Here is the annual Saint Oliver Plunkett address given Sunday by Archbishop Eamon Martin as part of the Féile an Phobail celebrations.
Féile an Phobail was established in 1988 as a direct response to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Its purpose was to celebrate the positive side of the community, its creativity, its energy, its passion for the arts, and for sport.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the festival and the 10th anniversary of the Saint Oliver Plunkett Lecture, which has previously been delivered by Primate of all Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady, and the social justice campaigner Father Peter McVerry SJ.
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Theme: ‘What’s another year – challenges and opportunities of the Year of Faith’
Although we are only two thirds of the way through the Year of Faith, what a year it has been so far! It started with the Synod in Rome on New Evangelisation; it has included the stunning announcement in February of Pope Benedict’s resignation; and then we had the election of a new pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the southern hemisphere, and the first Francis! The Year of Faith has continued with the announcement that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be canonised soon. We’ve had a truly amazing World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro and only a few weeks ago the publication of a beautiful encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), begun by one pope and completed by another.
The Second Vatican Council was clear that the Church has a place right in the centre of the modern world, in the heart of the public square, in the hustle and bustle of people’s lives. The Council fathers pointed out the duty of the Church to ‘scrutinise the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel’. The great Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) puts it famously and very beautifully: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the (people)men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.’
Sadly we know that many people feel they can no longer trust our message because they have been hurt and betrayed by their experience of Church in the past. The first twenty six years of my priestly ministry have been overshadowed by the shame and scandal of sexual abuse in the Church which has not only had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, but it has also ‘obscured the light of the gospel’; it has sapped the morale of good and faithful priests, it has wounded the trusting relationship between priests and their people, priests and their bishops; it has discouraged parents, shocked and angered many faithful members of the Church – in short it has damaged ‘communion’ and weakened our witness. I do not think that the dark cloud of abuse shall lift easily, but perhaps that is how it should be – given that many of those whose trust was so cruelly betrayed shall carry their hurt to their graves – perhaps the least we can do is never to forget. As Church, we must continue in our efforts to bring healing to victims and ensure that young people are always protected, respected and nurtured in Church activities.
It is important that in scrutinising the signs of the times like this, we do not fall into despair, nor should we try to nostalgically try to the turn the clock back in search of some past when things seemed less muddled more ‘black and white’. No. This is our time. Our calling is to be part of the Church’s mission for today. In declaring a Year of Faith Pope Benedict called on us to respond NOW to the ‘profound crisis of faith’ and ‘to lead people out of the desert, … towards friendship with the Son of God … who gives us life, and life in abundance’. AsGaudium et Spes put it: ‘the future of humanity rests on those who are capable of handing on to the coming generations reasons for living and hoping’.
What more exciting or challenging a mission could there be for us in this Year of Faith! To hand on to our children reasons for living and hoping!
I often think that our efforts to bring the Gospel into today’s world are not unlike the daunting task that faced Paul in Athens. Pope John Paul II once encouraged us to think of modern equivalents of the Athens Areopagus – the sectors of life in today’s world which most need illuminated with the light of the Gospel. This evening I would like to share with you three areas of life in Ireland which I think present particular challenges and opportunities for us in the Year of Faith: firstly, reaching our young people; secondly, participating in public discourse, and thirdly, searching for a shared future in this part of Ireland.
Let’s look firstly at the world of our young people. I was blessed to exercise much of my priestly ministry as a teacher and school principal. I found working with young people to be immensely challenging and rewarding, but I have sometimes felt powerless before all the contradictory messages which the current celebrity culture hurls at our young boys and girls. Like Paul in Athens, my soul is vexed sometimes when I look at the world of our young people – I expect many parents feel the same. Perhaps the most saddening thing is the increase in depression, creeping despair and emptiness in the lives of too many young people which tragically leads to suicide.
I was eighteen when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. In Galway he spoke to young people of Ireland about the temptation as you get older to leave religion and your faith behind, to think that religion cramps your style and hampers your future, that with all the amazing social and scientific progress the world has to offer, you don’t need God; you can organize your own life. But then he called out to the thousands of young people present. He cried out: ‘Something else is needed! Something that you will find only in Christ!’ Three years ago, Pope Benedict reiterated those sentiments when he wrote to the young people of Ireland: ‘He alone [Only Jesus] can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning’ And two weeks ago on Copacabana beach, Pope Francis called on the youth of the world today to not to be afraid to go out and make disciples, to serve and bear witness to Christ in every area of life, to go to the fringes of society, even to those who seem most indifferent and farthest away. And he called on priests and youth leaders to accompany young people on their journey so that they do not feel alone, helping them to become actively engaged in their Church.
