Is it a sin to be rich?

  • 1 October 1984
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Olivia O'Leary talks to members of the Radical Church.
THE PICTURE TOLD its own story. A white-haired nun protesting as she was dragged away by police from a travellers eviction scene. Sr Helena Brennan had deciided to take her stand and that was with the travelling families among whom she lived and worked. The picture drew a mixed reaction. That, said many who saw it, is where the church should be - on the side of those who are rejected and despised. Nuns, said manyothers,should be at home saying their prayers, not tangling with the forces of law and order. The church should know its place and that place was the heart of a society run for and by the middle class.

The Firhouse eviction row highlighted something which had been going on quietly behind the scenes for some years. As vocations fell off in the teaching and nursing orders and secular staff took over the schools and hospitals, the orders l1ave been moving more and more into pastoral work. Less hidebound by tradition than were the diocesan clergy, they were often able to by-pass the bingo sessions and the SHARE collections and go straight to more urgent pastoral needs. Working with the needy is itself a process of radicalisation and for women religious it allowed a more active and more imaginative role than was allowed them within the official church structures.

Pockets of priests and nuns began to work in the inner city, with the homeless, with single parent families, with battered wives, in Ballymun, again with the poor and the homeless, on itinerant encampments around the wastelands of Dublin. They saw a need for solidarity with the poor in the Philippines, and flocked to welcome home Fr Niall O'Brien. They identified with the oppressed in Central America and mounted a highly effective protest during the Reagan visit.

Things look different from the slums and the wastelands.

The gardai looked different if they were to be used against you. The Criminal Justice Bill looked different if it was aimed against you. The County Council's refusal to approve new itinerant sites mattered when it was your family was moved on.

Sister Helena Brennan came up against this problem of perspective a long time ago. A Holy Child nun, she taught in a respectable girls' school in Africa for twenty years. Later, working in the slums of Lagos, she approached some now powerful former pupils for help. She was shocked by their reaction. "They could see the gap between rich and poor but they weren't interested. I was shocked. I thought to myself, I've given twenty years of my life to producing that !"

Sr Helena doubts the value of church involvement in schools like the prestigious Holy Child Killiney Convent which her order runs. She has a continuing debate about it with her fellow nuns who support her totally in her work with the itinerants. She doubts that the middle classes can be educated away from exploitation, and towards sharing, and quotes Paulo Freire, author of "Pedagogy of the Opppressed" whom she met in Paris in 1974. "Freire says that the middle class won't change and I agree. The threat to them is too great. It's such a risk.

"When I was there, someone attacked Freire for trying to bring about revolution. He replied very sadly, that when you start a campaign of consciousness raising, you don't know where it's going to lead. You have to trust people. Sadly some have gone on to violent revolution, he said, but in some situations violence would seem to be the only answer ... in Central America, for instance. There was no way he would support violence," nor would she, said Sr Helena, "but no matter how much one wants a lack of violence, one is living in a violent society."

Sr Helena and her colleague, Sr Mary Taylor, live in a tigeen on an official itinerant site in Clondalkin. As we talked, there were regular visits from children like Lisa, totally sure of her three year old welcome, and determined to keep an eye on all visitors. The nuns shepherd the chilldren to and from local schools, run a training centre which teaches cooking and a variety of crafts. There is a church to which people can come if they wish, and the nuns try to help with various social problems which arise.

But a decision to live with the tinkers is a decision to move out of your own class, says Sr Helena. "Two nuns moving in with the travellers ... well, we are looked on as going against what we stand for. One's family mightn't approve totally. People say 'Aren't you great,' but they don't make you feel that they are behind you.

"But you are taught to suffer what the travellers suffer.

People ignore you, they don't want you, you too, become marginalised. By coming out of the official structures, you become part of the other world, you join the other side, and they start to think of you in the same way as they think of the other side. When we were working in Lagos with the poor, we were two years without an electric kettle, and nobody thought of giving us one. Now, no member of our own society would think of existing without one, but they didn't identify with us any more.

"People have said to us that what we are doing is useless, and sometimes you can get depressed that there is no possiibility of anything happening. To sit in on a place with nothing to show for it seems like failure in an achievementtoriented society.

