Opening Address by Cardinal Paul Poupard at ICFC Symposium

22 Jun 2001

Opening Address by Cardinal Paul Poupard at Irish Centre for Faith and Culture Weekend Symposium 22-23 June 2001

22 June 2001

Paul Cardinal Poupard
President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
The Patience of a Saint: Reflections on the Dialogue between Faith and Culture.

Opening Address, the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture’s Symposium
Measuring Society: Discerning Values and Beliefs
St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Friday 22 June 2001

Your Eminence, Monsignor Farrell, Professor McEvoy,
Distinguished guests and friends of the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture, Good evening and thank you for your welcome. It is good to be back! Some of you will remember that I was here just over six years ago, at Saint Patrick’s College’s Bicentenary Conference on Faith and Culture: Chaos and Creation. I spoke then of my firm conviction that it would be very relevant for you, in this North West corner of Europe, to find a way of recognising and facing “questions of cultural sensitivity” and all that is implied in serious inter-cultural dialogue. Some of you heard me voicing my sincere hope “that Maynooth might establish some centre for reflection on faith and culture for the Irish context” (Paul Cardinal Poupard, “Creation, Culture and Faith”, published in Cultures and Faith III – 2 [1995], pp. 84-93. This quotation is on p. 93). In the intervening years, the Irish bishops have responded to my suggestion by founding the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture. So it is a joy for me to be here, not only to visit the centre, but also to see it in action.

I have no doubt that the Centre for Faith and Culture here in Maynooth will bear abundant fruit as the Catholic Church in Ireland moves forward into this new Millennium. I remember saying, six years ago, that “it is part of the adventure of church history that individual notes in the symphony of faith will acquire a different tone within changing cultures” (art. cit., p. 89). But I am sure nobody here can have failed to notice that this is a time when those who do not share our beliefs encourage us to play our tune quietly. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been bruised by the failures of some of her own members, and by the bitter reactions of those who hoped for so much more from them. Confidence in a venerable institution that once seemed rock solid has been replaced, for so many people, by a cool and critical attitude to the institutional Church and to those who have an official role within it. The tone of the symphony of faith is indeed changing, and it is safer to lie low than to parade one’s Catholic faith in public these days. But is that the right approach?

Christians are not living on some uninhabited island. The tone is changing because the culture is changing rapidly. The world as a whole looks very different at the beginning of the third Millennium. Many people genuinely find it hard to trust the human instinct to search for and believe in truth. In this, Ireland more and more resembles other places whose cultures once seemed so alien and distant. People all over Europe struggled throughout the first half of the twentieth century to achieve democratic freedom, no more so than here. Thank God there now seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Northern Ireland. Democracy is not a goal, but a system, which has to be periodically purified and refined; there is no place for scandal and corruption in people whose authority rests on the fact that they have been elected to office. So there is a clear need for moral values to shape the way democratic society works.

It would be churlish to ignore the part Christianity has played in forming Irish culture, and shortsighted to pretend it is the influence it once was. Like your European neighbours, you have a society where different value-systems compete for moral space. The Gospel has a place in Irish society, but these days people are used to making choices in so many aspects of their lives that they may easily opt for other values. Whether we like it or not, the Gospel nowadays needs to win its place in people’s hearts. I do not mean to be nostalgic when I say that the meaning of the phrase “new evangelisation” is that the Gospel has to win back the place it once had in Irish hearts. In his Apostolic Letter to mark the end of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul the Second recognised this. “Even in countries evangelised many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian society’ which… measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone. Today we must courageously face a situation which is becoming increasingly diversified and demanding, in the context of ‘globalisation’ and of the consequent new and uncertain mingling of peoples and cultures. Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelisation. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost” (Novo millennio ineunte, 40). Here in Ireland, there has been a healthy dialogue between a long-established Christian heritage and the various shades of political thought. Perhaps that debate more than any other aspect of Irish life needs the dialogue between faith and culture. The future of your nation depends on that dialogue.

I come from another situation, and have no desire to tell you how to solve your problems. The methods you choose depend on your understanding of your own situation. What I would very much like to offer this evening is a reflection on the attitude that might best mould an effective dialogue between faith and culture in Irish society.

