Thirty years ago, in England, I spent a year with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, working as a volunteer in a boarding school they ran for boys with intellectual disability. The sisters were overwhelmingly from Irish backgrounds, with the odd English accent amongst them, and the work of the school was their life. Working as assistant to a houseparent meant seeing at first hand the hour by hour life of that school: it was marked by extraordinary kindness and selflessness on part of the sisters, not once was there a moment of cruelty, rarely even a cross word spoken. When the sisters withdrew from the school because of declining vocations, it seemed that something special was being lost.
A Church of Ireland friend, growing up in the Irish midlands where a lack of money was common to both sides of the community, talks of the great commitment of the brothers in the Catholic school he attended. He recalls none of the cruelty that characterised some institutions, rather a sense that if it were not for the order that ran the school, there would have been no secondary education for the majority of those present; the Irish government was not hurrying forward to make provision for working class people.
Sitting at supper beside a brother, from an order not named in the Ryan Report on institutional abuse, he talked of his fifty years working in a very difficult area of Belfast. Now, at the age of eighty, he was leader of a community of retired brothers, some who had spent their lives working in Ireland, others who had spent many years in overseas missions. It was hard to imagine how some of them must feel; men who had been imbued with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council who had then watched as successive popes tried to turn back the clock, centralising power and stamping on dissent. Watching as the new Ireland for which they had tried to educate people turned into a land of cute hoors, gombeenism and corruption on a previously unimaginable scale.
Were I in his place, I think there would be a profound sense of bitterness, of betrayal, a sense that life might have been profitably spent in some other way, yet he was tranquil and content in his view of the world; things had not turned out as they might, but there was always grounds for hope.
We agreed that we must meet again and he headed back to his house to catch up with the evening’s business, smiling at still working at eighty.