Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Mass to celebrate the Festival Day of St Oliver Plunkett
4 July 2010
Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Mass to celebrate the Festival Day of St Oliver Plunkett
in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Sunday 4th July 2010
- “…the real tragedy of the current situation regarding historical child abuse in Ireland would be to let the idea go out that if Ireland kicked the Church hard enough, it would have kicked child abuse in the country. With many of those who work with young people, I’d dare to suggest that Ireland is globally now a more dangerous place for young people than it was in the terrible old days that we all wish to leave behind” – Bishop McKeown
- “I suggest that this is a time of crisis, not just for Catholicism but for all of Western society. At some stage we will come to the point where we will have to stop asking how we deal with increasing numbers of dysfunctional citizens – and start asking what is dysfunctional about our new gods, that is producing such a violent and dangerous world, one that is apparently unable or unwilling to acknowledge its fault lines.” – Bishop McKeown
There are some people who will wonder what on earth we are doing here today, gathering around the blackened head of a man who was executed by the state as a traitor some 429 year ago. Are we just trapped in a useful commemoration of the past.? Others will wonder whether such a commemoration has anything to say to the Irish Church as leaders and people seek to cope with the revelations about the past and develop a way of living and proclaiming Jesus in the 21st century. Some will question whether, in what we hope is a post conflict Northern Ireland, we need to keep talking about someone who was killed because he was a Catholic leader in a bitterly divided country. Why commemorate a divided past if we want to create a shared future? And some will genuinely wonder what all of this has to do with young people, iPods, iPads and the building of a young church.
Oliver Plunkett, like all of us, was a man of his time. He wrestled with the questions that his times threw at him. We, too, are supported and limited by the period and culture we live in. We have to live and make decisions in the imperfect circumstances in which we find ourselves. But among the core qualities that the Gospel ask us to bring to all those decisions are truth, love, hope and generosity. And those virtues of Oliver Plunkett from Oldcastle in Co Meath apply in every age.
So what about our times? The modern Irish Church has to work in painful circumstances. We live with the fact that glorious story which we told about ourselves – missionaries in every country, full churches, semper fidelis, always faithful to God and his teaching – was at least partly a myth. We fooled ourselves that sin didn’t really have much of a foothold in the country. Like the Pharisees in the Gospel, we often succumbed to the temptation to locate whatever sin there was in people on the fringes of society. Too often we adopted that perennial mentality which thought that sin could be beaten out of them and that that they should be punished for being marked by contagion with sinners – while we basked in our pretence of perfection.
We have to accept that reality, however painful that may be for many of us. But the pain of embarrassment and shame that we may feel is nothing compared to the reality that so many lives have been permanently scarred because of pain and suffering inflicted on them. Many who were abused have lived lives marked by depression, substance abuse, huge problems in establishing healthy relationships and emotional turmoil, both when they are awake and when they sleep. We can never underestimate the effect on trauma on young lives.
However, the real tragedy of the current situation regarding historical child abuse in Ireland would be to let the idea go out that if Ireland kicked the Church hard enough, it would have kicked child abuse in the country. With many of those who work with young people, I’d dare to suggest that Ireland is globally now a more dangerous place for young people than it was in the terrible old days that we all wish to leave behind. I have worked in education for most of my years and I know that there is nothing glorious or liberated about the world we adults have created for many young people. Frank McCourt and others have given us a gloomy picture of a impoverished priest ridden Ireland decades ago. But new stories will eventually be written about today’s Ireland and about the over 10% of Irish children who currently live in consistent poverty, despite the huge and sometimes obscenely vulgar levels of wealth that the Celtic Tiger produced and concentrated in relatively few hands. Those stories will ask how we allowed 188 young people in the Republic to die while in the care of the state in the last ten years without so much as a complaint. They will ask why we didn’t take seriously the fact that, in 2008, there were 11,700 hospital admissions in the Republic because of serious self harm, and why beautiful, carefree Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe among young people. Because of drink, drugs, suicide, violence, mental disorders, fast cars etc in many – if not most – parts of this wealthy country it is now dangerous to be young and male. It is doubly dangerous to be young, male – and poor. The story tellers of the future may portray the new ideology in modern Ireland as culpably blind, so concerned about their status and power, so concerned about protecting their good name and their finances that they could not see the price that the underprivileged continue to pay for the success of some. And they will condemn the high priests of the new orthodoxy for their perceived arrogance and their assumed infallibility. And they will ask why civic society learned little from the Murphy or Ryan reports.
