Terry Prone: My dead, gay friend who proves the Pope is wrong

Pope Benedict XVI says that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. His controversial comments were all over the international media last week. They shouldn’t have been, according to the Iona Institute, a faith-based organisation. Because he didn’t say that at all.

So what he actually said was: “We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and asks that this order is respected. This is not out-of-date metaphysics. It comes from the faith in the Creator and from listening to the language of creation, despising which would mean self-destruction for humans and therefore a destruction of the work itself of God.”

Clear on that, now? Me neither.

Thanks to the Iona Institute’s well-intended presentation of what the Pope meant to say, we now know Benedict comes from the same school of crystal-clear communication that gave us our beloved taoiseach. Given that media outlets, including the BBC, understood that the Pope was saying homosexuality is as dangerous to humanity as the destruction of the rainforest, Benedict clearly needs help with his communication.

My friend Kieran Lyons would have been offended by reports of the Pope’s statement. Although, no, Kieran didn’t do offended. He did outraged.

Not that he had much time for outrage the year his mother was diagnosed with secondary cancer and told she’d be dead in six months. He gave up his job and went back to the family home in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, to nurse her.

His mother was a strong country widow who had come through a tough marriage relying on silence and prayer. Kieran could talk for Ireland but he also had insight, so each morning he’d leave the breakfast tray and go away to give her peace.

One morning after he set the tray on her lap, she caught his wrist. “I hardly know you,” she told him. He stepped back, the two of them silenced by the truth of what she had said. Kieran was in his mid-thirties and his mother hardly knew him.

“Would you write to me?”

“Write to you?”

“Write what you can’t talk to me about. A letter now and then.”

So he did. Every day for the seven-and-a-half months she survived, she got a handwritten letter from him in an envelope on the breakfast tray. Sometimes several pages long, sometimes one paragraph. Sometimes serious, often riotously funny. Towards the end, when neither breakfast nor reading were possible for her, he would read the letter aloud.
The letters told her the secrets of his life. Of the early months in the seminary, filled with happiness and certainty about the future. About the gently firm older priest in charge of the clerical students who knew him for what he was and helped him to see that the priesthood would not meet his needs. He told her of his desolate departure from the college, and of opting to study law, rather than his first love, medicine.

“You would have been a good doctor, though,” she said. It was an acknowledgment of his elegant and lightly dismissive management of the awkward intimacies dictated by her physical decline.

He was first a lawyer, then a magazine publisher, before becoming a full-time carer, letter-writer and laughter-inducer. She laughed most at his ruthlessly accurate self-portrayal: severely coeliac, committed hypochondriac and gay as Christmas.

It was only when her voice had shrivelled away to a whisper that she told him she loved him. He kissed her on the forehead. Then realised she had something to add: “Now I know why I love you.”

She never said anything else. Her silence gave way, the following day, to the agonised breathing before death.

After the funeral, he went through her papers. He found the first few months of his letters to her in an enamelled box tied together with a ribbon. That was unexpected; his mother had never been fond of ribbons. Rather, she was the kind of woman who kept a ball of rubber bands in a drawer because you’d never know when you’d need one. The ribbon was like receiving a posthumous sacramental blessing from her.

In the papers he found an aspect of her life of which he had known nothing: a leper colony in India she had supported for decades through the organisation of bring-and-buy sales. He sent the priest in India a letter and the rest of her money. The priest wrote back and told him the difference his mother had made.

He got himself a new job, setting up a publishing division within the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland. He renewed an old friendship with me and together we wrote a book — This Business of Writing. Turn that beautifully produced hardback over and you’ll see a picture of the two of us. I’m trying not to laugh because, at the moment the shutter snapped, he was crouching to look smaller than his great height and predicting that the photograph would make him look like a tall stick of broccoli.

He also pursued a crazy idea developed after a visit to the leper colony his mother had helped. He worked out that in five years, when he was 50, he would have enough money to study medicine and then move to India to work with lepers. He wrote to medical colleges and found a place.

Then he became ill, and earlier this year he died suddenly. His funeral brought together dozens of people who had never known each other, each of them having been rescued, encouraged, lovingly bullied and dragged out of sadness by a man who — we now learnt — had spent his life doing pastoral work.

None of which, in fairness, the Pope would condemn. The Pope would say there’s nothing wrong in being homosexual; it’s just the act that’s wrong. Which line of thinking, logically extended, suggests the dead man was a danger to the human ecology the Pope wants to promote.

In fact, Kieran Lyons improved human ecology, making lives sustainable by noticing misery and promoting potential.

He was as gay as Christmas. And, for his friends, his passing leached some of the gaiety out of this one.