29th July 2007
Girls and Boys Town
Address by Bishop Christopher Jones, Diocese of Elphin, Ireland
The following address was delivered by the Bishop of Elphin, Bishop Christopher Jones, to the Alumni of Girls and Boys Town at their convention in Omaha, Nebraska, USA on 29th July 2007. Bishop Jones’s address was part of the organisation’s 90th anniversary celebrations.
Founded by Father Edward Flanagan in 1917, the services of Girls and Boys Town have now been extended throughout the United States. Girls and Boys Town is America’s largest privately funded organization serving severely at-risk, abused, abandoned and neglected children. The nonprofit, nonsectarian organization provides children with a safe, caring, loving environment where they gain confidence to get better and learn skills.
So much has been achieved thanks to the vision and inspiration of Fr Flanagan. Fr Flanagan is remembered and celebrated as a great man of faith and love.
It is a joy to be here with you in this sacred place – made sacred not only by the founder Fr Flanagan but by the prayers and love of anyone that has ever lived and worked here. It is a dream come true and we wish to put on record our gratitude to everyone who has made this visit possible.
A Neighbours Child
I was born and reared within a ten minute drive of Fr Flanagan’s home. I was born twelve years before he died so my family would have been very familiar with the life and the love of this great man. Then the movie featuring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracey would have brought his story to our community as it brought it to most communities of the world. In that sense the movie did for Fr Flanagan what Malcom Muggeridge of the BBC with his documentary did for Mother Teresa of Calcutta – it brought his life and work into every family and home.
An Agricultural Economy
Like Fr Flanagan who was born in the rural community of Leabeg just outside the small town of Ballymoe, I was born in the rural community of Rathcroghan some 10 miles away. The economy of Ireland at the time was totally dependent on farming and the only employment available was as a farm labourer. Unfortunately farm wages were poor. So for most boys and girls who finished primary school at twelve or fourteen years of age the only real option was to board a boat to England or to the United States. Every boy or girl who left the local community to emigrate left a lonely space in their home and their community. Celebrations on the night before they left were described as “wakes” because as in death many of them would never return home again. Transport and indeed communications were difficult then. There were a minority who didn’t have to leave either because like Edward Flanagan they were bright and could acquire scholarship to a distant boarding school or like myself whose parents could afford to pay for it. Edward graduated from Summerhill High School in Sligo in 1904 and I went there forty six years later in 1950.
Communities of Faith
Yes our rural communities were poor economically but very rich spiritually. Faith and trust in God were as much part of our lives as the air we breathed. That faith was nourished by daily prayer, the family rosary and the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. There was a great sense of belonging to each other as a community because we all belonged to God. The Sunday Mass was a celebration of ourselves as a community of faith and indeed the celebration helped to strengthen and deepen the bonds that united us with our God and with each other. The standard of living was low but the simple joys of our youth remained with us ever sense. The generosity of neighbours was special although people had little to share.
An interesting and very true story will help us understand the generosity of Edward Flanagan’s people. A priest told me some years ago that he was one of a family of fifteen reared on a small farm. They were poor. One day a cheque for $2000 arrived in the post. A cousin had died in the United States and the Priest’s family were next of kin. $2000 then would probably amount to $200,000 today. A few days later a letter arrived from their cousin, Fr Edward Flanagan, of Boys Town who knew that they had received the cheque and wondered if the family would consider donating any or all of it to Boys Town. The Priest remembers his mother reading the letter as she sat in her kitchen chair. As his dad passes behind her on his way to the fields she offered him the letter over her shoulder. He too read the letter very slowly very pensively and then handing it back to her said: “What we never had we will never miss” – the entire cheque went to Fr Flanagan.
Communities of Faith but not of Saints
I’m not suggesting that Irish communities were perfect. Of course we had our faults and our failings but quite honestly I believe that all of us struggled to live the values of the Gospel. Edward Flanagan graduated from Summerhill College in 1904 and left for the United States where he would be joined by the rest of his family. Their story of emigration was the story of so many Irish families right up to the 1990’s.