Do we just complain, like so many others do? Do we just ask the nice questions about how to get more young people into Church? No, the Gospel asks where we locate the sources of the problem that afflict many people today – and what the solutions might be. And we ask those questions even if some will find them uncomfortable. In one of my Confirmation ceremonies this year, I asked 78 bright chirpy 11 year olds in Belfast what their dreams were, now that they were leaving primary school. I was taken aback when, between them, all they could come up with was ‘playing football’ and ‘winning the lottery’. There was an adult community that expects so little from life and offers so few dreams to it young people. Many gifted young people have great hopes for their lives and are blessed with great dreams and role models. But too many of the next generation of adults have been told to expect little – and then they will not be disappointed. It is no surprise, in a world of fickle role models, many will live down to the expectations that they are told they should have. It is ironic that many people of faith are now asking whether new secular culture is actually the real opium of the masses! It may numb the pain but in the long term it kills the soul and the body.
And these problems are not confined to Ireland. I suggest that this is a time of crisis, not just for Catholicism but for all of Western society. At some stage we will come to the point where we will have to stop asking how we deal with increasing numbers of dysfunctional citizens – and start asking what is dysfunctional about our new gods, that is producing such a violent and dangerous world, one that is apparently unable or unwilling to acknowledge its fault lines. I think Jesus would not seek the problem in the 17 year old, who is out of control. He would be concerned about the young person on the fringe of society but would also ask what irresponsible adult behaviour and structures suit some but are feeding this widespread nihilism and lack of hope. Whose is benefiting from, and who is paying the price for, the way we have organised ourselves and the values that we promote?
For many families – though not necessarily families who have much clout in our society – the experience may be akin to that of St Paul in today’s second reading. These adults too can feel crucified because they have had to live in difficult personal and social circumstances, their children are more prone to illness, substance abuse and criminality – and ‘nice’ society then blames the ills of society on them. ‘Lock them up and throw away the key’ may be the new Pharisaic catchword. In the past, many powerless people cried out but no-one heard of their pain or their abuse. Especially in these financially difficult times, hundreds of thousands still cry in Irish society – or bite their lips in silence – and their uncomfortable voices are not heard because their story would clash with the new non-religious orthodoxy. When they complain, they are seen by too many as the new heretics whose voice criticises the system and its priorities – should not be heard. We all know what happened when hurting voices were not heard or believed in the past. Have we learned to see only the faults of the past but not the sins of the present?
So how might we approach this reality with the eyes of faith? Not with pious self righteousness! Our first reading today from Isaiah refers to a God who still has a dream of healing for the world. Isaiah, at a time of crisis speaks of peace flowing a like a river in flood. He speaks of a God who wishes to comfort those who hurt. The Gospel tells of Jesus sending out people in pairs to offer peace and to help people believe that the power of evil can be broken. Despite all that has happened in church and in wider society, God still says that he has a dream for each one of us and for our world. And this is not a dream for what we can do in life – but who we can become, individually and communally. For each person God knows that, whatever your past may be, you can still have a future. That is where Christian conversion and healing offer a way to believe in that future. Jesus keeps telling every generation that the upside-down Kingdom of God is very near to us – but it still remains hard to welcome the messengers of that news.
Our saint today, Oliver Plunkett, had lived a comparatively comfortable life in Rome – and was then sent back to Ireland to preach a message that was unwelcome in some quarters. He will have got a hard time from those Irish who sought to exploit their downtrodden religionists or who espoused violence as the only useful way forward. He was particularly unwelcome to those in civil power who were happy to exploit religious differences to consolidate their power base. He had nine years in which he was able to build up the structures and morale of a shattered church and cultural community. At the time of his trial in 1681 – and for more than a century afterwards – his life and death must have seemed one more futile waste of a learned man’s life. Things just got worse into the 18th century. But God has a strange way of wasting nothing that is done in love and generosity, whether on the cross or across the world. We now honour a man who, in his own imperfect way, sought to be faithful to the truth. He sought to promote reconciliation and forgiveness. When he was sentenced to death after a sham trial, his response was not an angry cry but the simple phrase, Deo Gratias, thanks be to God.
So what might Oliver Plunkett say to us today as we seek to let young people hear the hope of the Gospel over the din of evil, pain, disillusionment and frail role models? He certainly wouldn’t suggest that we do anything that he didn’t do himself.
