2019 Grateful 2: Lesson from the Bishop

The pessimist in me says that it had to happen sometime. My love affair with my Hungarian village was a little too good to be true. It would eventually disappoint. Read more

2018 Grateful 19

I wasn’t all that pushed about seeing the Pope, even though both of us were in Dublin the same weekend. I’d run into him while in Naples a few years back so had already seen him in the flesh. But the TV was turned on early yesterday to watch live coverage of his arrival in Dublin and I’ve been glued to it ever since. The whole spectacle is captivating.

Pope in Naples

In the run-up to the Papal visit, the country was divided: those who openly welcomed Pope Francis and those who thought he needn’t bother. Rumour had it that a lot of the no-popers booked tickets for the events at Croke Park and at the the Phoenix Park with no intention of going – a form of silent protest against the Church’s complicity in covering for those involved in the clerical child sex abuse scandals around the world, against the Church’s exclusion of LGBT from the universal family, and in particular  the mother and baby atrocities perpetrated in Ireland through the Magdalene Laundries. A rather selfish form of protest I thought – depriving others who might genuinely want to see the pope of the chance to do so. There is a generation in Ireland still utterly committed to the papacy and for many of them, the opportunity to see him was a dream come true. Those empty seats saddened me while the umbrellas emblazoned with the call for Women Priests that grew out of the Ha’penny Bridge heartened me. By all means, make your voice heard – did it have to be at the expense of the dreams of others. That said – perhaps the empty seats were empty because the interest wasn’t there. That’s sad, too.

More still believed that the €30 million or so spent on the visit would have been better spent on addressing homelessness and in-home poverty in Ireland. And to each their own. No one opinion is any more valid than another.

Me? I’m quite taken with him. When he came out of the Pro-Cathedral and chatted to a family outside, he threw back his head and laughed heartily at whatever was said. He doesn’t do things by halves, this chap. He’s driving round in a Skoda (and not a big one either) rather than something fancier. He insists on having the windows down so he can see the people. He greeted clients of the Capuchin homeless shelter individually, making each of them feel special. He took the time to get as close as he could to the punters (creating a security nightmare for those in charge of his safety). He went off script when so moved. All this and more leads me to like him. He’s 80-something. He’s tired. It’s a gruelling 36 hours. And he’ll have a fight on his hands when he goes back home.

In Mayo this morning, he said:

I presented to [Our Lady] all the victims of abuse, of whatever kind, committed by members of the Church in Ireland. None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence and left scarred by painful memories. This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice. I beg the lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many in God’s family. I ask our blessed mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never again to permit these situations to occur.

Am sure that for many this fell way short of calling for accountability of those in the Church who helped cover up this abuse. But yesterday, in a private meeting with six survivors, he apparently said people who abused children were caca – a term the translator explained as what you find in a toilet bowl. That he feels their pain, I have no doubt. But he’s a man at the head of a corrupt institution with a strong conservative faction that rails against his every step forward. There’s a limit to what he can do but he is doing something. He’s giving hope to so many people – and you can’t put a price on hope.

He spoke in the Pro-Cathedral to couples who were just married, soon to be married, and married for eons. He talked about the institution, about raising children in the faith. He connected with people at all levels. He remembered those in the North. He mentioned those in prison. I just wish he’d had a word for those who feel excluded from the Church – the divorced, the LGBT community, and others who for whatever reason don’t feel part of the family this past week has been celebrating. Yet his audible emphasis on the word ALL whenever he used it referring to the faithful gives me hope that he is simply crippled by the corporation that is the RCC.

Today, old footage from John Paul II’s visit back in 1979 is playing on TV. The crowds are not the same. Health and Safety, which didn’t exist as a concept back then, has limited the numbers this time to 600 000. But given the times we live in, would many more show up? The streets yesterday weren’t as packed as I’d expected. A returning victorious football or rugby team would have attracted more spectators. Yet for so many, getting a glimpse of this kindly man, hearing what he had to say, touching his hand – this meant the world to them.

Two things resonated with me the most. First was his visit to the homeless shelter. There, he commended the Capuchins for asking no questions – for not judging – for helping the vulnerable without taking away their dignity. If only we could all do that. If only we could suspend our judgmental selves – park them – and simply help, no questions asked., no strings, no caveats.