"But we share in the travellers' lives, we share in their fears and that's what makes it authentic. It's not what you're doing. It's what you are. This is what makes it speciifically Christian, and specifically the Church."

While Sr Helena and Sr Mary have their criticisms of a middle-class and male-dominated church (though they don't necessarily want to be priests themselves, they feel the choice should be there), they have never questioned their place within that church. Nor have they in any way oeen discouraged from the work they do even when it hits the front page of national newspapers.

Indeed, one should not assume, says Fr Peter McVerry, who runs the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Sherrard Street. that the Catholic Church is a totally monolithic organisation. "There is pluralism in the Church ... much more so than in Irish political life. "

Despite the fact that there may be unease among the hierarchy about the "radical alternative" being offered to Catholics by those working with the poor and the oppressed, no attempt has been made, he says, to silence them.

But don't they preach a gospel which must, if underrstood, send shivers down the spine of the mass of Sunday morning mass-goers; aren't they saying it's a sin to be rich?

McVERRY, WHO RUNS A HOUSE FOR HOMEEless boys in Ballymun and himself lives in the M flats there, refuses to define anything as "a sin ", "But it's wrong to be rich while others are poor. I have a house around the corner where I could house six homeless boys if I had £15,000 a year to pay for someone to look after it. I have a barrister friend who has bought a BMW for £40,000 because it's too eash to rob a Granada. If he decided instead to spend £12,000 on a Granada, I could open that hoste!."

But what if such egalitarian ideas, such a positive identiification with one class, alienated the mass of ordinary Goddfearing decent middle-class Irish people?

"Terrific! The church has to challenge injustice and depprivation. The church must make it very clear to our people that it's on the side of the poor. If it is on the side of the poor it's doing its jo b."

But have the Jesuits in Ireland been very eager to put themselves on the side of the poor? Clongowes, Gonzaga,

Belvedere - Ireland's public schools where the sons of the wealthy and the privileged are taught to deal gracefully with wealth and privilege, institutions not greatly noted for their emphasis on the pedagogy of the poor.

McVerry grins ruefully. He's used to that one.

A Clongowes boy himself, son of a Newry doctor, he's ritical, he says of the existence of Clongowes, Belvedere and Gonzaga in their present form. The argument that the middle-class can be educated to change society for the better, has, he says, been proved historically wrong.

"It's also philosophically wrong, because the people who have a right to bring about change are those suffering from injustice."

The existence of Clongowes is a contradiction, he agrees, but he lives with it. He criticises it in whatever arena he can and he says there is a growing unease within the order with the notion of a life devoted to teaching the wealthy.

And, he says, he gets total support for the work he's doing.

While teaching at Belvedere, he began to help in an inner city youth club and soon decided that work with deprived young people was what he wanted to do.

He worked in Summerhill and Sean McDermott Street, running a club and crafts centre in the mid-seventies, then directed a hostel for young people in Sheriff Street, and has since been living in Ballymun and running what is in fact a consciousness-raising operation in Sherrard Street. He and his colleagues give courses and seminars to interested groups on justice and the way a society run by and for the middleeclass stacks the odds against the poor, and protects property before people.

"My experience in Sean McDermott Street really blew me apart, when I saw what people had to put up with ... with neglect, indifference. These people were not a priority and they knew it. They knew that £600,000 had to be given to King's Inns for renovation, but they knew they weren't a priority." No wonder they had little respect for peoples' property, they had none of their own, he says. "There were parents whom society said didn't care for their children. They were so worn down by poverty and struggle that they didn't have the energy." People were unemployed, bored, given no self-respect by society, he says.

Very few of the people in the tougher areas of Dublin benefitted from organised crime, he said. Most of their violence was inflicted on their own community.

As to politicians, even those who claim to be Socialist, McVerry says he despairs of their lack of comprehension. "I despair of their middle-class vision. They think they understand their problems. They don't and they never will. A politician with a well paid job, worried that his kids won't get into third level education, worried in case his house is burgled, he can never understand what it is to be poor, unemployed, hanging around."

There was one Donegal politician who kept his Granada locked up so that it wouldn't be stolen and drove a Morris Minor around Dublin. That said enough about his attitude, said McVerry.

