This is an historic week here in Ireland as we welcome Pope Francis. His visit is an important one. The papal mass on the Phoenix Park will be the the largest gathering of people in Europe this year.
Personally I find Pope Francis a most inspirational pontiff. His simplicity, inclusivity and deep compassion points at all times to the radical love of Jesus in the Gospel. His witness has by the power of gesture strengthened the deep relevance of the Gospel, particularly to those who are poor, on the margins and victims of injustice.
These are tough times for so many members of our church. I think it’s foolish to suggest that a 36-hour visit by the Pope will bring a magic transformation to a church in crisis. However this visit has the potential to bring a spiritual and inspirational uplift to all our lives.
The following is a very candid and open letter by Fr Peter McVerry to Pope Francis. Fr Peter is a prophet of justice in our country at this time. His radical embrace of Gospel values has made his voice most relevant in the context of our current homeless crisis. The following letter is very challenging but worthy to be read by all members of our church at this time.
Dear Pope Francis,
As you are no doubt aware, the Catholic Church in Ireland is in very poor health, perhaps even terminally ill.
When Jesus was around, thousands of ordinary people followed him, listening to every word he said. Clearly what he was saying was relevant to them. Today the message of the church is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, but instead of thousands of people coming to the church to listen to what it says, thousands of people are walking away, describing the church’s message as irrelevant to their lives. Has the message changed?
Jesus talked about a God of compassion, a God who cared about the poverty, suffering and exclusion of many of those who came to listen to him, and he told them that God was on their side. Today, however, many, particularly young people, find the church a cold place, legalistic, judgmental and condemning.
You too talk about a God of compassion, a God of mercy, and you reveal by your actions a God who is on the side of the poor, the homeless, migrants, prisoners. Your writings talk about a God who challenges the global structures which maintain the suffering of so many in our world, while enriching the few.
That is why so many today, even unbelievers, listen to what you have to say. Unless the church in Ireland follows the path you walk, and talk, and puts social justice at the centre of its mission and ministry, then it will continue to see its followers walking away.
Unless the church puts the poor, the homeless, Travellers, prisoners, victims of drug misuse and other marginalised groups at the centre of its preaching and practice, it will have no future.
Compassion always has a political dimension. Jesus was not crucified because he told people to love one another. No, he was crucified because real love challenges vested interests. Unless the church takes sides, in this, the fifth-wealthiest country in the world, the fastest-growing economy in the EU, home to 50,000 millionaires, where more and more people and families are forced to live on the street, it will continue to be irrelevant.
Unless the church in Ireland takes the side of those who struggle to pay the mortgage or rent, who live in fear of eviction or house repossession, while banks, vulture funds and some very greedy landlords maximise their profits, it will continue to be irrelevant. If the church takes sides, it will be persecuted, as Jesus was.
The tragedy is that the message of Jesus, given to the church to proclaim, has so much to offer a divided and suffering world. The success of your visit will depend on the challenge which you present to the Irish church to move from maintenance mode to mission to the marginalised.
Your brother in Christ,
Fr Peter McVerry
Jesuit priest and homelessness campaigner