The second was his call for a revolution of love, for us to rediscover tenderness and I assume, its twins of gentleness and kindliness. How far removed we are as a world from this sort of simplicity. His visit was a grateful reminder of how life could be.




2015 Grateful 40

IMG_6053 (600x800)Pope Francis swarmed by nuns – what a spectacle that must have been. And to think we were there when it was all going on and saw said same nuns going back inside after having been let out for a day to meet their boss. But we’d just arrived in the city and hadn’t a clue what was going on. If I’d known, I’d have grabbed the chance to have a chat with the ladies in black, just to see what life was like far removed from the outside world. I’d have asked whether that same world was everything it was cracked up to be, now that they’d caught a glimpse of it again. I was having flashbacks to way back when I thought I might have had a calling. And then I met a chap who drove a Kawasaki 650… I wonder what Mr Kettle is doing now…

IMG_6283 (800x600)We went back the next day to have a peak into the Chiesa di Santa Chiara, the  scene of the swarming. It’s a stunningly gorgeous basilica, founded in 1310 by a chap with an intriguing name – Robert the Wise.  His wife became a nun and his granddaughter was murdered – that would breed wisdom in anyone, I suppose.

The Neapolitan attitude to mass is quite amusing. There seems to be an invisible line at the back of the church. If you stand behind it, you can text, take phone calls, and chat with your neighbour. If you cross it, you have to kneel and pray. The church in Naples is truly a place of the people, for the people, and by the people.

IMG_6277 (800x600)The outer perimeters are lined with confessionals but not the standard boxes I’m used to. I saw people leaning casually with an elbow on the sill and one foot up on the step,  in much the same way as they might prop up a bar.  And all out in the open. Given that the priests face forward, I was struck with an image of playing poker with them. No matter the magnitude of the sin they’ve just heard, they have to keep a straight face. I’d lose a fortune in that game of seven-card stud.

One of the joys (or sorrows) of being an ill-prepared tourist is that I arrive in a city without a clue as to what to do. Especially if it’s a city that I knew little about to begin with.  But I figure that if I don’t have expectations, then I’m already ahead of the game. And if I don’t have a plan, a checklist of things to see and places to eat and museums to visit, then all the better – I can take it as it comes. But what when I happen upon some place I know absolutely nothing about and all the information is in, say, Italian? And the pictures don’t help either?

Across the road from the church, in what is still part of the whole Santa Chiara complesso, are the cloisters of the Poor Clares. We had a peak through the gates but decided that the entrance fee (I loathe paying into holy places), and the litany of don’ts posted outside,  weren’t worth the gamble, so we left. Don’t sit or touch the Majolica, it said. But what in the Lord’s name  was a majolica?

On the day we were leaving, we made an attempt to see the No. 1 tourist attraction in Naples, but it wasn’t open on a Tuesday (?) putting paid to the universality of Monday closing.  So with time to kill, I found myself gravitating back to the majolica. Curiosity will be the death of me, but I just had to see for myself what it was all about.

And it is amazing. Simply amazing.

IMG_6243 (800x600)IMG_6249 (800x600)IMG_6262 (800x600)The cloisters are home to about 60 pillars decorated quite gaudily in yellows and blues. Back in the day, when the Order of the Poor Clares was at its height, almost 600 nuns lived here.

This fourteenth-century monastic site is an oasis in a city that beats 24/7. Planted with lemon trees and wisteria, there’s a haunting silence to the grounds that begs for whispers. Strolling around the gardens, it wasn’t difficult to fancy myself in a habit, praying the rosary, wimple reflecting the light of the noon-day sun. I couldn’t get the Beatle’s song Let it Be out of my head…

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be, let it be.

Cheeky of me to think I’d have come up through the ranks and made Reverend Mother… but hey, nothing like aiming high. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a nun to be seen. Perhaps the excitement of the papal visit was too much.

IMG_6254 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_6274 (800x600)IMG_6258 (600x800)The frescos on the four walls surrounding the cloisters are faded but still magnificent. I could  have spent hours looking at the intricate detail of each of them. The nativity scene, made from paper maché, depicting eighteenth-century life in Naples is equally intricate and again, an hour wouldn’t be enough to take it all in . It is stunning.