On the first of December nineteen ninety-seven, Bishop Donal Murray spoke at the opening of the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture about the soul of Europe. He quoted what Pope John Paul the Second had said to the Bishops of Europe two months earlier: “We must never tire of saying and repeating to Europe: rediscover yourself! Rediscover your soul” (to the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, 11 October 1997). The same challenge could and should be applied to any cultural area in the world, in fact to any nation. I would say this is a very good time for Ireland to hear those same words: “rediscover yourself! Rediscover your soul!” As I pondered the title of this conference, the idea of “Measuring Culture” struck me quite forcibly, and my mind wandered to the collection of poems by Séamus Heaney entitled The Spirit Level. In the most obvious sense, a spirit level is an essential tool for building. But Heaney’s title fits the theme of this conference, too. Are we not trying to ascertain the spiritual character, in that sense the “spirit level”, of the Irish nation? Is that not because we are passionately concerned about the way its future will be built? This echoes what Bishop Murray said about the task of a Catholic cultural centre in Maynooth at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He encouraged everyone who comes here to engage in a search for meaning and face the uncomfortable, “uneasy” questions it is so tempting and fashionable to avoid. He stressed the need to pay attention to many other questions “being expressed, in however halting and however inadequate and however hostile a manner in contemporary culture. We who are believers need to hear those questions not only from outside, but within ourselves”. As he suggested then, the task of this centre is chiefly to challenge and to illuminate Irish culture. That demands both genuine sympathy for the culture and a new clarity of language. A daunting challenge indeed!

Today I visited Glendalough, the lush green backdrop for a poem Séamus Heaney included in the collection he called The Spirit Level. It is about Saint Kevin and the blackbird. No doubt you know the story, but I want to commend it to you as a motif for the work of this Centre. As the first life of Saint Kevin was written about four centuries after he lived, Heaney wryly comments that “the whole thing’s imagined anyhow”, but he is fascinated by the legend. I think the poem contains several details worth remembering in the context of this conference. First of all, imagine the scene. There is a man of God adopting a very peculiar attitude in prayer. That is the way it seems to the casual observer, someone unfamiliar with the hermit’s way of life. Kevin meant to imitate Christ crucified. His problem was that there was not enough room in his tiny cell – his prayer-posture meant one of his arms had to protrude through the window. You must surely know the rest of the story, how the blackbird came and built a nest in Kevin’s outstretched, upturned palm. Kevin stayed there until the eggs laid had hatched and the fledglings grew old enough to fly away.

People visiting the offices of the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome often ask how the Council does its work. I can answer in many ways, because it is an operation with many facets. To borrow a military image, the battle is waged on many fronts. But I do not really like to think of it as a battle or a conflict. In fact, just the opposite. Pope John Paul the Second’s stroke of genius in founding the Council in nineteen eighty-two was to spot the fact that culture is a level playing field for everyone. It is a vital element in the life of society and in every person’s life. Everyone has an interest in expressing his or her own identity as a person, but also as a member of a culture. So cultural questions matter to everyone, and the world recognises this more and more. As communications improve, people know more and more about other cultures, so the fascination grows. I must say, in passing, that it is unnerving to see how many young people know far more about distant cultures in other continents than they do about their own. There are many reasons for this, but it can have a strange destabilising influence on the cohesion of a nation when younger generations seek a new identity somewhere else. Where are they finding their values and beliefs? Why is there more interest in other cultures than their own? Is it purely the appeal of the exotic, or is there something deeper being said about their own culture and their relationship to it? You may well be raising these questions in the next day or so, or perhaps on a future occasion, and I would be fascinated to know what you discover.

Pope John Paul’s principal reason for giving culture such a high profile in the agenda of the Church in the late twentieth century and now at the beginning of the twenty-first is revealed in what he said when he re-founded the Pontifical Council for Culture in nineteen ninety-three, by joining it to what used to be known as the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers. Dialogue with systematic atheism began seriously at the end of the Second Vatican Council, and the Holy Father stressed that, throughout his pontificate, he had “wanted to develop the Church’s dialogue with the contemporary world”. In a particular way, he had “sought to foster the encounter with non-believers in the privileged area of culture, a fundamental dimension of the spirit, which places people in a relationship with one another and unites them in what is most truly theirs, namely, their common humanity”. He “created the Pontifical Council for Culture with the intention of strengthening the Church’s pastoral presence in this specific, vital area, in which the world’s destiny is at stake at the approach of the third millennium” (Apostolic Letter Inde a Pontificatus, given Motu Proprio, 25 March 1993).

