Positive contribution of senior religious must be recognised

Scandalous atrocities of minority have ‘tainted everything’

He looked astonished at an elderly religious sister nurse dressing the gaping wounds of a poor leprosy patient. “I wouldn’t do that for all the money in the world,” he said. “Neither would I,” said the sister with a smile on her face.

This dedicated religious sister and so many other senior religious have given a lifetime of voluntary service in the medical, educational, counselling, social and caring professions.

The witness of their commitment to a life of prayer and service is seldom recognised or appreciated in contemporary Irish society. Yet it is important to remember senior religious who have given and those who continue to give tremendous service to the poor and needy, such as Pope Francis, the Ven Nano Nagle, the Ven Catherine McAuley, Br Kevin Crowley, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Fr Peter McVerry, and brothers Fr Aengus and Fr Jack Finucane of Concern.

Unproductive lives
"Eaten bread is soon forgotten


” and so too are the positive contributions to society made by senior religious, whose lives of dedication have been overshadowed by the scandalous atrocities of the minority of religious.

The impact of those scandals has tainted everything so that many senior religious think their lives have been unproductive and meaningless. They need to be reminded that their dedicated lives have had a tremendous positive influence on very many people in society. They need to realise how many people appreciate what theyhave done and continue to do.

Beneath the surface there is still an amazing trust of religious in our society. An example became evident when JohnLonergan, the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, asked a large number of prisoners who they would consult if they wanted to discuss a personal problem.

One hundred per cent of the prisoners replied, “the sister chaplains”. When asked to explain, they replied, “they love us and they would keep the matter confidential”.

Unfortunately, the influence of senior religious can be downplayed by attitudes to old people in modern Ireland. Ageism is too often evident. The opinions and experience of older people are often sidelined and disregarded.

We live in a disposable society where those who are old, not visibly economically productive, are brushed aside and not respected.

Pope John Paul II said "older people still have a mission to fulfil and a contribution to make. They should not consider themselves on the margins of the life of the Church or society".

Senior religious are admired by many who feel privileged to know them. These religious are appreciated because they do not have the attitude of “what’s in it for me?”

Inspirational impact

The influence of senior religious can be intensified by telling narratives, ie accounts of their life experience. These narratives can have a formative effect on younger people.

Such narratives are also regarded by many psychologists as an effective therapy.

Dr Rita Charon of Columbia University has promoted what she called "narrative medicine". This type of therapy requires deep listening with silent interest.

Senior religious, like all elderly people, deserve to be cared for in the greatest possible level.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made a profound statement when he said: “The provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much as an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude.”

Rev Dr Tony Byrne CSSp is the director of the Awareness Education Services which has produced a CD on Recognising the Influence of Senior Religious. Copies of the CD are available at info@awareness education.org or 01-8388888.