Parish of St. John the Apostle – Knocknacarra Novena to Our Lady

Good evening everyone

When I got a phone-call from Fr. Hugh Clifford inviting me to speak at your annual novena, I was very surprised because I am not on the lecture circuit and neither am I a preacher.

This is my first time meeting a congregation like this apart from New Years Day 2000, when the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin invited people working on the margins of society to address his congregation.

This novena can be stimulating, energising and challenging, and in some ways this is what we all need to maybe withdraw from our own world, if even for a short time and listen maybe to an outsider. I am acutely aware that this is the first night of your novena, and there is an onus on me to ensure that you leave wanting to come back again.

Let me tell you something about myself…

The recent elections left many dreary of the sound bites and sadly many young educated people decided not to vote. While relying on our vote to make a change we can forget the value of speaking out – why should any of us be put off by language. All of us are important, unique human beings with special gifts and talents. How can we really talk about social issues if we ignore or isolate the inarticulate and the lonely? etc

I have been working on a daily basis for 30 years now with people who are homeless. Homelessness to us is much more than being without a home – a home is not just about four walls. Increasingly, we see so many become homeless who are seen as outsiders in our society.

However, I live with the belief that it is possible for any one of us to feel an Outsider, and equally possible for each of us to ensure that many living in our community feel less an outsider because of our understanding.

TRUST is a voluntary organisation working with people who are homeless – it was founded in 1975.

The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:

• The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
• The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Every day up to 40 men and women who are living rough, in Dublin and beyond, avail of the services offered by TRUST. These services range from the provision of washing facilities, and a change of clothes, ensuring that people get their rights and entitlements, to addressing the more complex needs of people without access to even the most basic health determinants. We see the most important part of our work is meeting people like any other human beings and nobody is labelled. Many of the people using the services of TRUST are perceived by the wider society as being different and difficult, and as a consequence are suffering from the effects of major neglect, isolation, untreated health problems exacerbated by lifestyle, even difficulty accessing mainstream services and often times, the most basic accommodation.

Sometimes the only shelter is a Garda station or a prison cell. I am reminded here of Joe, a man in his mid-30’s who called two weeks ago to have a shower & change of clothes en route to court on a minor charge. His parting words going out the door were ‘I hope I go down, at least I’ll have a bed for a while.’

Today we are all constantly bombarded with reports, statistics, strategies, jargon and bad news, and many voices of wisdom are drowned out by the ‘expert’ voice – there are no experts in the field of poverty and exclusion – only those living in poverty, financial or otherwise, or excluded for some other reason. Sometimes it is not possible to pin-point why one is different.

In today’s world it appears that there is an industry developing around poverty as we can clearly see by reading the ads in our National Newspapers – requirements to work in the field so prohibitive that many would never be considered, and many human beings can feel they have nothing to offer. This in itself can be an injustice. While we do know that there is a need for people with training, there should also be a balance, and one supports the other.

I decided in preparing this to just open the Bible at random – probably the most possessed book in the world, and the least read – when I did, the letter from James, which emphasises the importance of actions along with faith, faced me. Many of you here may be able to quote the bible – I am not.
“Warning against Prejudice”

‘My brothers as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. Suppose a nice man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes comes to your meeting, and a poor man in ragged clothes also comes. If you show more respect to the well-dressed man and say to him “Have this best seat here” but say to the poor man “stand over there or sit here on the floor by my feet” then you are guilty of creating distinctions among yourselves and of making judgements based on evil motives.’

Reading this reminded me of John – an old man from the city who loved his church and even though living in a hostel where there was an oratory, he visited his local church each morning. One morning he called, crying bitter tears; he said a well-dressed woman snapped at him to wash his hands, he was too dirty in her eyes to shake hands with in offering peace. His hands like the skin on his face were weather-beaten from years of hard manual work outdoors, and nights sometimes spent in skippers because he couldn’t get the money for a hostel, or couldn’t get there before closing hours because of bad feet.

The parish in some ways is a clearly defined geographical area and maybe easier to define than community, but in my eyes, the parish is the community for many, and vice versa, and to put it more simply, almost like a large family and all that that entails, but sometimes the cosiness of parish could all too easily lose sight of the individual. All can be seen as Outsiders – those seen to be in charge versus others and vice versa – much like a family.

Tony, who is totally cut off from his family whose only shelter at times is in a local Garda station came out of prison last Christmas. A large candle being the only Christmas decoration we chose to have, had only been on the table a couple of days and hadn’t been lit for safety reasons. Tony came in on his release, and when we came back to the sitting room where he was waiting for a shower, the candle was lighting and he was sobbing, because the candle reminded him of Christmas and probably happier days in the past.

Today, it is possible to just see the Outsider as someone from another continent and indeed possible to ignore that person equally. We recently ran a National Essay competition to highlight the plight of the Outsider in our society – it was open to Transition year students and the response was so overwhelming, and indeed encouraging to see the depth of thought in the youth of today.

The poster read “Everyone is important! But some people are different. Why are they excluded? Sometimes even assaulted. More often just ignored and isolated, confined to the margins of society the outsiders! Daily we meet people who feel they are outsiders in our world. But everyone is important, regardless of where you live, the colour of your skin, the music you like, the school you go to, your religion and everything that makes you a distinctive individual.”


