Homily of Bishop of Elphin, Dr Christopher Jones at the Annual 1916 Commemoration Mass at Arbour Hill

07 May 2008

7 May 2008

Homily of Bishop of Elphin, Dr Christopher Jones at the
Annual 1916 Commemoration Mass at Arbour Hill

‘Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ,
even if we are troubled or worried or being persecuted or lacking of food
or clothing or being threatened or even attacked. These are the trials
through which we triumph by the power of Him who loved us.’
(Letter of Paul to the Romans Chapter 8, Versus 35-37).

“I believe that these words have proved true in the ups and downs, the trials and triumphs of our own history. Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ.” – Bishop Jones

We gather today once again to remember and pray for our people who died in the 1916 Rising. We believe that in and through the Lord we are in communion with all of our loved ones who have gone before us. We pray for them because we know that, like us, they were sinners and therefore may need our prayers. And as we pray for them we also celebrate the century of freedom that we have enjoyed because of them. The Rising led to the war of Independence, to the Treaty and to the founding of the Free State. While the Church had problems regarding armed rebellion it gave its blessing to the Free State when it was founded.

I thought that for a few moments we might ask ourselves this morning how the men and women of 1916 would feel about the way in which we used the freedom that was purchased at such a cost.

Struggle of Previous Centuries
As a people we had struggled through periods of plantations. of penal laws, of persecution and of famine. Through it all our bishops, priests and religious struggled with our people guiding them with the light of faith and giving them the light of hope through dark and difficult times. It was because of all this that our Church exercised so much influence in the first half of the twentieth century. It is said that the relationship between Church and State was symbiotic. It wasn’t good for the Church or for the State but it is so important to see where it came from.

Church and State
Louise Fuller in her book “Irish Catholicism since 1950” says and I quote: “One of the most outstanding features of Irish culture in the post independence era was the extent to which the State by the actions, words and public appearances of its representatives legitimated the Catholic Ethos. An alliance was formed between the Catholic Church Authorities and the Free State Government during the Civil war years and W.T. Cosgrave during his tenure of office looked to the Church to augment the authority of his Government”. In a St. Patrick’s Day Broadcast to the United States in 1935 De Valera saw Catholic Ireland and the Irish Nation as synonymous. “Since the coming of St. Patrick fifteen hundred years ago Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic Nation. All the ruthless attempts made through the centuries to force her from this allegiance has not shaken her faith. She remains a Catholic Nation” (Irish Press 18 March 1935).

And again speaking to the Irish people in a Broadcast in 1943 he said: “The Island we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to things of the spirit” (Irish Press 18 March 1943).

It is said today that the Church of the early centuries would have been healthier if it had not become so identified with the Roman Empire. The same can now be said about the relationship between the Church and State in the first half of twentieth century Ireland but as you say yourself Taoiseach – “if hindsight were foresight we would never made mistakes”.

Missionary Enterprise
It is interesting to see that right from 1916 there was a magnificent response from Ireland to the call of the Missions. In 1916 itself the Society of St. Columbanus founded the Maynooth Mission to Church.

In 1921 Agnes Ryan founded the Holy Rosary Sisters and Mother Mary Martin founded the Medical Missionaries of Mary. In 1932 St. Patrick’s Missionary Society of Kiltegan was founded. Today we have Irish Missionaries in almost every missionary country of the world. They provided educational facilities everywhere because they saw education as the only key that would unlock the prisons of poverty and empower people to take control of their own lives. Indeed it is most encouraging to hear you, our President and indeed our Taoiseach refer frequently to the work of our missionaries. It was interesting to hear you say that it was support from countries where Irish missionaries work that helped to secure Ireland’s place on the security Council of the United Nations and to hear Peter Sutherland say on RTE Radio that he became Chairman of G.A.T.T with support from the same countries.

Faith at Home
I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s when Faith was in the very air we breathed. The Irish economy was based essentially on farming. Life was indeed frugal but very simple. Farmers were almost self-sufficient but could not provide employment. Emigration was the scourge of our day. Every morning you got up there were more young boys and girls gone from our community to England or the States. One can only imagine the loneliness of those young people who found themselves so far away from home in often very poor accommodation and searching for a job. We should remember all of this when immigrants come to our country and our parishes.

After primary school the only choice was the boat for those who could not afford fees for second level. I was one of the fortunate few who did not have to go. To this day I go to the annual dinner dances in Manchester, Birmingham and London to be in solidarity with our people who have earned their livelihood with dignity and who sent so much money home, One man told me one night that in the 1950’s he was earning £5. a week and sending £3 home His father was working for the County Council earning £2 weekly for his family. The money of emigrants contributed to the birth to the Celtic Tiger.