He didn't think much of Labour Minister Ruairi Quinn's retort to the successful lobbying by McVerry and other priests and nuns involved in the Church Justice group to have a second reading in the Senate of Senator Brendan Ryan's Homelessness Bill. Quinn waved a telegram of appeal from the group and remarked that if the church would sell all its worldly goods, it could solve the homeless problem.

"I agree it's a scandal that the church hasn't made its resources available to the poor. But that's not the solution. Even if the church sold everything in the morning and housed 3,000 homeless people straight off, the structural problem wouldn't be solved; how soon before you'd have another 3,000? We are the only country in the EEC which does not give people a right to be housed."

He himself would vote for The Workers' Party. Why?

"Because I would like to see a strong left-wing opposition to put it up to the present government. I wouldn't necesssarily like to see them in government because I disagree with their economic policy, particularly their notion of state-controlled capitalism, and with their foreign policy. But listening to what they say in the Dail on current social issues, most of their statements in debates are ones I would agree with."

So has he a Marxist base to his thinking?

"No, I've never studied Marxism, nor indeed, liberation theology. In Sean McDermott Street I learned that society is run by and for the middle-class, against the poor, and that to achieve justice, a fundamental change at the poliitical and cultural level is needed. That's my ideology."

But as a priest, should there not be more to his world view than temporal change?

"Working for justice is the only thing worth doing and the church confirms that. The gospel is not preached where work for justice is not going on," he says.

But as a priest, is his work not a way of leading people to the church? "There is something not quite right about priests who have an ulterior motive for working for the poor. None of the people I work with go to Mass. They wouldn't dream of going. I don't see why they should, because it's made inaccessible to them."

To most people who are less well-educated, Mass is a wordy concept, aimed at the head, he says. People in those areas don't operate that way...they operate through song, dance, feeling, emotion. Which is why the children's Mass in Ballymun, with music and little plays, is always packed out.

"And it's not just a matter of liturgy. To those people the church is seen as another body up there with power and property and a middle-class lifestyle. It's on the same plane as the political and economic institutions: remote, inaccesssible, hard to understand how it's operated and controlled,

"And until people have a church in which they are allowed to participate beyond being allowed to collect money, you can't expect them to take part. Mass has beecome just another service you queue for. You go to the Labour on Tuesday, queue for the dole on Thursday and go to Mass on Sunday - just one of the list of services which look after your material, social and spiritual needs.

"You've got to havea model of the church that's operaative. People like Chris Mangan in Dun Laoghaire, Martin Hughes in Ballymun, people back from the third world, are trying out basic Christian communities in their parishes, involving the people in the liturgy of the Mass, with lay people giving homilies at the Mass, involving the church in turn in the communities' life and problems, And in all fairness, Dermot Ryan is giving these guys their head. The older model of the church may still be the one that's offiicially given, but a financial and manpower crisis is forcing the church into a new model."

The Pope, he says, would encourage the church's work for justice. But would he, one had to ask, encourage the emphasis on temporal change that McVerry puts, would he not worry about "political priests", what about his stern criticisms of the priests involved in the revolution in Nicaaragua?

"His statements are radical," concedes McVerry, "but he's afraid of the new model of the church. Because of Poland, he has a model of a unified church with all authority coming from the top. The Vatican is threatened by the new model church. The Pope can't envisage a church that hasn't got a strong hierarchical structure ....

"But the Nicaraguan church continues on its merry way, despite criticism, and the church in Dublin continues on its merry way, despite Dermot's reservations."

ONE MAN WHO IS SEVERELY CRITICAL OF the church's past influence in this country is Fr Michael Mernagh, one of a group of Augusstinians who have been asked to take over the Meath Street parish in the Liberties. A former member of the Combat Poverty board, he is setting up a Family Reesource Centre in Meath Street, with a particular eye to single parent families, for counselling, advice and training.

"The dominant ideological attitudes in this society have been influenced by the church through the schools, so that we have an unbalanced understanding of what the gospel values are about, of what morality is about, of what justice is about. There's an Ireland of the rich and an Ireland of the poor, an Ireland of the slums and an Ireland of the Phoenix Park races, and there is nothing being done about that at the teaching and faith level.