Vocation to the Priesthood
Very soon after arriving in the States, Edward indicated his interest in the priesthood. His older brother Fr P.A. was already a priest in the Omaha, Nebraska. Edward’s health would prove his greatest difficulty on the road to the priesthood. His illness as a seminarian in Dunnwoody, that Christmas day Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral New York, his illness in Omaha Nebraska, and later his illness during his seminary days in Rome must have really tested his faith and perseverance. He could have been forgiven for thinking that this was God’s way of telling him that he had no calling to the Priesthood. It is now clear that God was in fact preparing Edward for a ministry that would demand great faith, great trust, great humility and great perseverance. During the many occasions when he experienced serious illness he must have agonised like Jesus in Gethsemane. He must have seen all his efforts as failure and he must have been tempted like Jesus to run away and escape back to secular life. The greatest joy of his life was his ordination day in Innsbruck, Austria, though none of his family could afford to be there for him on that day.
Yet through his many years of illness and suffering God was preparing this man to sympathise and empathise with the suffering, the abandoned, and the rejected people of our world.
Support of the Lord and Family
Edward Flanagan would never forget the support of his Mother Nora, his sister Nellie and of his brother Fr P.A. Flanagan. But above all he would never forget the support of the Lord who was preparing him for a ministry that would demand great understanding, great compassion, great courage and great perseverance.
Industrialisation and Urbanisation
It has been truly said that the United States and Britain had a century to adjust to the Industrial Revolution but Ireland had only a few decades. When Fr Flanagan was ordained a Priest for Omaha, Nebraska, in the first half of the 20th Century the US was experiencing the full force of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on families and communities. The extended family was breaking down and the nuclear family of parents and children followed the jobs into huge urban estates. They felt isolated and lived so close to strangers in concrete jungles. The husband was usually working away all day and mother was left with children and no support. It brought a huge rise in the standard of living but played havoc with family life that found it difficult to care for the elderly parents or young children.
Boys Town was Fr Flanagan’s response to some of the challenges emerging from such a situation and what a response it was.
A Century before his Time
I believe that Fr Flanagan was a half-century if not a full century before his time. He could see clearly that because of pressures on family and parents many children were “born-losers” reared in homes where there was no love like von Bremen in “Bread that is Broken” he knew that “Children deprived of love are ruined at their roots”. He knew that the only hope for the disturbed troubled children that came to Boys Town was to help them rediscover their self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, their respect for themselves and those around them. He helped young people rediscover God in their lives and the unconditional love of God for each of them. He helped them realise that in God’s eyes they were unique and distinct and that they had a unique dignity and beauty and a place in the plan and heart of God that no one could take from them.
Every Story Unique
The story of Fr Flanagan was unique but so too was the story of every homeless man and boy that he cared for. Given the right author every one of their stories could have been a best seller. Given the right producer a box-office success!
Ireland and the Industrial Revolution
I said that England and the United States had the 19th Century and the 20th Century to adjust to the Industrial Revolution. Ireland had only four decades. The industrial Revolution hit us in the 1960’s when foreign investment, especially from the United States, generated huge industrial activity all over our country. Within a decade the standard of living had escalated but again the impact on family life and marriage was disastrous. Again nuclear families of parents and children followed the industrial jobs into big cities and towns into huge urban estates. The impact on families and marriage was huge.
I was ordained a Priest in 1962 as this wave of industrialisation began in Ireland. Ten years later my Bishop sent me to study social science in University College Dublin. I then came back to help found Sligo Social Service Council – that would help especially families in urban estates to cope with the elderly and children.
