SR. BRIEGE MCKENNA is world renowned for her gifts of healing and her ministry to priests. Rosemary Swords met her in Navan recently during a parish mission.
Q You entered religious life at fifteen. Was that unusual even then, and why did you choose religious life
A I left home for the convent when I was fourteen-and-a-half. I had this urgency to go. My mother died on Christmas Day and that night I heard God. I didn't know it was God but it was a clear and distinct saying "Briege, I am going to take care of you". The next morning I woke up, and I knew I was going to be a sister of St. Clare.
I kept fighting it, but one day in the middle of music class, I went to see the Mother General. She said "Child, how old are you?" When I said fourteen, she said come back later. So I came back two week later. I thought that's enough time for her to make up her mind. She said "Oh, I meant longer". But I kept going back in case she'd forget and the day before my fifteenth birthday she took me.
I entered, made my vows at sixteen and I was very happy. It was that year that I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Had I not been professed, I would have been sent home. So the Lord is one step ahead of us all. I spent a year in the hospital. Then I went to Florida-it was a mission at that time -hoping that the climate would help me. When I was twenty-two the doctor told me I would be confined to a wheelchair. There wasn't much they could do for rheumatoid arthritis.
Going to America was the greatest grace I received. All of a sudden you find yourself in a different culture, and people would say you really must love Jesus to give everything up. I had never gone through a crisis of belief. Sometimes God allows crises to make you stop and see why are you doing what you're doing. I had this sense, that I had got to experience Jesus. I remember going before the Blessed Sacrament one day, thinking it takes courage to leave, but it takes courage to stay and be 100% in love with Jesus Christ and be convinced of your faith.
So I started a journey by going on retreat. I did not believe I would be healed. The only reason I went on that retreat was to ask to experience Jesus so I would be convinced. At a quarter to nine on Sunday morning I experienced the power of Jesus Christ. It was the second time I heard a voice, saying, "Briege, seek me". I closed my eyes and said "Jesus, please help me", and like that my body was healed, and I jumped up and started shouting, and I was convinced that Jesus was real.
The inner was the bigger healing, however. I see marvellous healings all over the world but the greatest miracles I see are not the physical. They are conversion to Jesus, peace, healing of marriages, falling in love with the Lord and returning to faith. There is nothing you can guarantee that works but the Lord. People ask am I not afraid of giving false hope. I don't say I can do anything. But I'm not afraid to say that if you believe you will get help.
Do people come to see you rather than coming to meet Jesus
Q Does that get annoying
Q What is your message for priests
A I talk about personal holiness. The crisis in the priesthood is not celibacy; it is faith in Jesus Christ. People who have a relationship with Jesus Christ can't live with sin in their lives. So I pray that they have a living faith in Jesus Christ with the Eucharist in the centre of their lives. The tragedy in Ireland is that there is so much negativity and they get so discouraged.
The greatest need is to be a personal witness to Jesus Christ. If their message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it will bear fruit. The people are hungry. If you look at any list of retreats, sometimes the person of Jesus isn't even mentioned, but there is nothing like spending time with the Eucharist. It is so easy to be attracted by good things, but leave out the most important thing, which is our prayer life.
Q How have you managed to avoid the apathy which affects some women's religious orders
A I try three things in my life; I go to confession every couple of weeks, because sin is like a plague. It would be naive to say that wouldn't affect you. I love the Eucharist, it's the centre of my life. Common sense and a good sense of humour are also important.
QYou always wear your habit, why
A For me it is a witness, and also a great protection, because I love clothes, like every woman. It is more important for be to be identified by the presence of Jesus in my life. If people haven't the joy of the Lord no matter what they wear they wouldn't be a witness to anybody.
Q How would you assess the ministry of John Paul II
A Pope John Paul's ministry now is carrying the cross. It is probably the most powerful part of his ministry, because he is presenting another aspect of Christ to us. All the liberals would love to have him dead and gone out of sight. I look at him and think 'What a gift to the Church'.
Q Do you support his position on women priests
A I believe when the Church speaks that it is the Holy Spirit speaking. I am totally convinced that the priesthood is a gift. Nobody has a right to ordination; it is not a job. There are men who would love to be priests, but they don't have a vocation. There are women who may be motivated by the shortage of priests, but to me alot of the motivation is about power.
Q Is there a positive message in this teaching for women
A We are not downtrodden; the Catholic Church had women running hospitals and colleges long before you heard of feminism. Why would you allow someone to rob you of the dignity of your femininity, the gentleness, your beautiful gifts, why would you project your anger at the priesthood? There is nobody stopping you using your gifts in the Spirit.
With abortion and euthanasia, today feminists are rejecting everything that makes you a woman. Women have tremendous gifts to bring to the Church and society, if we live our womanhood in joy and peace.
Q How would you advise bishops in dealing with politicians who advocate pro-choice legislation
A The bishop has to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If as a politician you have the power to make abortion legal, and you do it, eventually the Church has to say you are excommunicated. But the Church is very patient, like a good mother.
Q How do you deal with people who approach you for healing
A People will call me who are dying of AIDS. The first question I ask them is 'How did you get AIDS?' If they tell me they got it through intravenous drugs, or misuse of their sexuality, then I say, 'Be honest, you know that's a sin'. I talk gently but there's no point covering up. I know more saints who have died with AIDS, who have gone back to the sacraments. We are afraid today to say to people "sin is sin".
Q What is your message for Irish Catholics today
A Rediscover the person of Jesus. The lie that we are being told is you can't have God and have happiness. But the truth is that you can't have happiness if you don't have God.
I ask the priests and bishops to have the courage to say Jesus is alive and he can heal you. We don't have to apologise for Jesus. Jesus doesn't need tha, he said go out there and proclaim the Gospel. You have to believe that the God of the Gospel is still alive today.
To contact Sr. Briege McKenna, O.S.C., write to: St. Clare Sisters Retreat Ministry, P.O. Box 1559, Palm Harbor, FL 34682, USA; www.sisterbriege.com