The most important thing I have to do this afternoon is to congratulate you. To congratulate you on your Award, on your service to the community and to the church. You have made a contribution to the lives of others in small ways. But small does not mean insignificant. You have made contribution to the lives of others in different ways and I hope that they have made a contribution to your life also.
I have worked with homeless people now in Dublin for over 40 years and it’s a two way process. I believe I have got just as much from homeless people as I have given them. I have learnt so much from them. In fact they have totally challenged me. They have challenged my values and they have challenged at least some of my prejudices. They have challenged my understanding of God. They have changed the way I read the gospels and they have turned me from a young conservative adult to an old radical one.
I thought my job was to provide homeless people with a bed for the night or with drug treatment or counseling and we do all that. And we do that for several thousand people each year. They taught me that they wanted something more from me. I always thought the hardest part of being homeless was not having a bed for the night, having to find a doorway to sleep in. But it’s not. You can get used to that. It’s not comfortable but you can get used to it. What’s the hardest part of being homeless?
We’d a guy lived with us for a few years. When he was 18 he left us. He went to live with his girlfriend. After about a year they split up and he went onto the streets of Dublin because he had nowhere else to go. After a couple of months on the streets he threw himself into the Liffey. To his dismay he was rescued and he was brought to hospital. I went up to see him in hospital. He said “Peter” he said “I can’t go on living like this.” I said: “what do you mean?” he said “I can’t go on living knowing that nobody cares.” That’s the hardest part of being homeless. To know that you are unwanted. You are considered to be of little or no value and it’s living with that belief that you are of little value, that is the hardest part of being homeless.
You know, many people think homeless people are failures. They have failed in integrating into our society. But they’re not failures. They are people who have been failed. Been failed by the society they’re living in.
We dealt with a young man, lived with his mother and his sister. Himself and his sister very close together. Mother was an alcoholic, also had mental health problems. When this young lad was 12 years of age his mother stabbed his sister to death in front of him. He just left home. We didn’t know where he was for five years. Sleeping on the streets of Dublin somewhere. He turned up at our door when he was 17 and he’ll live with us now for the rest of his life because he now has serious mental health problems. Problems that were never addressed.
Dealt with a 14 year old who every time he went home his mother slammed the door in his face. Said: “go away. You’re not wanted here.” He lived with us for a few years. When he was 18 he left us and went to London. He died in London from a drug overdose. They rang me and said could you tell his parents? So I went out I knocked on the door, mother answered the door I said: “I am here about Paddy” and she said: “Go way. I don’t want to know.”
How do you cope at 14 years of age with growing up in a home where you are not wanted? Well you cope by taking drugs.
An 11 year old knocked on my door late at night. Said “Can I stay?” I said: “No, you can’t stay here, you’re only 11” I said: “and anyway you have a home to go to.” “Can’t go home” he said. “Why can’t you go home?” I asked him. “Just can’t go home.” I talked to him for a little bit. Persuaded him to go home. Put him into my car. Drove him up to his house said: “There you are, in you go.” “Can’t go in” he said. “Why can’t you go in?” I asked him. “I just can’t go in.” I talked to him for another little bit. Discovered his alcoholic parents we’re sending him out every night into prostitution and he had to come back with a certain amount of money otherwise he got a beating and he had no money that night.
So the majority of the people we deal with have had disaster childhoods. They are on the margins of our society because our society has failed them. What many of them want to know is to know that somebody cares. That they are worth caring for. So you may not fully appreciate the significance of what you have done, because you’re challenged the society in which we live.
The world we live in is driven by the words ‘I want.’ We’re encouraged to want what we do not now have, so that we will go out and purchase it. The more we spend, the higher the economic growth. And economic growth is what our governments all want. Without this consumer spending, economic growth stagnates or declines. But as our basic needs remain the same, millions of euro are spent on advertising designed to make us want what we do not need.
Some years ago I was present at a similar award ceremony like this to young people who had gone into poor communities. Some in Ireland, some abroad. I was very struck by one group who reported back. They had been to Africa and they had worked with very disabled children who lived in desperate poverty. What struck me was what they said. “They were the happiest children they had ever met.” These children had nothing and wanted nothing. Whereas their peer group had everything and wanted more. Those two simple words ‘I want’ have caused untold suffering, despair and even death to millions of people. Those two words ‘I want’ have started wars, been responsible for countless murders, rapes, robberies. “I want Ukraine.” “I want an Islamic state.” “I want your property.” “I want your girlfriend.” “I want your life.” They have caused deep unhappiness in each of us because we are constantly wanting what we do not have, and we are restless until we get it.