The important area which I think is calling out for the message of the Gospel is the world of public discourse. There are those who would want the voice of faith and religion relegated to the privacy of our homes and churches and kept far away from the cut and thrust of public discourse. It is important to say at the outset that in entering the world of public discourse, we people of faith are not trying to create some kind of Church state. The Second Vatican Council was clear that we ought not to interfere with the ‘legitimate autonomy’ of socio-economic, political and cultural affairs. But that does not mean that religion has no part to play in the national conversation.
Our arguments in the public square draw upon both reason and faith and upon an integral vision of the dignity and vocation of the human person linked to the common good. But the tendency in public debate is to relegate discussion about the natural identity of the human person to the private sphere and instead to prioritise freedom, or more precisely, individual rights and freedom as the fundamental value and greatest good. The Year of Faith challenges us to find ways of presenting in public discourse ‘a coherent ethic of life’, based on natural law, which includes for example, our teaching about the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person, about the centrality of the family, about solidarity and the common good, the need for a fair distribution of goods in the world.
The recent debate surrounding the introduction of abortion legislation in the South has illustrated how much our message is becoming increasingly counter-cultural. Our arguments on the abortion issue were not only those faith-based arguments about the sacredness of every human life as a gift from God; we also appealed strongly to rational argument that the life and dignity of the most vulnerable and innocent human persons ought to be upheld by society; we pointed out the contradictions inherent in an Act entitled ‘the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, but which permits in law the deliberate and intentional killing of an unborn child and which, with no time limits, opens up the possibility of the destruction of an unborn child right up to the moment of birth.
We also argued about freedom of conscience, the right to a free vote for politicians on the issue, and to conscientious objection for anyone who does not want to cooperate in any way, however indirectly, with abortion. With the backing of psychiatrists and doctors, we pointed to the flaws of introducing abortion as a response to suicidal ideation. Throughout the debate we kept clarifying Catholic Church teaching , that ‘where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are ethically permissible provided every effort is made to save both the mother and her baby’. We were clear that this is different from abortion, which is the direct and intentional taking of the innocent life of the unborn and which is and always will be gravely wrong no matter what legislation is passed in any country.
Strong arguments indeed! But it is worth reflecting on some of the reactions to our involvement as people of faith in this debate. Some were on the attack immediately pointing to the child abuse scandals and the Church’s abysmal record of protecting the lives of children in the past, as if that means we should not attempt to speak up for the protection of the most innocent human life in the present.
Others pointed out that the bishops being a group of aging celibate men have no right to interfere with a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her body. That is why the pro-life arguments were most powerfully led in the media and the public square by dedicated and articulate lay men and women. And then there were the arguments, made by several senior politicians, that whilst bishops are entitled to their views, they as politicians have to legislate for all the people, for the public good. So it was implied that somehow access to abortion is for the public good, but even more significantly, that politicians themselves, even if they be practising Catholics, must leave their faith outside the door when they are entering the legislative chamber.
But why shouldn’t a Catholic politician, or lawyer, or teacher, or person of any profession for that matter, be able to confidently and unapologetically express their sincerely held faith-based arguments in the public square without fear of ridicule or being branded a bigot or against freedom? Surely the mark of a truly pluralist society is one which will allow people of all faiths and none to express and act upon their conscientiously held views, particularly on a matter as critical as the upholding of all human life.
It would hugely impoverish our faith if we were to compartmentalise it or exclude it completely from our conversations and actions in the public square. But I believe that it would also impoverish society if the fundamental convictions of faith were not permitted to influence public debate; it would diminish the understanding of the human person and dilute the concept of the common good. Our tradition of moral reasoning based upon natural law is accessible to all people of good will even if they do not share our faith commitment. It is desirable therefore during this Year of Faith that we begin to encourage dialogue and seek common cause with other groups and individuals who are working for the common good, and with those who are honestly seeking what is true but who might appear to us to be arriving at the wrong conclusions.
Of course when the Church becomes involved in public discourse, we must remember that most people nowadays are indifferent to condemnations. Pope John XXIII had a different idea: ‘In our own time the Bride of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severer remedies; she thinks that, rather than issue condemnations, she should try to satisfy the needs of today, by proving the truth of her teachings’.
Our arguments in future must be able to balance charity and truth. They must be at once gentle and patient, but firm and persuasive. As Blessed John Paul said, we are ‘at the service of love’. To those in the public square we say with him: ‘Do not be afraid, the Gospel is not against you, but for you’. We try to convince them, as Pope Benedict put it, that ‘if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great’. We are not there to impose, but to invite; we are not there to simply oppose, but to offer the gift and message of salvation. The Council’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae puts it so profoundly: ‘The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power’.
Searching for a Shared Future
A similar humble, yet persuasive approach can be taken when we enter discussions about the search for a shared future in Northern Ireland. We’re begun a decade of centenaries and commemorations and already, tensions and violence on the streets remind us that there’s still a lot to be done in building peace and shaping the future. We know that our community remains polarised and divided in many ways.
