29 April 2011

Newly re-elected Irish Senator and the poorest of the poor in Argentina

Senator Rónán Mullen

I recently asked that if you were a graduate of the National University of Ireland to give your No 1 preference to Senator Rónán Mullen in the election for the Irish Senate or, if you didn't have a vote, to pray that he would be re-elected. In 2007 he was the last of the three NUI senators to make it. The Irish Times reports today that this time he headed the poll.

I am delighted. Seanad Éireann, the Senate of Ireland, has little power and is basically a talking-shop. But it has always had some truly independent voices who can say things not heard in the Dáil, the parliament, or elsewhere. Rónán Mullen  has been one of those voices for the last four years and, God willing, will be so for nearly five years, as the new government has such a strong majority that it is unlikely to be defeated on any major issue. If that were to happen, the government would resign and there would be an election. When the Dáil is dissolved the Seanad is also.

Senator Mullen has been involved in a project in Argentina of Irish missionary Fr Liam Hayes SVD among the poorest and most abandoned, St Teresa's Foundation. In a column in The Irish Examiner some years ago Rónán Mullen  described Father Liam thus: He combines traditional faith with social action. You can read the full article below. From what I know of Senator Mullen, you could describe him in the same words.

Here is a video about St Teresa's that I came across through a link on Senator Mullen's website.

How Prayer and Practicality Mean So Much To The Poor of Argentina.

- The Irish Examiner, 7th July, 2004.

Rónán Mullen.

President McAleese smiled down as our neighbour lifted the tarantula. He did it so effortlessly.

Two fingers thrust forward surgically, squeezing the spider just enough to grab him but not so tight as to kill. Transferring the creature to a piece of paper. Followed by a graceful removal to the priest´s garden.

It´s great the way the locals are so casual. When my fellow volunteer announced, “er, there´s a rather large spider in here”, the missionary was all reassurance. But when Fr. Liam Hayes put his head around the door, spotting this furry creature about the size of a digestive biscuit, the diagnosis changed somewhat. “Oh, that one could bite you all right. Hold on. I´ll get a neighbour. Don´t kill it. They do a lot of good, you know.”

Fr. Hayes´s idea of “good” is that tarantulas can kill snakes and mosquitoes. Our idea of “good” would involve them leaving the room. Any time now would be good.

During all this drama, President McAleese and her husband Martin radiated benevolence from the photo on the mantlepiece, safe from all danger and discomfort.. I have no doubt that they would have taken that spider in their stride. The President would probably have known that tarantulas are not fatal to humans. I know it too, now.

President McAleese visiting St Teresa's, Hogar Santa Teresita, with Fr Hayes in the background

We are in Oberá, a fairly desolate town in the remote province of Misiones in northern Argentina. There is only one Irishman in this place - Liam Hayes, the Divine Word Missionary priest. He´s been here for 19 years. We´ve come here for a few weeks, to do some voluntary work and to learn a little about life here.

At the human level, there is plenty to notice. Like the priest´s strong east Limerick burr. “Hola Flipper”, he says, as he greets one of the many dogs which inhabit the mission. Flipper is unfortunately troublesome – a beast full of affection but inclined to attack the local hens. He did 17 of them in one week a while back. Fortunately the neighbours are supportive and they mind Flipper while the priest is on his rounds.

Just before the tarantula incident, Fr. Liam took us to evening Mass in one of the parish´s outlying chapels. The earth is red here, and we bumped over about 10 miles of it (these roads are like ice when it rains) before reaching our destination – a red – brick chapel with no windows and doors, a few wooden benches, and a group of families from the barrio.

The parishioners are friendly but poorly dressed. Fr. Liam says a simple Mass and thanks to that Cappamore accent, his Spanish is easier to understand than the local version. He likes to conduct a discussion as part of his homily – getting people´s thoughts and opinions as he analyses that day´s scripture readings. After Mass, we are moved by the middle – aged man who asks if we could help by donating a window or a door to the church. It transpires that Fr. Liam started this brick chapel (a wooden shack – where he once spotted snakes in the roof as he said Mass – stands next door). It seems the fixtures could be got for a few thousand pesos (about 1,000 euro) and the locals could fit them. It is not the first time we are surprised by how much could be done with so little cash.

