, non-profit project aiming to highlight the need to end Direct Provision in Ireland.  Their goal is to facilitate change through conversation over food. Their pop-up cafĂ© in Temple Bar is a first step towards a permanent Our Table restaurant. It provides paid employment, training and links to future employment for people previously in Direct Provision, as well as information for those still living within the system.  Elie is a refugee from Malawi where her family were involved in politics at the highest level and was forced to flee when her father and uncle were assassinated.
She became an activist and by her own admission was full of anger but somehow managed to change this into a force for good despite the additional abuse of living for almost a decade in direct provision. She is determined to build a successful business on this island and I believe that she will succeed but  she also points out that if our current Taoiseach's father was treated as badly as she has been by our nation then it is unlikely that Leo Varadaker would be our Taoiseach - It was not a party political statement but rather an observation as to how we welcome the stranger in our midst. Ireland of the welcomes it seems is a dim and distant memory and that should matter to us as Church who follow one who welcomed all to himself.
These Refugees are the modern day children of Israel - of all faiths and none but from our perspective surely all children of God. We are called to be more than spectators in this - We are called to be present to these people in real and genuine acts of welcome so that they too can experience God's care and protection and make those words of our lord to Moses a present reality:
"My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest"
The current Refugee Crisis is the greatest challenge our church and our country  faces in the present age. Our Lord himself was incarnate in this world as a refugee - If we cannot respond in a meaningful way to the current refugee situation in our world then we may very well forfeit the right to call ourselves Christian - It doesn't get any more serious than that! That is where we are today - how will we respond?




Saturday 29 April 2017

The National Maternity Hospital controversy

The current controversy surrounding the new National Maternity Hospital bewilders me. There is no denying that the current facilities at Holles Street are severely compromised by a site and a building that is not fit for purpose. The argument for co-location is utterly compelling and makes complete sense in terms of a vision for holistic care for women and babies at a critical and vulnerable time in terms of their health and wellbeing. On first appraisal the site at St. Vincents seems to be a great fit and added to that the provision of a site at no cost to the taxpayer is a hard offer to reject but reject it we must!

For me this is not about clerical abuse reparation or the perceived potential for the Sisters of Charity to gain financially from ownership of the proposed new hospital. Despite all the widely acknowledged abuse that took place in ecclesiastical communities and institutions (including my own Church of Ireland) I do believe that this country owes a huge debt to the religious who provided hospital care and health provision at a time when the State was not equipped to do so. It is all too easy to focus on the horror stories and ignore the vast majority of cases where the religious provided exceptional and exemplary care.

However times change and that is especially the case in terms of maternity care and services. I have no difficulty with the notion of a Catholic maternity hospital which provides services in accordance with Catholic moral teaching or indeed a hospital under Protestant governance which does likewise but when it comes to the 'National Maternity Hospital' then it is surely reasonable to expect that such a hospital would not be subject to the specific and by their very nature exclusive requirements of any one religious or sectional interest group.
We have had numerous assurances that regardless of ownership and membership of the board of the new hospital, the Sisters of Charity will not stand in the way of practices that are in direct contravention of Catholic moral teaching such as IVF and sterilisation. As to the future prospect of legalised abortion there is no explicit assurance but it is surely totally fanciful to expect a Catholic hospital to allow such procedures to take place on its campus. As others have already noted it would be a world's first were it to happen!

The reason we and all those involved must reject this proposal is about integrity, and integrity matters! The State cannot with integrity hand over  a new 'National Maternity Hospital' to a body that cannot possibly with any integrity sign off on the provision of services that are in direct contradiction with its own absolute ethical rules (not guidelines but rules) but are simultaneously legal in the State.

Similarly the Catholic Church should not be expected to compromise on its core teachings, even with the noble intention of providing a much needed co-located facility for women and babies. With the best will in the world it is a bad fit and the likelihood is that it will only become more difficult with the almost inevitable increased legalisation of abortion which a 'National Maternity Hospital' will and should provide regardless of religious opinion. If the Catholic Church is to maintain its absolute opposition to abortion then it can surely have no association (no matter how tenuous) with a facility which provides such services.

We need a new National Maternity Hospital but this current proposal is beyond rescuing or rehabilitation - Time to move on!

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.