Peter McVerry SJ

Peter McVerry SJ

Peter McVerry is a Jesuit priest who has spent many years working with homeless young people. In 1979 he set up a hostel for homeless boys. Four years later he established the Arrupe Society, now known as the Peter McVerry Trust, to provide accommodation and support for young people who are homeless.

What does social justice mean to you?

Social justice is the practical consequence of acknowledging the dignity of every human being. Every human being, just by virtue of being a human being, has a right to sufficient resources to enable them to survive and live a dignified human life and a right to be respected and valued by others. Social justice is about affirming this dignity of each and every human being. When people are homeless on the streets of Dublin, society is giving them the message that they just not important enough for that society to make the effort needed and provide the resources necessary to overcome their homelessness. When people are hungry in a world of plenty, the world is saying to them that they are just not important enough for the world to ensure that they have access to adequate food. All injustice is a denial of the dignity of the person.

If we say that every person has this intrinsic dignity, then we must affirm that dignity by our actions, ensuring that all their basic needs are met and that they not treated as inferior or second-class beings in the society and world in which they live. Otherwise, our words are hypocritical.

What do you regard as the major problems facing Ireland’s housing system?

The major problem facing the housing system in Ireland is the obscene price of housing. This has placed a huge burden on the shoulders of many families and households, particularly first-time house buyers, which they will carry for most of the rest of their lives. These heavy mortgages are essentially a transfer of funds from families, often struggling to pay their bills, into the bank accounts of millionaire developers and speculators.

Another problem is the dire shortage of social housing. Social housing output has dropped very significantly over the past fifteen years, leaving 43,000 households on a long waiting list.

But the most fundamental problem is the segregation of housing into separate, divided social enclaves. This segregation has kept different social classes in our society apart, and maintained the lack of understanding, and often lack of respect, that divides social groups in our society. Solidarity is made very difficult when social groups are segregated and fail to understand and respect each other, and solidarity is a value that our society today urgently needs to promote and develop.

Which living person do you most admire and why?

Nelson Mandela. After half a lifetime in prison, by those who were oppressing his race, Nelson Mandela bore no grudges or ill-will towards those who had kept him in prison. His tolerance and desire to build bridges, rather than walls, across the divide that separated races in South Africa, reveals the greatness of the man.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Holidays. I love travelling to different cultures and my greatest regret is that I didn’t start travelling much earlier in life. However, working with homeless young people for many years, when we had no resources and no staff, made it impossible for me to get away on holidays. But for the last nine years, I have travelled for three weeks each summer to different countries in Asia and loved every minute of it. It also expands your mind to encounter different cultures and different religions and to experience the friendship and hospitality of people who live and think very differently.

Do you have any bad habits?

Chocolates, and desserts which guarantee to give you heart problems.

How do you unwind?

Unwind – I thought that’s what clocks did.

When are you happiest?

I am happiest when working with young homeless people. You can often do just a little, but that little can be very important in their lives. There is no greater satisfaction than being able to give a little to the life and happiness of others. A person’s happiness increases the more they give it away.

Where were you on holidays last?

Spent three weeks in India this summer.

What qualities do you most value in people?

Selflessness, a non-judgemental attitude to others, and a sensitivity to the pain of others (and of animals).

What talent would you most like to have?

I’d love to have been a pop star. I would have travelled the world, all the roadies would have been young homeless people who would have had a great experience, travelling and working, and all the money would have been used to make homelessness a thing of the past.

What is your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is of robbing an apple at lunchtime on the way home from school, walking around town for the rest of the day and getting into awful trouble when I arrived home hours late.

What is your most treasured possession?

Everything I valued has been robbed! I have learnt, from experience, not to treasure anything to the point that I would be upset if it disappeared.

What books or films have inspired you?

Very inspired by the works of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit mystic of early 20th Century, particularly his two best known books, “The Divine Milieu” and “The Phenomenon of Man”. I was also very influenced by the writings of Albert Nolan, a Dominican working in South Africa, who lived his Christian faith in a very oppressive, apartheid, system and took his stand with the poor. His best known book is probably “Jesus before Christianity”. The title says it all.

What other career/line of work might you have chosen?

I would probably have been a doctor, like all the rest of my family!