Peter McVerry SJ: social activist and campaigner

Photo courtesy of The Peter McVerry Trust.

Photo courtesy of The Peter McVerry Trust.

Fr Peter McVerry entered the Society of Jesus in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1975. In 1983, he founded The Arrupe Society in order to help homeless young people in inner-city Dublin. The Arrupe Society subsequently became The Peter McVerry Trust. Fr McVerry is a prominent advocate for the rights of the marginalised in Irish society and beyond. You can see some of his outreach work on the webpages of The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and iCatholic.ie.

When, and how, did you feel the call to join the priesthood?

From an early age, I wanted my life to be of service to others. I think I got this desire from my father, who was a doctor in a small town (Newry). I remember the phone going at all hours of the night, and he would get up and go to see a patient. In the 1950s and 60s, becoming a priest was a respected and respectable way of serving others (it’s a bit different today!), so the thought of joining the priesthood was in my mind during my secondary school years. I decided to give it a go!

What brought you to the Jesuits?

I went to a Jesuit school from age twelve to eighteen, so when I decided to give the priesthood a try, the Jesuits were an obvious choice.

How would you characterise your experience of the Jesuit education system?

My experience of Jesuit education was that it was a great education, a first-class education. It was a very rounded education, academically, culturally and sporting. I enjoyed my time in Clongowes very much, but I am aware that a few were very unhappy there. It was—especially then, in the 1950s—a very exclusive school, only open to the wealthy. Today there is a wider social group in Jesuit fee-paying schools, but they still remain too socially exclusive.

How would you describe the feeling of being called?

I didn’t experience “being called.” I think going into the priesthood is much like any other vocation. You decide how you would like your life to be lived, and you make a judgement that in the priesthood you can achieve what you would like to do with your life. I don’t think it is much different to deciding to be a doctor, or a lawyer or whatever, except that God is explicit in the decision. The decision is a belief that this is what God wants me to do with my life, which for many others might be implicit or non-existent, but in the case of priesthood, the belief that this is what God wants is at the forefront. But there is no big feeling of being “called”.

What’s your conception of the priest’s role in his community, and how has it evolved in the course of your experience?

I don’t think there is a defined role for a priest in the community. Priests take up many different roles: ministering to the spiritual needs of people, setting up or being part of projects that seek to improve the life of the community or of individuals within the community, being an advocate for the needs of the community. In many parts of the world, priests run hospitals, homes for elderly or orphans or people with disabilities. In other words: whatever the needs, spiritual or material, the priest seeks to improve the quality of life of individuals or the community.

How has it changed? I think priests have become aware of the need to minister to the whole person, and not just to their spiritual needs, and therefore that their role goes beyond providing religious and spiritual services.

Do you think the Jesuits have a particular way of operating within communities, whether theologically/spiritually/politically, or simply because of how Jesuit life tends to be organised?

I don’t think Jesuits have any particular way of of operating within communities. The Jesuit charism is to go where the needs are greatest, so we have a greater freedom to get involved in all sorts of ministry. So Jesuits teach, preach, run observatories, lecture in all sorts of subjects in third level institutions, give retreats, run drug treatment centres, etc. In other words, we feel free to do whatever is necessary to do.

What brought you to start working with the homeless?

I began working with homeless people when I came across a nine-year-old child sleeping on the street. We were already running services for young people in the inner city of Dublin, so we just added a small hostel for six children. But the numbers grew and grew, and so we were forced to open more and more hostels and eventually, some drug services for homeless people.

How do people tend to respond when you talk about homelessness, poverty, drug use?

People respond in different ways: there is generally a very compassionate response to the problem of homeless children. Many people are also very compassionate towards homeless adults, but some people have little time for them, believing that it’s their own fault that they are homeless and they brought it upon themselves. People generally have little time for drug users, as again they believe that they started taking drugs just to have a good time and were selfish and without responsibility. People are afraid of drug users, afraid of being robbed or assaulted, so they want to keep them as far away from themselves as possible.

Do you find that these issues are often seen as a matter for charity alone? To your mind, who can and should engage to help those affected?

Homelessness and drug use are seen as primarily a matter for charity. That is because the government have delegated the running of most of the services to charities and not-for-profit organisations. I have no problem with that, as the charities have the experience and expertise to provide services. However, having a home is a fundamental right, and fundamental rights ought to be guaranteed by the laws of a society and provided through State structures. It is not good enough that a person’s right to a home should be dependent on coffee mornings! So, while charities can play a dominant role in addressing the problem, the State should retain responsibility for the funding and the quality of services to address homelessness. Addressing drug misuse is very expensive, often involving residential treatment and aftercare, and charities can never raise sufficient funds to address the problem. Drug misuse affects society through crime and health problems which incur substantial costs to the taxpayer, so the State should accept responsibility for addressing drug misuse.

Finally, the question I’m asking all my interviewees: What does the Jesuit identity mean to you?

Being a Jesuit gives me the freedom to do what I am doing, in the way in which I am doing it. The vows of poverty and chastity free me from concerns about earning a living or providing for a family. But ultimately, being a Jesuit is about a relationship with Jesus and with the mission of Jesus as expressed in the Gospels. This mission, in my view, is to build a community which lives together in radical solidarity, caring and sharing with each other; and which welcomes and respects those who are marginalised in society, as they too are children of God, and have the dignity of being children of God.

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