Homily Of Most Rev John Fleming, Bishop Of Killala on the occasion of the commencement of The Michaelmas Law Term 2003, Monday 6th October 2003

06 Oct 2003


6 October 2003




Issued by the Catholic Communications Office on behalf of

Most Rev John Fleming, Bishop of Killala

I would like to share with you this morning a brief reflection on the letter written
by the angel to the Church at Ephesus, which we have just heard.

Ephesus was to Asia Minor in the first century what Dublin is to Ireland today. The
other six churches, who also received angelic epistles, were the then equivalents
of the other Irish cities and the Christian communities that made up those seven
churches in Asia Minor were as different in character and temperament as our
equivalents are today. The Ephesians were, by all accounts, ordinary folk who
followed the Christian message of love in what might be termed a simple fashion.
Despite living in a centre of intellectual life, they were not very well versed
in the developing theology of the first century. Simplicity and tenacity seem to
have been the qualities that distinguished them. John acknowledged this in today’s
second reading. He commends them for their hard work, their patience and tolerance,
their courage, their no nonsense approach to less than acceptable standards in
everyday life, their ability to put up with hardship and their untiring nature.

However, despite these plaudits, you can almost see John in a Court room, having
listened carefully to the defence put forward by one of their number. In cross-
examination he probes a little deeper and with legal precision he hones in on the
weakness of their argument; the difference between their present commitment and
the enthusiasm with which they began their Christian lives. The closing line of
his summary is telling: “you have less love now than you used to. Think of where
you were before you fell; repent and do as you used to at first.” (Rev 2: 5-6).

Your work in the multi-faceted task of the administration of justice brings many
members of your profession face to face with human nature and the human condition
in all the elements of its weakness, brokenness and limitations on a regular basis.
Despite the human reaction so aptly highlighted in the speech-writer’s glossary for
Winston Churchill “argument weak, shout”; behind the defence and the bluster which
often presents itself to you, there can be a crushed spirit and a fractured life.
A lifetime dedicated to facing this reality calls for in you all the qualities
outlined by John in his letter to the Ephesians, hard work, tolerance, patience,
the ability to uncover the truth and, most challenging of all, the strength never
to grow tired, cynical or weary.

The criticism which John made about the quality of the love shown by the Ephesians
is one which is also relevant for all of us, especially for those of us whose work
brings us in direct daily contact with people. “You have less love now than you
used to have” is a warning which each one of us must constantly keep before our
eyes in whatever life commitments we have made in priesthood, marriage, the law,
medicine or whatever. For it challenges us to constantly keep a fresh, forgiving,
understanding human touch in our approach to our work and to life.

The second part of the angel’s admonition is also relevant to the work which you
do and the people you encounter. Each day, I am sure, you are tempted to say to
your erring or convicted client the equivalent of “Think of where you were before
you fell; repent and do as you used at first.” The key word in that admonition is
“repent”. The problem which those who are convicted as well as those who administer
justice and, indeed, all of us in society today, face is that the freedom to repent
and be forgiven is often limited by the demand for revenge. The “eye for an eye
and tooth for a tooth” philosophy of the pre-Christian era still exists in a certain
sense in our society today and often compromises or even denies us the freedom to
repent, to forgive and be forgiven. I sometimes feel that the open, spontaneous,
forgiving youthful love of the early church at Ephesus would find it hard to gain
a foothold in our society today. I venture to suggest, however, that it is only
when society gives the security of forgiveness to its citizens that their ability
for repentance, reform and the beginning of a new life can truly take hold, for
the betterment of themselves and of society itself.

Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book The Dignity of Difference, says “Justice and
forgiveness go hand-in-hand. Each is an answer to the problem of revenge and neither
is sufficient on its own. Justice takes the sense of wrong and transforms it from
personal retaliation, namely revenge, to the impersonal process of law, namely
retribution. Forgiveness is the further acknowledgement that justice alone may
not be enough to silence the feelings of the afflicted. Even when the evidence
has been taken, the verdict passed and the sentence imposed, there is a residue
of pain and grief which has to be discharged. Justice is the impersonal, forgiveness
the personal restoration of the moral order. Justice rights wrongs; forgiveness
rebuilds broken relationships.”

The human imagination has always been fascinated by the work which you do. The
drama which surrounds the element of debate and the definition which comes with
judgement has fascinated writers from the age of Micah, in the first reading,
through John in the second, past Matthew in the Gospel down to today’s paperback,
television newsflash and frontpage feature. The human reality behind the drama,
however, is always in danger of being quickly forgotten. Once the cry for justice
and retribution is satisfied a human being is in danger of being left alone to
languish, with little hope of healing, little prospect of forgiveness and the
freedom to repent and make a new life for themselves and their families in grave

The visitor to Ephesus has still much to say to us today. If we could somehow
accommodate its angelic spirit in the Autumn of 2003 I am sure that the angel
would remind us once more of the need for forgiveness as a prelude for repentance
and the ultimate betterment of society.

6th October 2003

Further information:
Catholic Communications Office: (01) 505 3000
Fr Martin Clarke: (087) 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm: (087) 233 7797