Thinking Anew – The listening ear

A few weeks ago RTÉ took us down memory lane with an excellent programme about the late Gay Byrne, a national treasure who for several decades entertained and more importantly informed the people of Ireland on radio and television. In doing so he made known some of the grave injustices hidden or ignored in our society. The title of the programme was Dear Gay, a reference to the fact that many of the subjects he addressed were brought to his attention by women who wrote to him about their life experiences. His was such an extraordinary gift that women felt they could share with him their most private and personal feelings. He gave them a voice when others chose to look the other way. It is no exaggeration to say that he was a prophet in the truest sense of that word, and a Christian prophet at that, given his own deep personal faith.

That faith is centred on the person of Jesus Christ who honoured women in ways that were not the norm of his day. This is clear in tomorrow's gospel reading (St Mark 5) which tells the story of a haemorrhaging woman and a 12-year-old girl who is thought to be terminally ill. The woman is without social, religious, or economic standing or influence. She is even unnamed, so the disciples urge Jesus not to bother with her for there was an important man seeking his attention: "Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, 'My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.' This child has everything the woman hasn't: influence, wealth, status, and sympathy." But the woman persists and breaks social convention by touching the cloak of Jesus. He respects her courage and faith and significantly addresses her as "daughter". Having cared for the unnamed woman he turns his attention to the needs of the sick child, the "other" daughter, reminding us that the compassion of Jesus recognises no boundaries.

One of the issues Gay Byrne brought to light was the distress of unmarried mothers and their babies who felt they had been abused and mistreated. This painful issue seems somewhat unresolved given the current controversy over the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. This is not the place to discuss the commission’s report, except perhaps to say that while the issues are complex it is unfortunate that after all these years so many still feel they have not been sufficiently heard.

A contributing factor to their personal tragedies was the mistaken view that morality is primarily about human sexuality. We still find this in religious groups for whom opinions on gender identity and women’s health issues such as abortion and contraception are the litmus test of authentic Christian living. Such narrow moralism is more in line with culture wars of America and elsewhere than the teaching of Jesus Christ. One commentator put it this way: “We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with.” It is said that about 95 per cent of the moral teaching of Jesus is about other aspects of human conduct which many ignore.


Many of those who shared their stories with Gay Byrne were victims of a strict religious regime operating in all the churches where appearance meant everything while terrible injustices were hidden.

William Barclay argues that the compassion evidenced in tomorrow's gospel is basic: "Jesus teaches that human need must always be helped; that there is no greater task than to relieve someone's pain and distress and that the Christian's compassion must be like God's – unceasing. Other work may be laid aside but the work of compassion never." And that is where we so often fail.