Fr Flanagan and the Social Science
I was amazed that during my studies in social science at University College, Dublin, Fr Flanagan was never referred to as someone who could guide us in our approach to social problems. Then I discovered that the social sciences are empirical sciences, in the sense that for them nothing is real unless it can be seen, touched and measured. Therefore, the Social Sciences tend to push to the sideline the spiritual dimension in their understanding of the human person. Does this mean that love is not real because it cannot be seen touched or measured? Yet it is the most powerful force for good in our world. Does this mean that ideas are not real because they cannot be seen touched or measured? Yet ideas have changed the world. Does this mean that the spiritual dimension of the human person is not real because it cannot be seen touched or measured? Yet the spiritual dimension of the human person is the source of all love and life. It is now clear to me why Fr Flanagan was not referred to in Social Science. But it is also increasingly clear to me that his policies and programmes worked so successfully because his understanding of life and the human person was so right. Young people began to experience respect for themselves and others when they recognised their own unique dignity in the eyes of God.
The Family and the Economy
Recently we had a general election in Ireland. I never heard a politician speak on the family. The focus was on the economy, the health and education services. Indeed in recent years a Minister for Finance created tax initiatives specifically geared to attracting both parents of young children into the world of work. It was good for the economy but not for young children or for their future as citizens of our country. The big appeal during the election was for more investment in crèches and pre-schools so that both parents could be out at work all day.
As I was preparing these words one of our widest selling daily newspapers, the Irish Independent, of July 13th carried the following report by a Child Care Agency in Ireland. In 2006 the Irish taxpayer paid €25 million to keep 54 children in detention, that is, €500,000 per child. The tax payer paid €3.5 million to keep five schoolgirls in Ireland’s only secure detention facility for underage formal offenders. This is the equivalent of €700,000 per child. This is seven times the cost of detaining one adult in prison for serious crime and three times the cost of keeping in prison the most dangerous offenders in Ireland’s highest security prison.
The Child Care Agency was appealing to the government to invest more money in the family at a very early stage and it would generate huge dividends in terms of ensuring healthier and happier families and therefore healthy and happy adults. Surely government should introduce tax incentives that would encourage at least one parent to remain at home with babies and young children. The problem that Girls and Boys Town are experiencing all over the States and beyond today are problems found in every town and city throughout the world including the towns and cities of Fr Flanagan’s native land. Maybe one day Girls and Boys Town will reach back to the diocese where Fr Flanagan was born and reared to guide and help us as we confront the social problems of the 21st century.
Ireland and the Rights of Children
Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child in 1992 and in doing so the State confirmed to the international community its commitment to implementing the rights contained in the convention. However in the period from 1997 to 2002 there has been a very slow in rolling out of early intervention and diversion services while there has been an increase in the provision of detention centres. This suggests an emphasis on incarceration over rehabilitation. This cannot continue.
I would love to end these words quoting some sayings of Fr Flanagan that revealed his philosophy and theology of life.
It was he who said: “When you help a child today you write the history of tomorrow.”
“it is often said that our youth is our nations greatest asset. It is more than that it is the world’s greatest asset. More than that it is the world’s only hope.”
“Youth is a time of dreams of high aspirations and enthusiasm. Criticism neglected indifference have a withering effect on the spirit of the growing boy or girl”
“Parenthood is the most sacred office. Endowed with the highest responsible duties ever given to man or woman.”
It is only in recent years that I have been convinced that preparing children in love for life is the most noble task of all. That is why we must insist that at least one parent has the choice – and the incentive – to take daily responsibility for their babies and young children. No one else can exercise this responsibility.
I remember reading years ago lines by an author who remains anonymous:
“they drew a circle and shut him out: a drunk, a rebel, a lay about.” But love and I had the will to win; we drew a circle and let him in.”
Imagine all the circles Fr Flanagan drew with love to let the abandoned of the world into his community of faith and love.
People all over the world were shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Fr Flanagan in Germany. It seemed as if a light had gone out in our world. But all over the States, and indeed all over the world, the light of Fr Flanagan shines in the hearts and homes of those who have been inspired by him to continue his great work into nations and generations of the future. Again the lines of the poet who remains anonymous come to mind:
“The tide recedes yet leaves behind bright seashells on the sand. The sun goes down yet gentle warmth still lingers on the land. The music stops and yet it echoes on in sweet refrain. For every joy that passes something beautiful remains.”
+ Christopher Jones Bishop of Elphin