An Interview with Father Peter McVerry SJ

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: This is a time of hope in the Church with our spiritually compassionate Pope and other believers who understand his vision. How do you think he has inspired the Irish people?


Father Peter: The Church in Ireland was focused on laws, on the observance of the law, particularly sexual moral law. People were judged by their observance of the law, and condemned, rejected and excluded if they did not observe the law.

Pope Francis has changed the ethos of the Church, away from a judgmental and condemning Church to a Church that is compassionate, seeking to reach out to everyone, especially those who are poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, whether they observe the laws of the Church or not. The church is not a safe haven for the righteous but a hospital for the wounded, as Pope Francis keeps stating.


Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a Jesuit priest? How has this call changed over time?


Father Peter: My father was a doctor in a small town and, at first, he did not have partners or assistants to help him. So he was on call 24/7. I used to remember him getting phone calls in the middle of the night, sometimes two calls on the same night, and he would get up and go out to attend to his patients. I never heard him complain. I think I got my sense of service from him, in other words, going through school, I wanted my life to be a life of service to others.


My mother was a Welsh Protestant, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry my father, as in those days, if a Catholic married a Protestant. they were doomed to go to Hell for all eternity. So to spare my father that fate, she became a Catholic. Like many converts, she became more Catholic than the Catholics themselves! So Mass every Sunday, family rosary every night was obligatory in our family. So I think I got my faith from my mother.


So going to school, when I was deciding what to do with my life, the possibility of becoming a priest was always in the back of my mind as it combined service and faith.


Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book?


Father Peter: I haven’t been to the cinema for many years. I’m afraid to go, as I will sit in a comfortable seat, in a heated cinema and immediately fall asleep. So not much point in going!


Nor do I have time to read much. A short book for the train to Cork, which I can finish in 2 hours, is about as much as I can get to read. If I try to read a book, I get through the first chapter, then it takes about 6 or 8 weeks before I can pick it up again, at which time I have forgotten what was in the first chapter!


Dr. Knight: Can you explain to the reader the difference between what an order priest and a diocesan priest?


Father Peter: A diocesan priest is the backbone of the Church. They work in parishes, in every corner of the world, serving the Catholics of the parish.


An order priest is choosing to do a specific type of work. Dominicans (called the Order of Preachers) see their ministry in preaching in diverse situations, the Jesuits wanted to be free to respond to whatever the needs were, in various places. The Franciscans wanted to witness to a life of poverty and simplicity. Each order was established at a time in history, to respond to the specific needs of that time. They tend to do the specialist ministries which may be required in the Church.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’?


Father Peter: I’m too old for social media. But I think it is a vital tool in communicating with young people, especially. It can help to explain the Gospel, inspire people to act and put people in contact with others and their needs. But it is not a substitute for face to face contact with people and their needs and direct service to people in need.


Dr. Knight: As a priest of an order you are able to educate and spiritually form men in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart as a priest who has worked extensively with the economically poor?


Father Peter: I would want the Church, and its priests, to be people who live a simple lifestyle and are committed to improving the lives of those who are poor and marginalized. The God we believe in is a God of compassion; you cannot preach a God of compassion from the pulpit. To preach a God of compassion, you have to be the compassion of God. As Francis Bacon said:‘Bread for myself is a material question; bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.”


A priest who lives a very middle-class lifestyle can only minister to the middle-class; people who are poor will not be able to identify with them or believe that they understand the problems which the poor experience. A priest who lives a simple lifestyle can minister to both the middle-class and to the poor.


Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Irish priests throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?


Father Peter: I’m not really influenced by saints! I lived for a while with a Fr. Michael Sweetman SJ, who was a strong advocate for housing rights. He stood on protest platforms at a time when priests were not expected to get involved in political activity because he believed that housing was a fundamental human right and many people were living in inhumane housing conditions. There were other Jesuits, not well known, like Fr. James Smith SJ , who lived and worked in poor neighborhoods in Dublin long before “the option for the poor” became popular amongst Christian faith groups.


Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?

Father Peter: The first and most important priority for both Church and State is ensuring that everyone has their basic human rights provided – these are the Right to Adequate Food, the Right to Education, the Right to Healthcare, the Right to Work and the Right to Housing. If anyone of these basic rights is absent, then it is very difficult, if not impossible, to live a dignified, fulfilling life.


The Church preaches a God who is the parent of every human being. The Church, in affirming the existence of God, is thereby affirming the dignity of every human being, as a child of God. Where that dignity is denied to them, by the denial of one or more of the basic human rights, then the Church must protest and do what it can to change that situation.


What every parent wants is that their child would live a happy, fulfilled life. And that is what God wants for every one of God’s children. We, as Christians, commit ourselves to do what God wants us to do: hence working for a world of justice and peace is obligatory for those of us who call ourselves Christian.

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