The Community of Fr. Peter McVerry
Although the council that bestowed the award was not fitting of the man, I was delighted to see Fr. Peter McVerry given the freedom of Dublin this week – coinciding with the thirty-fourth anniversary of Bishop Óscar Romero’s death in El Salvador.
For those not familiar Fr. McVerry is a Jesuit priest who works with the homeless in Dublin. He is also a rarity in the Irish Church for espousing a left-wing Christianity.
This is an excerpt from an interview he gave to Kandle in 2009:
“I grew up with a very traditional understanding of Catholicism. God was somebody who was a judge and Jesus came as a teacher with moral guidelines. If we followed those guidelines we would be rewarded with a place in Heaven. The Church was the interpreter of those moral guidelines.
“Then I started to work with homeless young people and they totally challenged everything I had believed. What is the Good News that I have to bring to young people? Is it that there’ll be a place for them in Heaven? I don’t think that’s particularly attractive to homeless people who are worried about the here and now. It certainly wasn’t that God was a judge because, while some of them commit crimes or do things that would be considered wrong, they are young people who have had appalling childhoods – victims of violence, abuse and neglect. To my mind, if there is a God, and I believe there is, then God is compassion and these young people must have a special place because they have been victims of appalling crimes.
“They challenged me and I came to read the Gospels in a very different way. For me now what Jesus came to do is to create a community. The community would have two characteristics. One: it would meet the needs of everybody in the community. Everybody was to put their lives, who they are, their talents and resources at the disposal of the community and at the service of those who need it. And the model for that was Jesus himself who gave everything he had, including his own life, for his brothers and sisters. The first characteristic of the community that Jesus founded was that we live for others and not for ourselves.
“The second characteristic was that it is to be for everybody. There was to be nobody who was marginalised, looked-down upon or treated as second-class. Everybody was to be equal. […] I would like to be able to say to homeless young people that there is a Christian community who will make sure that you are no longer homeless, no longer hungry, no longer looked-down upon, despised or unwanted – would you like to come and join that community? Now we’re a long way from that when we look at the Christian community but that is the ideal, that’s what Jesus was about. That’s what I want my life to be about – trying to create opportunity for people who are on the margins, poor or hungry. The Gospel is Good News to them not because there will be a place in Heaven for them but because there is a Christian community who are looking out for them and will meet their needs.”
I think it should be said plain: the community described above is the antithesis of capitalist Ireland. On the contrary it offers a framework for a democratic socialist society.
We live in an Ireland socially, culturally and politically dominated by the business class – a tiny fraction of the population who own the means to reproduce society. The social vision embedded in their ideology has been almost totally hegemonised over the public imagination, instilling a belief that there is no alternative against the backdrop of a Left unable to appeal to any significant portion of the people.
But what Fr. McVerry articulates above, and puts into practice in his work, does offer a glimpse of an alternative. It would be hard to imagine more divergent social visions than the class domination and ruthless individualism of Irish capitalism and a society where “everybody was to put their lives, who they are, their talents and resources at the disposal of the community and at the service of those who need it.” Significantly Fr. McVerry emphasises that this should be created now, rather than waiting for the afterlife, and that it should not have a subordinate class.
As folks will know, I am a dialectical-materialist and an atheist. I don’t expect that to change. But I greatly admire Christian socialists whose radical egalitarian tradition predates ours by many centuries. It is my view that a socialist project worth its salt must be vibrant and diverse, and make common cause with those who share Fr. McVerry’s vision of a socialist community.
Congratulations to Fr. McVerry on his award. We should be deeply grateful for the work he does to help victims of market forces in Ireland. If the Left is to achieve its aims we’re going to need to take inspiration from that work and do much, much more to serve the people. We will also need to reach out to people like Fr. McVerry to build alliances for radical change.
Because the community he describes is not our present. If it is to be our future we need to build an engine of social transformation. We need a movement.