I think that he’d say that God still has faith in people. Despite all the wrong and stupidity that he saw then and that are seen in every generation, people are capable of great things. With grace and the vision of the Gospel, it is possible to build community, to promote healing and to build supportive relationships. It is important to work for those – even if they are slow in coming. Secondly, St Oliver had to overcome the temptation to stay in comparatively comfortable Rome and go back to Ireland. He’d ask that you consider accepting his call to go out to the rich harvest where the labourers are few. That would mean dedicating your life to that work, being ready to go out like lambs among wolves to tell people that we are not just prisoners of our past but can be architects of our common future. He’d suggest that the creation of a better future means speaking the truth, both about God and about people. Tha might be one new form of martyrdom. Despite what some political figures might say, the Church is not about staying in the sacristy and mouthing pious platitudes. It means being ready to engage with messy human realities and getting our hands dirty so that the face of the earth might be renewed. The uncomfortable truth about what we are capable of as human beings – love, faithfulness, generosity, service and forgiveness – is not welcome in some circles which would rather have us believe the inhuman myth that only money, power and consumerism can bring us salvation.
So my fear for the Ireland is not so much that it just stops believing in God – but that it then stops believing in good and in love, in relationships and forgiveness, in the possibility of faithfulness and fresh starts, in idealism and generosity. The God of Jesus tells me that I am lovable because of who I am and despite who I am. It is a wonderful discovery. It would be terrible, boring and destructive culture if we came to believe that I am lovable only because of what I achieve and what I possess. That would be a real tragedy of shocking proportions, depressing beyond imagination. We see too many people already who have been oppressed by that lie.
This year we celebrate 90 years since Oliver Plunkett was beatified and 35 years since he was made a saint. Ireland still needs saints, people who will hear the call to generosity and sacrifice. Martyrdom for them may come in various forms because it will man speaking uncomfortable truths. But Jesus still invites people – as the theme of the Madrid World Youth Day 2011 says – to be Planted and built up in Jesus Christ. So we gather round this strange relic, not to focus on it but to focus on where good news still needs to be heard in modern Ireland. Salvation will not come from Celebrity Come Dancing or the X Factor. Simon Cowell is not God. God’s future for us will come through those who believe in love, generosity, service, community, and forgiveness. God’s dream will be realised in and through those who make space for grace in their lives – and who are ready to pay the price when they are seduced by that grace of God. Maybe if we look carefully, Oliver Plunkett will give us a wink from heaven – and say I was foolish enough to believe in God’s dream and to pay the price for it. And that was the wisest decision that I ever took.
Notes to Editors:
Background to the Festival Day of St Oliver Plunkett:
- Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor led the 2010 Festival Day of St Oliver Plunkett in Drogheda, Co Louth today, Sunday 4 July. This year the procession and the celebration of Mass commemorated the 90th anniversary of the beatification of St Oliver Plunkett. The theme for this year’s festival was ‘The Young Church’.
- At 3.00pm a procession of the relics of St Oliver Plunkett left Our Lady of Lourdes Church, to arrive at St Peter’s Church, West Street, for Mass at 4.00pm. This procession commemorated the 90th anniversary of the beatification of St Oliver Plunkett, and was led by a colour party drawn from the local scouting troop and representative of local Catholic organisations as well as visiting pilgrim groups. The Knights of Columbanus and members of other Orders traditionally carry the relics of St Oliver Plunkett over the mile-long route between the two churches.
- At 4.00pm Mass was celebrated at St Peter’s Church. Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland was the Chief Celebrant. Concelebrants included: Bishop DonalMcKeown, who preached the above homily; Bishop Gerard Clifford, Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh; and Canon James Carroll, Parish Priest of St Peter’s Parish, Drogheda. Music at the Mass was led by St Peter’s Male Voice Choir, directed by Mr Edward Holly.
- St Oliver Plunkett was a former Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland who was martyred in Tyburn, England, in 1681. He was canonised as a martyr by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
- Each year thousands of pilgrims visit St Oliver Plunkett’s shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, in the Archdiocese of Armagh, to venerate his relics and to learn about his life story. Pilgrims pray for the sick and troubled, for family and friends. They fittingly turn to St Oliver, who was martyred for his faith in a time of political, religious and social turmoil, to pray for his intercession concerning conflict areas at home and abroad.
- The Patron saints of the Archdiocese of Armagh are: St Patrick, St Malachy and St Oliver Plunkett.
- Each year, on the first Sunday of July, celebrations of the life of St Oliver also take place at his birthplace in the Diocese of Meath. This celebration is held on the same day each year in front of the old ruined Church at Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co Meath, the birth place of St Oliver Plunkett. Mass was celebrated at 3.00 pm this Sunday – a tradition now going back 60 years.
- A special web feature on the Festival Day is available at www.catholicbishops.ie
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 310 4444