"Take the list of pastorals last year, they were almost all to do with sexual morality. A sense of hopelessness pervades church pronouncements on the sort of society we have. They go on about permissiveness. A certain permissiveness is needed for people to be able to think and act for themmselves. Of course it can be abused. But there is no support system for young people. When the Pope came, we heard so much about youth and what the church was going to do. But I don't see much happening that challenges young people."

The church is not linked to action, he says, it's the icing on a non-existent cake.

Mernagh feels there can be no such thing as a private Catholic. "We have private confession, private property, we don't demand that people reflect on their lives."

And does he think it's a sin to be rich? Yes, he says, as happens in our society to a great extent, you can only beecome rich at the expense of others. There is a derelict factory in his area which has been allowed to lie there, so that the site can be used as collatoral by the owners. Chilldren have been injured on the site and it's a hazard. If handed over it could offer a much needed recreational ground. That's what he means by its being a sin to be rich.

A contract cleaner who gets £25 a week while her firm claims £80 for her is what he means by its being a sin to be rich.

"A lot of us don't reflect on how the rich become rich and the poor become poor." The new model church, he says, needs to spend time analysing how things are as they are, how the multinationals operate, where the vested interests are and why.

"It's a myth to say the church is neutral, it's not. And when you hear churchmen attacking socialism, they are operating under the values of capitalism."

Fr Mernagh who worked in Nigeria for nine years, came himself from a poor background. His father was a farm labourer, and that, he says gives him a certain perspective. He was involved with the Combat Poverty movement. initiated by Frank Cluskey in the early seventies and he fears that that early idealism and impetus for change in the Labour Party is gone. ''We're a long way away from that today. There's a lack of action on poverty. Poverty has

become a political football between Fianna Fail and Labour. Labour is rapidly losing its credibility as a party of social concern." Labour's priorities in government, he said, were rapidly being subjugated to Fine Gael's priorities.

All these people would probably not be unhappy with being called socialist, but would feel that the term Christian would be an adequate label. Are they pointing a new way forward for the church and by pulling the church to the left, bringing about a much more widespread change in Irish politics and social attitudes than any political party could?

Or are there genuine reformers within the church who fear too great an emphasis is being put on temporal change?

Fr Fergal O'Connor OP, who lectures in politics in UCD, helps run a hostel for homeless girls in F Sherrard Street, and has been a controversial and radical commentator on church affairs, has a word of caution.

"The model of the church in the West is one many people are unhappy with. It has its own hospitals, its own schools, social welfare system, it's the model of a comforrtable society and a centralised power structure. These people are starting with the individual and raising his level of consciousness, to develop his life in Christ.

"Here the divide comes quickly in history. When you lift the poor from stage one to stage two of prosperity, you have a problem. They will themselves be absorbed by the very attitudes which were responsible for them being in stage one of poverty. The successors of people like Fr Niall

O'Brien in the Philippines thirty years hence will be faced with the fact that some of the people Fr O'Brien helped are now oppressing another group. But if the poor remain poor in spirit, they will not change into oppressors.

"Too much emphasis on the material, that's what's wrong. There is an almost impassable gulf between wealth and the things of the spirit. But the gospel is for others too. We cannot cease to preach to the wealthy who are the source for so many wrongs." The class struggle, says Fr O'Connor, has no place in the preaching of the gospel.

The model of a new church he thought most likely to develop was one with each unit based on a local community deeply involving the laity; conscious of the need to love and care; and unconscious of class differences.

"The Kingdom of God on Earth will only come into being in a situation of total detachment from the world. Merely lifting the poor out of poverty isn't necessarily a good thing. It's just change.

"You can work with travellers in a way that achieves maximum benefit for them but the way whereby they blackmail the settled community must change. Their diggnity must be sought, too. The material goods side of things is the minor side.

"As for closing down Clongowes, well, that would only be changing the shop front. I worry much more about church involvement in parish schools. There's much more lost as a result of the church controlling education at the parish level than there is by them educating the rich.

"The church is eternally struggling with the values of the world. In schools the church is accepting the ethos of a secular society: competition, aggression, and achievement. Society is the real enemy." •