It is important to note the real priorities stressed in that letter. What is important is a “pastoral presence” that can work on the basis of people’s common humanity to foster genuine communication on matters of real importance to every man and woman on the planet, at a major turning point in the history of humankind.

But it is also humbling to admit how painstaking and slow it can be to pursue dialogue with the world of unbelief. When my visitors ask how the Council responds to that part of its task I have to take a deep breath and explain that organised dialogue in that sphere is less and less frequent. That is not the result of a conscious decision on anybody’s part. It is probably a sign of the times, in the sense that people are becoming more and more private in what we like to think of as advanced cultures. If any of you have worked in parishes or educational programmes for adults, you will know all too well how difficult it can be to attract people to meetings. If any of you are involved in voluntary organisations – like scouting, for example – you will have seen the change in people’s attitude to commitment. These are signs of “individual privatisation”, if you will pardon that expression. And nowhere is that more true than in the spiritual and religious sphere.

What is challenging is not the encounter between believers and non-believers, or the encounter between faith and culture, but achieving the encounter in the first place. Bringing people together is very difficult. But that does not mean there is no encounter. You all hear complaints from all sorts of people about the way the press and the media deal with religion, or the way poets and playwrights depict the Church or even God. Other religions have the same concerns. But those concerns are the sign that people who claim to have a vantage point outside religion are still very, very interested in what we do as believers, and in the God in whom we believe, as well as the religion to which we belong. Even if it is sometimes a critical relationship, it is still a relationship. It may sometimes resemble the difficult relationship between parents and their adolescent children, but that calls for profound sympathy, genuine wisdom and a sense of humour. Even if partners in dialogue are not always polite to each other, the fact that they are still talking is a very good basis for hope in better communications in future.

Think back to Saint Kevin. The blackbird came to him by mistake, but he did not hurl her away. He was “overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small”, as Heaney said in nineteen ninety-five, in his Nobel lecture in Stockholm. The conclusion of the poem brings home the enormity and the beauty of Kevin’s response, which Heaney describes as

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name”.

Heaney described the story of Saint Kevin with a profound insight, one that fits the Irish soul perfectly, if I may say so. For him, it is “a story out of Ireland. But… it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas”. He does not see it as yet another typical folk tale, or something of limited value in a multi-cultural context. “On the contrary, its trustworthiness and its travel-worthiness have to do with its local setting”. He says all this because for him, the story of Saint Kevin is one of those that “function as bearers of value”. He contrasts the defeat of Nazism by force with the “erosion of the Soviet regimes… by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of the kind that these stories and images enshrine”. It is a particularly Irish insight because it fits the character of the “Land of Saints and Scholars”, the culture that did so much to maintain and develop Christianity and culture in general even in distant parts of Europe; that springs from an awareness of common humanity, a bond much stronger than diversity and divisiveness. It is also particularly Irish in that it speaks of tenacity in the form of the patience of a saint.

In the context of the Irish Centre for Faith and Culture, one can see men and women of faith adopting a posture that seems so curious to the many even within Ireland who now see themselves as outsiders in terms of institutional Christianity. But that posture is one that cannot be contained within the four walls of the institutional building. There is an outstretched arm that, sooner or later, attracts the attention of the other, who comes for purposes quite different from those of the person within the Church. People may often come here with their own agendas, with unexpected eggs to lay. The patience of a Saint Kevin will not question that but simply accept it, until the time is ripe. It is more important to welcome than to interrogate, and that is the legendary hospitality of the Irish. It is important to ensure that it is not just a legend from the past, but something lived in new ways in this new Millennium. For women and men of faith, hospitality offered to those who do not believe, or those who are simply curious, is born of the pity or sympathy that overwhelmed Saint Kevin, and of his conviction that all life is to be loved. To be Church in this day and age is to reach outwards, not to be locked away as the disciples were before Pentecost, but to have that fire of the Spirit who filled them with vigour and enthusiasm to find new ways of expressing their faith, a whole new language that all could understand. The Irish Centre for Faith and Culture is a powerful symbol of the Church’s openness to the culture in which it lives, not a readiness to be absorbed by the dominant fashions and trends, but a love for people and places that makes Christians eager to make a real difference.

