Archbishop Diarmuid Martin says “situation in Burma is a warning to every society”. Homily notes delivered in the Church of St Michan, on the commencement of the Michaelmas law term 2007

01 Oct 2007


1st October 2007

Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

Church of Saint Michan, 1st October 2007

The words of the Gospel which we have just heard are taken from the farewell discourses of Jesus. They are words which were particularly remembered by the disciples after Jesus’ return to his Father, at a time in which they found themselves more and more in the midst of a hostile world. It is in the midst of hostility that they realise more fully the meaning of the promise of Jesus that he would send them the Holy Spirit as advocate.

In the minds of those who heard this Gospel, the term “advocate” would have been understood in a way very different to the way we understand it today. The advocate in the Jewish courts of the time was not so much a technical expert in the law, but one who placed his own personal standing and reputation at the defence of the accused. Without prejudicing the role of the judge, the advocate’s task was to highlight the figure of the accused in a broader human context.

Similarly, the vision of popular piety at the time was that when a person appeared before the judgement seat of God many forgotten sins would reappear against the person, who thus needed an advocate who would represent the good deeds that had been done and which merited consideration in judging a life in its entirety. The advocate was someone who functioned within the system of the law but as one whose function went beyond the law.

The Spirit is then one who changes the context within which we view or understand reality. When we think in everyday language of the word ‘spirit’, we think of something that is not trapped or confined within material boundaries. The Holy Spirit is the one who has direct access to our hearts, to our interior thoughts and aspirations, to our weaknesses and hopes. The Spirit enters into our hearts and frees us from our fears and anxieties; from the walls of false protection we build around ourselves; from the limits we place on our ability to be truly loving people. The Spirit breaks down within us those obstacles which prevent us from opening our hearts truly to God. The Spirit frees us and frees what is best within us.

We pray then, at the beginning of this law term, that the Spirit will free us and purify us from all self-interest and bring us enlightenment, vision and creativity in our service to the community, through the administration of the law.

In the scriptures, the law and the spirit are often placed in a position of dialogue, at times even contrast; but not in a way which makes them mutually exclusive. We have heard of that tension between spirit and law in all three readings.

The spirit shows the limitations of the law. It reminds us that a world based on law and rules alone would not necessary generate virtue or goodness. The law has it role to play in setting standards of behaviour; it has its role of preventing unjust behaviour, of curbing arrogance and protecting the weak, but on its own it will not create a virtuous society.

Law and its administration belong within the broader context of the formation of a just society, of a community where people live together in relationships of equity and collaboration and caring and of restoring. Law and its administration belong within the community and serve the community. It is only within our understanding of human community that the function of law is fully understood and its administrators can act as spirit filled people.

As men and women who work in different aspects of the administration of justice, you know well that virtue cannot be legislated and yet your concern for the law and your experience must inevitably lead you to have a sense of the importance of virtue, of moral convictions and moral training for the health of our society.

Irish society is changing and when societies change the old social structures come under strain as they attempt to respond both to change and to what must be the constants in ensuring cohesion in society. Ireland is fortunate that we still have lively and solid communities which prove adaptable to change and are at the same time supportive, especially of those who are most vulnerable to change or most vulnerable in a time of change. In parts of our cities that same sense of community is being established only with difficulty and at times is being challenged by organised crime. It is in places where society does not function adequately, that anti-social behaviour finds its breeding ground.

Law will only be an instrument for coming together if it is situated, rooted and owned by our communities. In Irish society there are many movements in the process of redefining and giving new impetus to what is called active citizenship. Families, schools, and churches and volunteer organizations coalesce into communities; they cement the fabric of society and become the primary agents for supporting and transmitting the values which knit us together. Where, working with government and local authorities, communities are enhanced and empowered, they will find the courage to reject false values and build “pro-social” behaviour, behaviour that fosters the building of social virtue.

In speaking of how we address the challenge of violence in Irish society, I have consistently stressed that violence will only be overcome by the mobilization of communities. Law enforcement and community building belong together. Justice is there not just to punish; if it is to be true justice it must be restorative. Justice is not there just to be vindictive; it must always be justice which has a heart.

In his first Encyclical on the love of God, Pope Benedict surprised many when he stressed that “it is not the task of the Church to take on herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible”, this is rather “a central responsibility of politics”. By politics he means not political parties but the broader agenda of a society in which human reason and creativity are placed at the service of the common good. The Pope stresses that “Justice is the aim and the intrinsic criterion for politics”.

The Pope quotes Saint Augustine who said that “a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves”. If we want an example of this, we can look at the tragic situation unfolding in these days in Burma.

Burma is a country I know personally and for which I have for years had a great interest and concern. Who could not be moved by the contrast between, on the one hand, the peaceful march of the Buddhist monks, clad in their simple robes and devoid of any of the traditional symbols and trappings of power, and on the other hand the exercise of sheer power on the part of a corrupt and cynical regime which is devoid even of an ideology except that of holding on to power.

The example of Burma is a clear one of the significance of virtue, of moral convictions and moral training for the health a society. The peaceful marchers, the dignity of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi contrast with a regime which has degenerated into brutality, because of the total absence of moral convictions. It is also a warning to every society, including our own, of the results of what Pope Benedict in the same Encyclical called an: “ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests”

As the new law term begins, standing here before the Lord, we pray that the Holy Spirit, the advocate, will guide us in a task which is indeed beyond our own capacities. Through a constant purification of our own hearts may our advocate guide us as we work together for that essential task which each generation must take up anew: building a just society, of building a spirit-filled society.

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