The quality of Mercy

By John Scally

The former governor of Mountjoy Jail John Lonergan has become one of Ireland’s best known social commentators. The Tipperary native retains a very nostalgic view of his childhood. One clerical figure dominated the local landscape:
“His philosophy was that you start building a society brick by brick from the bottom up. That is what Canon Hayes was always saying, a balanced community he used to call it with young and old, rich and poor. To be a member of that community was to be in touch with the poor and those in need, but we are not in touch anymore. It was taken for granted that the old were treated with respect and that the strong took care of the weak, regardless of age or social status. Those who marched to a different drum and to an outsider might be considered eccentric were neither ridiculed or feared but were accepted as just one other face of the varied community.”

Religion was part of the furniture of John Lonergan’s life:
“I was an altar boy for seven years. The big perk was that you got two shillings for serving Mass for weddings and funerals, which was like winning the Lotto back then!
“Religion was a powerful influence for good and for bad. I often think of a saying attributed to Gandhi when he said he was impressed by your Christ and not your Christians. I suppose for me listening and observing people it seems we are great at talking it but not great living it.”

Lonergan remains a great believer in the philosophy of Christianity. What has changed in his attitude to the Church?

“When Pope John the 23rd was Cardinal in Venice, one night he was sitting down for his supper and his secretary came in with the file of a priest who was in trouble. The assistant was very disdainful as he spoke about the priest who was having a bad time. John pointed at his glass on the table and asked his secretary who it belonged to. ‘You, your Eminence’, replied the puzzled secretary. Then Pope John picked up the glass and threw it on the ground where it smashed into smithereens. ‘Now, who owns it?’
‘It’s still yours, your Eminence.’
‘No matter what the man did, he is still my priest, said Pope John.’
“It always struck me as a very forceful statement about his care for the broken person. Every day I meet priests and nuns, like Peter McVerry to take just one example, who show the same concern for broken people but I fail to see the care in the Church as an institution.”

Lonergan has specific example to illustrate his argument:
“If there is any place in the world where you can practice your religion, it is in prison because you are dealing with people at the very bottom. I think of the woman who was 26 days in a padded cell awaiting psychiatric care. I did not see any public reaction to that and the lack of response told me that the State, the Church and the caring agencies and all the rest just did not care.”

“Pope John Paul II, when addressing the Irish hierarchy in Cabra in 1979, said:
‘Among those most needing pastoral care from Bishops are prisoners. My dear brothers, do not neglect to provide for their material conditions and their families. Have a special care for young offenders. So often their wayward lives are due more to society’s neglect than to their sinfulness. Detention should be especially for them a school of rehabilitation.’
“Thirty years on, the challenge has not changed. How are we going to care for those who are thought of as the least, the last and the lost?”

Longergan uses the Bible to justify his position:
“In the Old Testament people looked forward to a God, ‘who would not cherish anger but would delight in showing mercy.’ We too must show mercy, especially as many of our women prisoners in particular are more sinned against than sinful.
“We are a society that calls itself Christian but bays self-righteously for unending revenge on a member that steps out of line; a society that allows a member’s fate to be decreed virtually from the moment of conception. The conflict is as I see it between a Christian community and the fairly often expressed revenge culture. This is about people, who for whatever reason, have offended and the lack of compassion, of understanding, of support, and forgiveness for them. If we are a Christian community and we believe in Christianity, we must believe in forgiveness. There is no room in Christianity for revenge. I have to say I have been affronted by those Church leaders who have criticised what they see as lenient sentences for particular crimes. This sends a message of condemnation and ostracisation of ‘the sinner. Since the Church has been on the receiving end of much criticism and condemnation over a variety of abuse cases, a more tolerant attitude may prevail in the future.”

There are signs of hope and disappointment:
“A few years ago, a man was convicted of murder. I personally thought the case was very cruel because he did not mean to kill his victim. They were good friends and they had a row going home and the man died. Although everyone thought he would get away with manslaughter, he was convicted of murder. About three or four months into his life sentence he asked the chaplain if he would deliver a letter to the family of the victim. The priest went off anyway with the letter and knocked on the door family. Two elderly people answered and the priest explained his purpose and said that if they did not accept the letter, the prisoner would understand. The parents took the letter and read it and saw he was looking for forgiveness. They told the priest to go back and tell the prisoner that they had forgiven him a long time ago.”

“When the priest reported back to the prisoner, the convict replied, ‘I don’t care now if I die in Mountjoy but I’ll die happy knowing that I’m forgiven.’
“To me, those parents were the ultimate example of Christianity. It is tough to have to do that. It is difficult to live that life: to be kind, forgiving, sharing, caring because you need to be almost a perfect human being.”

“I contrast that experience with that of parish close to where I live in Dublin. A family of Travellers brought in a caravan one night and they parked it in the church grounds. When the respectable members of the congregation saw this, they were horrified. After ten o’clock Mass every morning they were up to the priest demanding that these Travellers be removed.”

“About a month later, the priest was saying Sunday Mass when he announced that he had ‘good news’ and that he succeeded in having the Travellers ejected. What struck me was that the congregation did not see the contradiction in the faith they were professing and their actions. There is no need to preach your virtues if you live by them.”

“There is an old saying: ‘I would be better off in Mountjoy.’ The sad reality is that for some, this is still true today. How quick we are to distance ourselves from the many social and human tragedies created by the way we live.”