A sheltered arch or where underground
kitchens of an inn sent
Through grids of pavement grating
The warmth of the asses breath –
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?
Every morning for months I watched
A man I might have been
About my age and bearded too,
His face blotched crimson
With cheap wine and sleeping rough
He walked the far side of the street
Always hurrying somewhere;
A father who couldn’t praise, I wondered,
Or what had blurred his star?
For months our eyes never met

Though the street between us was narrow,
Until that eve he crossed
‘Some help,’ he said, but it must have been
my double’s eyes that asked
where would He lie down tomorrow?
An old outsider within me winced,
shook him off and fled;
that street between was so narrow –
I chose the inn and was afraid.
I’m sure I’ve never seen him since –
But tomorrow when carafes go round
A lone presence will pass
Tremors through our frail togetherness;
Again those eyes will ask
Where did last night’s Christ lie down?

‘Outsider’ is from A Fragile City, Micheal O’Siadhail (Bloodaxe Books 1995)

Of course, Jesus was an outsider – he had no job, he chose the fisherman who worked hard to make a living as those to spread his message. Mary Magdalen was his friend, and just look at the people he has encouraged inspired, comforted and challenged – if we believe in him, we must do as he did. Of course today he could be considered mad because of his attire, his long beard and hair could even ensure admission to some of our most basic services would be denied. Because of his lifestyle and vision, he could be seen as a threat – he could well be in danger of imprisonment, incarceration in a psychiatric hospital and could well be medicated to control him. It is possible, that a room may even be denied to him, by strong community groups. Strange how we believe in him and ignore the likeness with today’s outsiders.

The Outsider is simply someone who doesn’t fit into our view of things, our circle, our community, our world, the person who asks the awkward question, the low achiever, these days – maybe even the religious; the list is endless – I suppose only each of us can decide for ourselves – who do we isolate? This alone sounds simple, but how do our views affect the thinking of others – does it help to discriminate further?

Our current emphasis on ‘success’, our definition of success promoted by educational establishments and others, and now part of our requests for grant aid in the very areas needing finance, needs to be questioned by all of us. Who do we consider to be the most successful person in our lives / community? Who makes headlines on our National Newspapers? Certainly not Mary who spent a recent St Patrick’s afternoon banging on the door of Mountjoy prison looking for shelter or the Christmas Season she spent dancing with the dolls and animals on display in Clery’s window – her only companions.

In the field of homelessness, the emphasis on resettlement is in some cases pushing those on the outside well outside the limits. We should never be afraid to speak out on their behalf – bear in mind fear often prevents us siding with someone different but maybe this is the price we pay – not much is it if the end result means a better life for someone else?

A Morning in TRUST: Developing a sense of self-worth:

We encourage and help people who come to us to avail of statutory services and to obtain their entitlements; to place a value on themselves; to develop a sense of self-esteem and avoid dependence on private charity.

We attempt as best we can to meet people as they are, listen and do what we can as fellow human beings – it’s not easy. Sometimes the only hearing people we meet get is when they are being researched – that is why we have grave reservations about the quality and quantity of research taking place currently.

We meet some people who are so cut off from everything around them that they at times appear to be reachless.

Some people we meet are contented with their lives, never complain and leave us feeling grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what life is all about.

It can become all too easy to avoid even calling people ‘people’– they are statistics, figures to be juggled with at endless meetings and conferences. It is of course much easier to deal with figures. People who are homeless are now always referred to as clients – whatever that word means. I am reminded of calling to a much-publicised Health Project recently, and expressed my views on confidentiality. I was told not to worry, only the client number will show up on the screen, and you will be a statistic. Is it so surprising that increasing numbers now feel outsiders, in a world of buzzwords gone mad, – how can justice follow if we ignore the human condition with all it’s complexities?

Quote by Andrew Lang, over 100 years ago. “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than illumination.”

We can all feel outsiders when we listen to the experts and they are plentiful and increasing. Let me tell you about Jimmy, now dead, who comes to mind now as the World Cup approaches. He was truly an outsider – all of his life, possibly from birth – it was the different, ordinary, and many extraordinary people he met daily who ensured his being an outsider was what made him special and he made so many people feel good about themselves.

Retired Bishop Desmond Williams said in “Not Just a Bed for the Night”, which I co-authored:

‘Can we sit back and feel there is no more to be done? More is needed before we can claim to be living up to the standards of our Gospel as a society and as individuals. ‘The poor you shall always have with you,’ should not lead us to be satisfied with a society that both creates and perpetuates poverty.
What can we do? We can treat people with the dignity that their humanity demands of us. We can support voluntary action and influence public bodies to act decisively in favour of the homeless people. We can pray that parish communities will come to realise that caring for the marginalised is akin to caring for Christ because of the Christ in each person we meet.’

I rather like the notion of maybe seeing ourselves in the other individual – how would we feel, what would or could we feel capable of doing. When you see someone who appears different, maybe they were once as you are now. Fear of difference is often what prevents us from taking that first step, and maybe fear of knowing we could be like that ourselves. Therein lies our responsibility.

Knowing of the services in your locality can be a starting point. Don’t be put off if the person doesn’t respond to your offer of support, your smile or nod perhaps. Likewise it can be easier for us to drop a coin rather than look into the eyes of another human being. Sometimes, they don’t know how to take kindness when their lives are so hard. After all, why should they TRUST us?

Injustices have been highlighted by the action of many, but it takes one voice to sow the seed – that one voice needs to be supported because it takes guts to say something different in today’s world, and even greater strength to live as an Outsider.