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Sister Marianne O'Connor Apologises (Ursuline Sister and Secretary General of CORI)

Rising Above The Past To Create a Better Future

Sister Marianne O’Connor osu (Ursuline Sisters)

Paper given at the Humbert Summer School, August 2009.

None of us can remember anything like it in the past. None of us can imagine that anything like it could happen in the future. The waves of shock, horror and sadness that swept over all of us at the revelations of the Ryan Report were without precedent and without warning. The sheer scale of the findings hadn’t been expected. The findings shame us; as religious, as a nation. It’s difficult, I think, for anyone under 40 to comprehend how it could have happened. For those of us who are older it points up how unquestioning we were of our life and times.

The evidence of hardship and cruelty is overwhelming. Like the potato blight of famine times, this blight brought ruin to many lives. But - unlike famine victims of the 19th century - the survivors of this blight are still with us. It is now and only now, for many are elderly, that ways must be found to help heal the wounds of those who suffered. It may not even be possible to bring healing, so enormous is the wound, but it is surely possible to bring solace and ease.

The challenge is not simply to find money – although that must and will be done. The challenge is to find ways to bring solace and ease. Initiatives such as housing, education, literacy, addiction and other counselling, and healthcare- this perhaps is where the additional funds, when established, could be directed.

A number of the religious congregations in Ireland have some of these kinds of programmes in place for their former residents. Much more needs to be done. and done in consultation with the survivors. They are the ones best placed to say what they need.

Other questions too need to be asked. The Ryan report tells us what happened, but does not deal with how it could have happened – and this question must also be explored and answered.

When I was starting off as a young teacher full of theory, I was given a bit of advice:
“Remember the teacher has not taught until the pupil has learned.”
This advice could be applied to the Ryan report. It has revealed much. It has “taught” us many things. But have we learned?

We in religious life have learned many things. We have learned a new humility. Our members have gone from being valued, from being trusted, from being respected to being castigated and pilloried. Never, in the history of the state, has this happened before to one sector of society.

Trying to learn the lessons of Ryan has been complicated. It’s not easy to learn when you’re stereotyped;
when you know some people would wish you to simply disappear;
when any effort to sympathise with those hurt, sounds false or patronising or impertinent;
when as religious, we know that we are not where we were forty years ago.

In addition to humility, we are learning –to be aware, to keep looking for the heart of who we are.

That is why I’m here today, at the first public forum to which religious have been invited since Ryan. I am here, first and foremost, to apologise. To say “We are sorry” -and to confirm our commitment – as individuals and as congregations,– to do whatever we can to make reparation.

The last lesson Jesus taught from the cross was the pivotal importance of seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Nor is asking for forgiveness an easy ritual. It is much more than that. Much more.

This is the challenge we face: Who can to ask for forgiveness? Who can confer forgiveness?

Theologians, psychologists, counsellors, have all written about forgiveness and the key role it plays in healing. Without forgiveness one is stuck- unable to move forward. It is so difficult, it may never be arrived at, but if it can be achieved, then it is supremely liberating.

Johnston McMaster in “A Passion for Justice” says of forgiveness that it is

“… essentially about restoring relationships, putting right wrongs and living a transformative alternative to vengeance and the destructive power of bitterness, unresolved anger and revenge.” (3)

Both the Old and New Testaments describe forgiveness as essential. Modern history tells us it’s pivotal to human progress.

We Religious are asking for forgiveness.

The survivors now have a huge challenge - and the huge power - of forgiving.

Only the survivors can forgive us. Their towering justified rage at the barrier of silence that existed for so long make it understandable if survivors can’t bring themselves to forgive at this time. But forgiveness – like mercy – blesses the giver and the receiver. Forgiveness allows us to reach out to each other and move towards reconciliation. The experience of South Africa, of Northern Ireland and of other parts of the world where conflict has occurred, is that only in that coming together can there be a move forward.

The Sunday Times magazine of the 2nd August carried an article entitled “The Odd Couple: Nelson Mandela’s new best friend.”

Let me read you the description of the two of them.

“The most respected political leader of our age is holding hands with a man who was one of the most reviled South Africans, a man accused of propping up and profiting from the apartheid system…”

That reviled man is Sol Kerzner, who fled S. Africa after the fall of apartheid. Now Mandela welcomes him back because he says “S. Africa needs him”. Mandela has been the example to our age of the magnificence of rising above the past to shape a better future- of rising above the past to shape a better future.

A National Day of Atonement or Reconciliation has been suggested for Ireland. I would endorse this call and maybe one could even imagine a service where a public ritual of reconciliation could occur between representatives of the Survivors, the State, the Religious and Church. Maybe that is a step too far at this time. But public ritual is important. Ritual that reinforces remembrance and responsibility.

