by Gordon Nary
Gordon: To help introduce you to our readers, now that you are back in Ireland after being in Italy for several years, Could you discuss some of the projects that you may be working on?
Father John: At the moment I am recovering from having had cancer. It has been a difficult time. I hope to move into an apartment and continue my recovery. The body is badly damaged after the cancer
My work here is prayer, saying Mass and confessions. I am also writing at the moment. I hope to produce a work on prayer. So many people, young and old, have told me they have nothing to believe in and wish they had. I believe the example of holy men and women of prayer will touch them. They are witnesses to the presence of God in their lives and their words and writings can find an echo in the heart of the searcher.
Gordon: We have a prayer to St. Peregrine at the conclusion of this interview and ask all if our readers to pray for you.
Please provide an overview of your work when you were in Italy.
Father John: The provincial of the Marche province in Italy met me and hoped I would come to Italy. I did for a period. He was restoring hermitages. I saw that these places of retreat were needed – a place where people could go and find themselves. However, my health wasn’t up to it and I came home.
I did make contact with the Centro Giovanni Paulo secondo in Loreto. This is a facility for young people that St. John Paul had built. He saw all the young people at World Youth Day in Loreto and felt they needed a place where they could be heard.
Gordon: You have a strong interest in art. Who is your favorite artist and why is that artist your favorite?
Fr John: I have several favourite artists. In the modern period, I like Picasso and Van Gogh. From the Renaissance, I like Raphael and Michelangelo. My favourite, in the end, is Van Gogh. He expressed emotion through his art and one feels comfortable in looking at them. It was his way of preaching the gospel.
Gordon: What is your favorite painting of the Virgin Mary?
Fr John: My favourite painting is actually the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, the icon of Tenderness. Our Lady looks tenderly and lovingly at her child and we are held in that embrace. The gentleness of the icon always brings peace to me. She mirrors the compassion of God.
Gordon: How can Art bring us closer to God?
Fr John: Beauty is the splendor of the truth. A beautiful piece of art can lift us out of ourselves and help us see the world anew. The beauty of God is revealed in his creation and his love for Jesus. Art can help us behold this beauty and love.
Gordon: You have written an extraordinary number of well-reviewed books and you have your own webpage on Amazon.com. We hope that we may be able to feature reviews of some of your books in future issues of Profiles in Catholicism. The one that I hope that we can review soon is Therese and the Little Way of Love and Healing which was used by Pope Francis in Brazil for World Youth Day.
From one of your books, I learned that you had a strong interest in mental health and mental illness. How and why did you become interested in this critical challenge?
Father John: Firstly my book on Thérèse: A man in Cork who saw a copy of my book said that was the one Pope Francis had with him in Rio, but he is afraid to go public with what he saw.
My interest in mental health comes from experience. I had traumatic times in my life and in these, I met so many people who were suffering in a similar way. Many young people have taken their lives. A friend of mine used prayer and meditation as a way of coming to terms with mental illness. He was very influenced by Buddhism. I learned a lot from him and I began to see that I could use Christian spirituality as a way of healing. There are the psalms of lament, which express in faith our negative feelings. But in expressing our negativity we hand this over to God, asking Him to heal us and change us. The power of being able to express our negativity is important. It is even more important to be able to do this in faith trusting God both to accept us and trusting him to heal us. There is also the Book of Job, Jesus’ experience of Gethsemane, Hell (Adrienne Von Speyr), and resurrection. When we read of these events we know we are not alone. There is then the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Love overcomes even death. In this, we learn we, too, can overcome.
another reason for writing is when we read we know we are not alone. It is an act of love. A friend who suffered from mental illness asked me to write about Thérèse of Lisieux (“Thérèse and the Little Way of Love and Healing”). I wrote it for her and all like her who suffered. They found Thérèse a great source of comfort. Thérèse had her own struggles and she is a sister to all who suffer. She, too, suffered.
Gordon: In the November 7th, 2027 issue of Time magazine, there is an article titled “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones” which claims that teen depression has surged fueling concern about mobile devices/ This challenge of cell phone addiction and mental health has been addressed for years in several clinical articles. What advice can you give to parents and young people about this challenge?
Father John: Kids and Smartphones: I do not claim to have complete answers. This is a new form of addiction. It is not just kids who are addicted. Many adults have told me they, too, are addicted. There is also pornography on Smartphones. Many compound their addiction by becoming addicted to porn. Others are addicted to their Smartphones and games. Both of these are sources of addiction. One of the things we all need to do is to talk. While no one person has been able to give us a way out of these addictions, it is also true when people talk ideas and insights begin to come forward. This is the first thing I feel needs to be done. We have to admit there is a problem.
One of the areas that has helped young people is the area of sport. If they can have an interest in field games their minds are taken off the use of phones and they form a bond with others who play the sport. There was a program on Sky Sports called “School of Hard Knocks”. Some young people who were withdrawn come together to form a team playing rugby. When they got confidence in one are it spread to other areas in their lives. People like Lawrence Dallaglio, who was an England captain, works with his charity in giving young people confidence.
Another area we can work on is setting a time to turn off phones and computers, iPods, etc. In one of my classes, I did for recovering from cancer, the teacher told us to set a cut-off time for use of devices and then prepare to go to sleep. This was good advice. It’s easy just to look up Facebook or other social media and find time has flown. Also, re-charging phones etc. need not be done in the bedroom. If we recharge in another room then we will not be tempted to see what’s on Facebook.
Another important thing is communication. It is good to sit and talk and listen to each other. It is important to talk about Smartphones, their influence, games, etc., and how they influence our lives. One of the results of smartphone use is the loss of conversation. Set a time when we leave the phones down and talk. Real friends are better than virtual friends!
Gordon: What are some of the spiritual challenges affecting young people in Ireland?
Father John: Young people: One of the things affecting young people is the crisis of faith. After the Church scandals, many have come to doubt. The net result is they have no lifeline to help them in bad times.
Many young people are lonely and feel they have no safe place to talk. This adds to their isolation. Reaching out to young people is part of the spiritual challenge of today. I wrote “Loneliness Knows My Name” so as there would be one voice that lets those who are lonely know they are not alone.
I see the John Paul Centre in Loreto, Italy, as having potential. I spoke to the people there. They would accept groups of young people and give input on different topics and also allow them to talk. They have interpreters in the area of Loreto and an American nun lives in the centre. They told me before I started bringing groups to Loreto I should send a core group of 4 young people who would be a contact group for when the others came home. They might have had a good experience, but they would need a reference group in case they felt too great a let-down when they came home. I still need to find young people who will form this core group. It is important to talk about problems, and feel accepted. There is a high rate of suicide and depression among young people. This is a challenge on every level for all of us.
Prayer to St. Peregrine
We pray to you to comfort and assist all people with cancer and to hasten approved treatments for cancer in all counties. We also pray that you heal John O'Brien, OFM.