Last weekend, Fr. Hayes said Mass five times, in some cases in remote chapels miles from the town of Oberá, and baptised a couple of dozen children. He combines traditional faith with social action. There is spiritual reading, reflection in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and simple prayers at the beginning and end of journeys. Since 1993, Fr. Hayes has been running homes for abandoned people in Oberá. He is in charge of the health pastorate for the local diocese of Posadas. He acts as chaplain to the local hospital, where 120 beds are all that caters for a town and hinderland of 60,000 people.

The missionary estqablished the homes after coming face -to-face with disabled people abandoned by their families.

“I began to have sleepless nights thinking about some of the things I saw. Poor people who could not move their hands, unable to shield themselves from swarms of flies and mosquitoes and people left by the roadside”.

One such person was Miguel, affectionately known as Miguelito. He was discovered in sub-human conditions, having been abandoned by his father.

Since all births are registered in Argentina, it was possible in time to discover more. Miguel was 22 and was born with perfect health. His mother died when he was two. After that, he suffered various illnesses and didn´t get proper medical help. Years later, his father returned to plead forgiveness for abandoning him.

“He told me he had walked long distances on mud roads with MIguel on his shoulders only to arrive at the public hospital and receive no medical attention”, says Fr. Hayes. “Sadly this is how the majority of the poorest people are treated”.

Next door to Miguel sleeps Clorinda, who neither speaks, sees or hears and who had been violated by the time she was found. Clorinda is one of the reasons Fr. Hayes wants to put air-conditioning in the homes. “She cries out at night sometimes. We think it is with discomfort at the terrible heat of summertime”.

Most of the residents are utterly helpless, although it is hard to be sure about the extent of their disability. Lorena, who was assisted by an Irish volunteer one night, seems completely unaware, has no movement, and occasionally gives vent to long wails. Yet at the end of the meal she croaked “thank you” in English.

You might think it is impossible to find happiness in such a place but there is laughter from the home´s youngest resident, Joni, who has cerebral palsy, and Maria Inez, a saintly, soft – spoken person with a smile for everyone. There was happiness, too, when President McAleese came to visit Hogar Santa Teresa (the Home of St. Teresa) last March. It was the first visit by a foreign head of state to Oberá and a moment of confirmation for the Irish missionary that his work was appreciated in Ireland. Other visits are memorable for other reasons. Last week, as one of the home´s newer residents, Marcello, was on the brink of death, his mother – quiet by chance – came to see him for the first time in 20 years.

I don´t know what news story is breaking at home as you read this, but the big news here this week is that people continue to suffer, and there don´t seem to be enough Hogar Santa Teresas to go round. But I am glad there are some.

When I started on this post here in Bacolod City, central Philippines, to congratulate Senator Mullen on his re-election to the Senate in Ireland I didn't expect to end up in Argentina! Comhghairdeachas, a Rónáin, agus go soirbhí Dia duit! Heartiest congratulations, Rónán, and Godspeed!


Kieran Fagan said...

Fr Coyle, Thanks for filling me in on Fr Peter Lemass on the papal visit. And for drawing my attention to the inspiring video from Argentina.

Senator Ronan Mullen's election is a good thing, in my book, as is that of Ivana Bacic. I'm slow to dismiss the Senate, it brings richness and variety to political discourse, and the independent senators - as Mary Robinson once was - are for me the pick of the crop.

With best wishes Kieran Fagan

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Thanks, Kieran. The late Fr Peter Lemass wrote about the papal visit in The Furrow, as I recall. He wrote with a somewhat wry tone.

I've been following much of the discussion about the future of the Seanad. I agree with you. A reformed Seanad is needed, not its abolition. I could see a place, for example, for senators representing the Irish in different regions of the world where they have no vote in the country where they live or in Ireland itself. I'm in that category. I wouldn't for a momment consider giving Irish people in the UK a vote in any Irish election since they have full voting rights where they live.

The thing is to enable more independent voices rather than party members on the way up or on the way down. Charlie Haughey made one or two imaginative appointments such as that of Dr John Robb from Belfast. Garrett FitzGerald appointed Jim Dooge, who wasn't really a politician, and then made him Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The term 'traditional politician' here in the Philippines has been shortened to 'tradpol' and further shortened to 'trapo', which means a dishrag! For the majority of them it's an appropriate term. If they're not crooked their vision is even narrower than that of a recently retired politician in Kerry whose son has taken his place! (I'm not implying in any way that the two Kerrymen are crooked).