Wise patience is behind the pastoral method used by one of the Members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Bishop Adriaan van Luyn of Rotterdam. He has used the image of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus as a guide to approaching people not sure of their faith. Jesus did not correct the two distraught, confused disciples in their misunderstanding or bombard them with information, but established a rapport of trust by asking them why they were so downcast as they walked along the road. He listened and went with them, gradually unfolding the meaning of Scripture and then revealing himself in the action of breaking bread. What Bishop van Luyn points out is that Jesus went along the road with these two men who were actually going in the wrong direction. He did not abandon them, but kept them company. They turned back of their own accord. It may often appear easier to tell people where they are going wrong, but this wise psychology of Christ is probably far more effective in the long run. It is an example of dialogue that is patient and yet bold enough to tell the truth at the appropriate moment. I have no doubt that a Church known for patience and wisdom in equal doses would have great success in establishing occasions for dialogue, and that is equally true of a Church institution like this Centre.

Sometimes, or even quite often, the work of dialogue, like much of the Church’s work, does not seem to achieve very much. Here again, we are challenged to have the patience of a saint. But we also have great encouragement to persevere, even in the face of apparent failure, from what Pope John Paul has written in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, which marks the close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. He mentions the great number of fish the fishermen in Simon’s boat caught after telling them to “put out into deep water” – Duc in altum – (Luke 5:4). In Luke’s account, we are told that Simon was very dubious, since they had worked hard all night and caught nothing. We all know that feeling. It can be extremely frustrating and discouraging to labour for long hours, days, weeks or even years on some project connected with preaching the values of the Gospel, to be faced with apathy or even failure. The Pope’s challenge, the evangelist Luke’s challenge, is to hear the Lord’s words of encouragement and to persevere in our task, whatever that is. If you are “measuring” Irish society, or any society, you will discover both positive and negative data, and it may be either refreshing or alarming what values and beliefs you discover in the hearts of the present generation, but you and I are asked to have the patience of a saint and not to lose heart in the attempt to understand and to make a difference to our cultures. The areas in which the Pope sees the greatest challenges today are also listed in his Apostolic Letter. They are the prospect of an ecological crisis, the problems of peace, contempt for the fundamental rights of so many people, especially children. He stresses the duty all people have to respect the life of every human being and to use the latest advances of science with clear ethical principles. The whole picture is held together by the fundamental conviction that human solidarity makes every person responsible for every other person (no. 51).

Today would normally be the day your fellow Catholics in England celebrate one of their favourite saints, Saint Thomas More. Thomas, who is now acknowledged by the Catholic Church as the patron of politicians, was praised by Erasmus of Rotterdam in these words: “Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, whose soul was whiter than the whitest snow, whose genius was so great that, though she be the mother of great spirits, England never had an equal and never will”. His erudition and spiritual depth, his piety and his humour were all very attractive features of the man, but something in the prayers for today’s feast is an important reminder of one of the greatest challenges to Christians. It is Thomas’ poignant expression of a double loyalty, when he told King Henry the Eighth: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first”. He was executed for treason, because he refused to let a human authority hold sway over God’s will. It is a situation the Irish nation understands well, as do your Catholic brothers and sisters in Britain, but it is not local folklore, any more than the story of Saint Kevin. Saint Thomas More is a beacon in the darkness that descends when we are asked to compromise our beliefs and our values. He is a reminder of what it costs to step outside the limits of our culture and see things from a more universal perspective. We can never leave our culture behind, and we should never despise it, or think ourselves above it. But we should never be culture’s slaves, either.

I shall finish with a reflection from the Pope’s recent Apostolic Letter. “A new century, a new millennium are opening in the light of Christ. But not everyone can see this light. Ours is the wonderful and demanding task of becoming its ‘reflection’. This is the mysterium lunae, which was so much a part of the contemplation of the Fathers of the Church, who employed this image to show the Church’s dependence on Christ, the Sun whose light she reflects. It was a way of expressing what Christ himself said when he called himself the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12) and asked his disciples to be ‘the light of the world’ (Matt 5:14). This is a daunting task if we consider our human weakness, which often renders us opaque and full of shadows. But it is a task which we can accomplish if we turn to the light of Christ and open ourselves to the grace which makes us a new creation” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 54).


Further information:
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 804
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797