To build a world in which all can live in peace and equality it is necessary to replace ‘I want’ with ‘You need.’ ‘I want’ divides me from others as I seek to secure, often in competition with others, what I do not have. But ‘you need’ binds us together as I try to secure what another person needs. My concern for what ‘I want’ and my efforts to secure it is replaced by my concern for what ‘You need’ and my efforts to secure it. Solidarity replaces individualism. In showing solidarity in a small but significant way you have challenged the individualism which is the very foundation of the society in which we live.
We are called to be angry. We’re often told we should avoid anger. Anger is destructive. No, anger is a positive emotion if we know how to release it. Anger and love go together. You cannot love somebody who is suffering unnecessarily without being angry at what is causing the suffering. Look at our society. Look at our world. So much suffering. And so much of that suffering is unnecessary. So many people in our own country struggling. Struggling financially. Homeless people forced to live on the streets. People with drug problems unable to access drug treatment services. We should be angry. In fact we Christians should be the angriest of all people because this world is not the way God wants it to be. And we should be angry enough to want to change it. To change it to become more like the world that God wants us to be. And so in reaching out to others in the various ways, you have challenged the foundations of our society. You’ve challenged the church.
How do you define a Catholic? Whoever was it that decided that a practicing Catholic was someone who goes to Mass on Sunday? No. Jesus told us how to recognise a practicing Catholic: ‘By this shall all know you are my disciples by your love for one another.’ In doing what you did you were a practicing Catholic whether you go to Mass on Sunday or not, you were a practicing Catholic because you reached out to others. You reached out in love and in care and in willingness to contribute to the lives of others.
We Christians differ from all other religions. Other religions tell their followers that their God can be found in sacred places. For the Jews, God is to be found in the temple in Jerusalem. For Islam, God is to be found in the holy city of Mecca. For Hindus, God is to be found in the sacred Ganges river. We Christians do not find God in sacred places, nor in churches, nor in temples. We find God in other people. God comes to us in disguise. Disguised as the homeless person, the drug user, the hungry, the lonely, the sick. In doing what you did you were in the presence of God even if you were unaware of it.
I dream of a world in which we can all live together as a family. Every human being is a child of God. Therefore the human race is God’s family. In a family of four children parents don’t give three of their children a big steak for their dinner and give the fourth child bread and jam. No, in a family whatever they have they share. Yet, in our world today there are millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. In a family, parents don’t give three of their children a nice warm bed to sleep and tell the fourth child to sleep outside on the porch. No, whatever rooms are available, everybody shares. Yet in our world there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in every city in the world, sleeping on the street. In a family everyone looks out for everyone else. Everyone cares and shares what they have. Everyone carries each others burdens. I dream of a world in which that happens. I dream of a world in which all people love one another, care for one another, share with each other, respect each other. I dream of a world where no one would be hungry and have nothing to eat or no one would be thirsty and have nothing to drink, where no one would be naked and have nothing to wear, where no one would be sick and have no one to visit them, where no one would be imprisoned and rejected by their community. That is God’s vision for our world. That is why Jesus came to teach us how to live together as the Family of God. But now, as at the time of Jesus there were many who did not want this dream to become a reality. There are those today who accumulate the world’s wealth to themselves while 1 billion people live in destitution. There are those who abuse their power for their own self-serving interests while people wait in poverty and powerlessness for the changes which could transform their lives but which those in power resist. There are those who will not reach out to the homeless, the drug user, the prisoner, but will reject them, want nothing to do with them and push them to the margins of our society. Global economic growth on its own cannot build such a world. Such a world can only be built by love by replacing ’I want’ by ‘You need’. In a small but important way you witnessed in your service to others, the world that God wants us to become. You know the poor, the lonely, the sick, the homeless, those in need, offer us the greatest gift that anyone can offer us. They invite us to open our hearts to include them in our love. And if we open our hearts to include them in our love, then we become more loving persons. Therefore we become more like God and no one can offer us a gift greater than the gift of becoming more like God.