Excavations in the grounds have unearthed old saunas and swimming pools. If you’re into archaeology (which admittedly simply doesn’t to it for me), you’d find it fascinating. Likewise with the museum, full of reliquaries and testimonies to a life long-since lost. I found it hard to believe that I had nearly passed all of this up because I couldn’t bring myself to pay to see something that flew under the banner of religion (and my religion at that). Now I know better – and I’ve learned that majolica is ‘earthenware pottery decorated with brightly colored lead glazes best known for naturalistic/whimsical style’. And I got to reminisce of times goes by and Mr Kettle in his tatty blue jumper … them were the days.

In a week that has spanned three countries, I’m truly grateful for the second chances I give and have been given.

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2015 Grateful 41

‘Ask the Pope to say a prayer for us.’ So went the Viber message I received earlier this evening from a Hungarian friend of mine (a Leinster supporter) who was chomping at the bit while watching the lads attempt to nail the Six Nations. She was sitting in a bar in Budapest. I was on the streets of Naples. She was watching Paul O’Connell. I was watching the Pope. I asked. He obliged. The rest is history.

We’d arrived in Naples anxious to find a pub to watch the match ourselves. I enquired at the information desk at the airport as to where might we go to watch the rubgy today.

Que? What rugby? There is no rugby in Naples. Just football.

A sharp reminder of provincial Italy at its best. I told the duo on the desk that Italy was playing, too. But to no avail. So we tossed caution to the wind and got a taxi, willing to pay ten times the bus fare to get into the city as soon as possible.

IMG_6035 (800x600)En route we  encountered a problem. The city was closed. The Pope was here visiting for the day. Security was heightened, as last year, apparently, he had excommunicated some Mafia heads. And Naples is a serious Mafia city. I didn’t know that…

But then, this morning, when I was leaving for the airport, I ran into my neighbour. He asked (in Hungarian) where I was going. I said France.
Lovely, says he. Paris?
No, Naples, says I.
That’s in Italy, Mary, says he.
I knew that… I did.

IMG_6036 (800x600)Any, back to the Pope. We had to detour. And detour. And then the detours ran out of detours and we had to walk. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in same direction as the route the popemobile was taking. The streets were lined with people waving €1 flags. Toddlers and teens. Three, four generations, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the man. They might have been waiting for hours. We waited some 15 minutes.  Just to see. And we saw. Himself. In all his glory.

pope (800x577)It was all over in a flash. He had passed by, to the cheers of an adoring crowd, when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen him at all. I’d been too busy trying to get a photo. Other than a vague notion that he was wearing white, I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I had no feel for him. I’d missed the essence. And I was so annoyed with myself.

IMG_6050 (600x800)The crowd, en masse, turned to their phones to see if they, too, had managed to capture him in photo or on video. Some were delighted; others not so impressed. Some older people who had come to see the man rather than capture the moment had smiles on their faces and some looked a tad moved. It was then that I  remembered a Venetian travel writer saying that to see Venice you need to leave your camera at home. He had a point. I’d missed him. And I might never get to see him again.

IMG_6043 (800x600)As the popemobile turned the corner, we continued our climb to the hotel, following in its wake. But the crowds weren’t moving. We stopped to ask why. He was going to a church at the top of the hill and would be back this way again, in 20 minutes. We walked on and happened upon the very church he was in. This was my second chance.

This time, when he came out of the church and got into this popemobile, I looked through the maze of extended arms brandishing iPhones and camera and looked at the man. As he passed by, I saw him – the head of the church to which I belong – and a man who is doing so much to return that church to the people. Today he visited Poggio Reale – a prison that holds nearly twice the number of people it was built to hold. Of the 2500 inmates, 90 got to have lunch with him – including transexuals, homosexuals, and those with AIDS. I bet that’s something not many of them ever imagined doing. [I wonder how they were chosen? Was it a lottery?] I bet they’re grateful for the change of pace that this particular Saturday brought with it.

This week, I’m grateful, too. For the unexpected. For those unplanned moments. For those unanticipated meetings. And for the potential they can hold. I saw Pope John Paul II back in 1970s Ireland but I was miles away from him. Today, I stood within 15 feet of Pope Francis. That day had been planned and anticipated for months. Today was a complete surprise. I wonder if there’s a lesson for me there.