The congregations have provided their financial details to the State and will provide money for reparation. But we must do much more than provide money. We must listen and learn – to the degree survivors will permit us – to journey with them as they discover what they need. We must continue to try to live authentically the gospel of Jesus Christ. We religious must keep looking for the heart of who we are.

Sometimes over the past few months the impression was given that the religious congregations are caught in a time warp; that they are desperately clinging to the past and seeking to hold on to what they built up over years.

That’s not true. We need to tell the truth of where religious life is, right now.

Yes, numbers are declining and aging. But despite that, religious are seeking out emerging needs and taking initiatives to respond to them. Examples include sheltered accommodation, special needs, day care centres, community development, addiction counselling, homelessness, supporting people suffering from AIDS, anti trafficking of women and children, providing small unit housing for former residents. Religious are working in these and other areas, supported financially by their congregations.

For congregations, whose main involvement was in education, the direct involvement is much reduced due to aging. But they continue to put resources, into their schools and colleges. They’ve provided the investment to underpin school trusts and to provide support and training for staff and lay management. Many religious continue to be involved in all kinds of school support programmes, including family outreach and pupil support programmes, especially to children of newcomers to Ireland.

It’s the same story in healthcare. Religious are putting resources and personnel into nursing homes, hospitals, hospices and homecare, prison and hospital chaplaincy. Religious congregations of clerics run parishes in many dioceses as well as working with the marginalised. Contemplative religious support all people by their prayer.

Not to be overlooked either is the fact that most of the congregations are also supporting, and have heavy commitments, to similar works in Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

I mention some of these because I believe, that in fairness, CORI, should give some account of what we as religious do and are committed to continue doing, despite the fact that many congregations are struggling as their members grow older and need care.

It’s arguable that, in the interest of this straightforwardly good work, some balance should be sought in the portrayal of religious in Ireland at this time.

Let me make it very clear. Bringing this balance into public debate is not to minimize the Ryan Report or diminish in any way its impact. However, the reality is that allreligious have been lumped together. The irrefutable fact that some of our members were abusive and uncaring cannot, and should not, be allowed to sweep away the wider reality of the tireless work and dedication and love and respect given by so many sisters, brothers and priests, many now deceased, many- thankfully- still with us today and still contributing to modern Ireland.

The theme of the summer school is “Can Ireland be Redeemed?” The answer has to be “yes” because the alternative is despair.

Brendan Kennelly, in a poem called Hope, writes that:

I have one fierce enemy, despair,
All driven energy, forever there,
Rips hearts apart and doesn’t care.

But what Hope dreams of, the poem says:

… is being the living song
everyone would love to sing.

Despair can be beaten back and the living song of hope can be sung. Both can happen:

Through acknowledgement that people suffered unspeakably and that this suffering was laid on them when they were only children;

Through finding a variety of means, without delay, to bring what solace, ease and healing is possible;

Through learning not to turn a blind eye to the abuses of our own day;

Abuses that include the non-national children who go missing in our system, homelessness; prostitution and trafficking, the gap between the rich and the poor, the literacy problem in our society, the growing racism as our economy withers, the stress of those struggling to make ends meet in a new reality.

We can learn the lessons of Ryan and build a better future

IF there is forgiveness

If there is hope.

Colm Toibin, interviewed recently on radio, in response to a question as to his thoughts after the Ryan Report, went on to say something important: He said we should think not about what is but what might come out of it.

Only in thinking and working towards what might come out of the Ryan report, in rising above the past to shape a better future can we find redemption.

1. RTE Myles Dungan 10 August 2009

2. Enda Mc Donagh “Inwardness” and the Economic Crisis in The Furrow. June 2009.

3. Johnston McMaster A Passion for Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. Hudson House, 8 Albany Street, Edinburgh EH1 3QB Scotland.

4. Brendan Kennelly “Hope” Reservoir Voices, Bloodaxe Books Ltd.,Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland NE48 1RP A radio interviewer recently asked Colm Toibin for his thoughts following publication of the Ryan Report. He thought that Ireland was in a similar place to Ireland post Parnell. That was when both Church and State had lost credibility. He felt that within the vacuum created, a new flowering of the imagination might happen in art and poetry. (1)

This is somewhat similar to a quotation from Seamus Heaney, cited by Fr. Enda Mc Donagh in the June edition of the “Furrow.” Heaney maintains that in time of economic crisis “If poetry and the arts can do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.” He went further, suggesting they could act as a kind of “ immune system” against material difficulties. (2)

Toibin and Heaney are reminding us that it is the things of the spirit that can bring us forward. It is in touching into that spirit, which for the Christian is the breath of God, that we can move forward, or as Toibin said in reply to the interviewer’s question; “Think not of what is but what might come out of it”