I have never been lonely. We were a happy large family when I was growing up, I had good Rosminian brethren when I became a member of the Institute of Charity and inspiring priests as my friends through 53 years of priesthood.
I was very happy in 13 years of teaching (am still in contact with a number of the students) and on the parishes it has been my privilege to serve the people over many years. So blessed my life, I know, and I thank God every day.
I met (St) Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I was awestruck, overwhelmed. She came to our National Conference of Priests where I was on the committee and I met her. I knew of her wonderful work and that of her Sisters, and here she was. One word seems to sum up her life and her sanctity – loneliness. She called it the greatest suffering. I know something of what she had seen and understood and could believe her.
Loneliness – no one to want your love or affection, no one to give you any, no one wanting your ability to work, no one to care whether you live or die, the emptiness of each day in repeating yesterday, each day a prison and no one thinks of you . . .
Although I have never known it I have been aware – students who appreciated the time to talk if they wanted it, who knew I would mark their books in a personal way and not simply “right” or “wrong”, people who knew I would visit even for a moment, phone to say “Hello”, send a card or letter to let them know I had thought of them, said a prayer, wanted to imagine them smile.
During lockdown and in my steady recovery from hospital (so well looked after I have been) you have all been in my prayer. I told you that each Hail Mary of my Rosary is for someone and I would never know whom until I start. I “prayer-visit” along the streets of the parish, for my fellow priests in the diocese, for my brethren around the country and the world, for refugees everywhere, for the oppressed people in so many countries. Our Lady guides me.
And I am helpless. All I can do is care and pray. What more can I do? Which is why I am writing like this to you in the parish letter. What can we do as a parish to give people a sense of belonging, reassure them, share God with them with or without words? I have told you of St Peter Claver, the saint of the slave trade, who urged people to speak with their hands before they spoke with their lips.
Tell us what we can do. The darker months are coming. Can we lighten them? No suggestion is too wild. Guide us as a parish to open church, hall, hearts in genuine ways. Write or phone, we’ll open a forum in the newsletter. Twice this week I’ve had conversations about loneliness and been reminded it can touch any and every life. Let St Mother Teresa be our inspiration. She carried someone who was dying in the gutter to a place of refuge and gave four days of human dignity before the man died. She opened a garbage bin because she heard a cry, and the old lady was crying “My son did this to me, my son”.
“Whatever you do for the least of my sisters and brothers you do for me” said Jesus. What shall we do, where shall we help, whom will they be? Pray and let me know. No suggestion too wild.
(20th September 2020)