We are only ‘tiptoeing’ towards a shared and reconciled future. Tensions remain about how to tackle sectarianism, and there are pastoral problems too about reaching out to ex-combatants at the same time as fostering healing for victims. Many victims of the troubles still don’t know the full circumstances that led to the death or serious injury of their loved one. Few have been able to tell their stories, either as individuals or communities – there is a tendency to think ‘don’t go there’, leave the past behind, or indeed to engage in blaming and revisionism, creating a hierarchy of victimhood and not recognising the legitimacy of truth within different accounts. We are still a long way away from any shared story or understanding of the past. Overall, there is much to be done in addressing the detrimental impact of the troubles on the image of Northern Ireland. We all have a responsibility to help avoid a relapse into violence especially in the most deprived areas across our communities where residents feel they have won little from the peace – sadly many of these areas are also those which suffered greatest during the conflict.
Church leaders have of course a share of the responsibility to help heal the wounds of the past, restore confidence in the present, and build a harmonious future. I know that the so-called ‘institutional Churches’ have come in for some criticism for not doing enough. But I think we should not underestimate the witness which priests and other pastors on the ground gave to non-violence and the values of forgiveness, often holding communities back from the brink of retaliation and escalating violence – not to mention the power of prayer and the many vigils and public rallies for peace.
Many Church leaders made impassioned pleas for an end to violence and called on politicians to seek a just and peaceful solution. There were also individuals in the Churches, quietly engaged in the early movements towards peace, discouraging violence, harnessing help in brokering dialogue, coaxing key figures to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, in our pastoral work on the ground many of us priests came into daily, and sometimes gruesome contact with the reality of the troubles – being called in the aftermath of bombings or shootings to anoint the dead, pray with the wounded, break bad news to families that someone had been killed or injured, preach at funerals of those, young and old, who had lost their lives.
During the Troubles priests sometimes felt caught in the middle, at times used and attacked by all sides, but they continued to visit homes, hospitals and prisons, administer the sacraments; their pastoral presence in the public square helped preserve normality in the midst of potential chaos. The priest or minister was often the person of hope, and consolation – for me, ministering as a priest in Derry at this time gave me a strong sense of my own vocation.
I believe that the churches can still play a significant role in helping us to build bridges and re-define ourselves. In 2007 the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past concluded that ‘The past should be dealt with in a manner which enables society to become more defined by its desire for true and lasting reconciliation rather than by division and mistrust…’ (CGP 2009:23). In order to do this, we in the various Christian traditions might look together to the Word of God and find there shared Gospel values like the dignity of every human being, respect for all human life, conversion, repentance, forgiveness. Through the Word of God we might hear each others stories and explore each other’s hurts; we might begin to describe what a shared future looks like and talk about what has to be done before true forgiveness and reconciliation can happen.
In all three areas I have mentioned – the world of young people, the world of public discourse and the search for a shared future in Northern Ireland, the Church’s mission shall depend largely upon the witness of committed lay people living their lives animated by the Gospel values of charity and compassion.
The Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium , was prophetic when it called on the lay faithful to work for the ‘sanctification of the world from within like a leaven’. In Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) (29) Pope Benedict repeats this call. He says: ‘The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society… is proper to the lay faithful’. Pope John Paul II spoke powerfully in Knock when he said: ‘The great forces which shape the world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work – are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission. If these forces are guided by people who are true disciples of Christ, and who are, at the same time, fully competent in the relevant secular knowledge and skill, then indeed will the world be transformed from within by Christ’s redeeming power’.
During this Year of Faith, I pray for a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Ireland, enkindling the fire of God’s love in the hearts of all the faithful! I pray that we can find new ways to help our lay faithful play their ‘proper and indispensable role in the life of the Church’. In this I am encouraged by the Living Church initiative which has been taking place here in the Diocese of Down and Connor and I encourage you to continue working towards work towards an ‘open and welcoming community of active participating laity and renewed, supported clergy’. I wish every success to the forthcoming Congress in September.
Pope Francis has been emphasising to us recently, that we need to ‘go out of ourselves’, beyond our usual comfort zones to the ‘edges of our existence’. It is there, he says, that we meet the poor, the forgotten, the disillusioned. And there I think we must find ways of bringing the Gospel to the reality of their daily lives, with all their hurts and burdens and troubles. The only way we can do that is by being conscious of God’s mercy and love for each one of us personally, how God unconditionally loves each one of us, despite our sinfulness and imperfections.
I think it is very important at this time that as people, priests, religious and bishops, speak in harmony with one another. Our message must never dilute the strength of Christ’s message but must capture faithfully the timeless truth of the Gospel. And that can only happen if we live in communion with Christ and with one another, and if we gather regularly to be nourished by God’s Word and the Sacraments.
What’s another year? During this Year of Faith each of us is being called to personal conversion, to open our hearts to friendship with Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life! That is how we become a new people with a new song, and because fundamentally our song is about the Good News of Jesus Christ, it is impossible to keep it to ourselves!
Thank you for listening.