Rapid Social Change
As I was ordained priest in Maynooth in 1962, I had no idea of the changes, the challenges and the crosses that were on their way. The decision of Lemass and the Irish Government in 1957 to invite foreign investment would generate great employment and prosperity and bring about rapid social change in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is said that in England and the United States they had the nineteenth century to adjust to the Industrial Revolution but we had only a few decades. Industrialization and Urbanisation came in the 1960’s and we saw nuclear families leaving the support of the extended family and following the jobs into the bigger towns and cities.

The pressure of living in housing estates would wreak havoc on marriages and families. Bishop Birch of Kilkenny founded the Kilkenny Social Service Council and within a short time we had social service councils in Ennis, Limerick, Dublin, Cork and Sligo. Ten years after ordination I was sent to U.C.D. to study Social Science and come back as the first Administrator of Sligo Social Service Council in 1973. Thank God it has gone from strength to strength with the support of the HSE and Sligo City Council.

A variety of services was provided to support families and keep them together from meals on wheels to community play schools which gave young mothers with children a break. Qualified social workers provided professional services for marriages and families in difficulty. Home Management advice was provided for those who could not budget adequately. Nurseries were provided for children from homes of violence and in 1984 we built the first house in the West with self-contained units for parents and children from broken and violent homes. Families found themselves in estates where they knew no one, where the breadwinner was away all day and usually it was the wife that was left at home with young children. Many of them suffered from depression and nervous breakdowns.

Survey on Divorce
Durkheim one of the founders of Social Science did research on divorce. One of the findings was that in times of rapid social change people found themselves in a state of anomie – a normless vacuum without any support, norms or customs to guide them. It is in such situations that young people especially are tempted to escape the pain of loneliness and depression.

The Travelling Community
Industrialization and Urbanization made a huge impact on marriage and family life but the Travelling Community probably suffered most. The development of plastics robbed them of the only skill and trade they knew and in doing so robbed them also of their pride, their self-esteem and sense of self worth. They began to live on the margins of towns and cities where social-welfare was available and indeed the chance of a few bob from passers by.

Victor Bewley and Fr. Fehily founded the National Council for Travelling People which formed committees in parishes all over the country, pioneered services in education and training and promoted the development of Group Housing Schemes and Halting Sites. I succeeded Victor Bewley as Chairperson of the National Council and as Special Advisor to the Minister for the Environment on issues of accommodation. I believe that the difficulties with some Travelling People today is due to the legacy of neglect and rejection by all of us over the years.

The European Community
We entered the European Community in 1973. It consists today of twenty seven States. We remember how the vision of a Europe living in harmony was influenced by the Christian faith of its founders. The West German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer, the Italian Statesman Alcide de Gaspari and the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman – the founders of the European Community were not only committed Catholics but also recognized how Catholic Social Teaching could contribute to a new Europe – one founded on respect for human dignity and the promotion of the common good. The community emerged after the horror of two world wars which left sixty million people dead. The founders believed that it was possible to heal the ravages of war and promote peace through political, economic and social cooperation.

Speaking on the European Community in Vienna on the 7th September 2007 Pope Benedict said: “the process of unification remains the most significant achievement which has brought a period of peace heretofore unknown to the Continent formerly consumed by constant conflicts and fatal fratricidal wars”. We celebrate the contribution of Irish men and women to the community and must be forever grateful for the financial support we have received.

Ireland’s Contribution to World Peace

It is encouraging and gratifying to remember that over the second half of the twentieth century our Irish Forces under the Flag of the United Nations have helped to bring peace to war-torn countries for example the Congo, Cyprus, Lebannon, Liberia and Chad. Indeed many of our soldiers have died abroad in the pursuit of peace. I had the privilege of experiencing the work of our forces on the ground in the Lebanon and the relationship they had formed with the native communities. Indeed it must be a great cause of pride for all of us, that due to Ireland’s contribution and expertise in the past the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Chad today is under the command of an Irish Officer.

Peace in Our Land

The Peace Agreement in the North of our land has to be the greatest achievement of our time. Most of us believe it is truly miraculous that men and women who have been locked in hatred, violence and death for decades are now sitting at the same table and administering the affairs of their people. Your words on Capitol Hill last week Taoiseach “Ireland is at Peace” must be the final words in the story of conflict that has lasted for centuries.

Changes and Challenges of the Last Fifty Years
The Church in the 1950’s was stable and unchanging. It was parish based. As we say it had huge influence in the first half of the twentieth century but circumstances and challenges have changed all of that.

In the last fifty years Ireland has changed from a rural to a largely urban society. We have changed from a mostly primary educated to a third level educated society. We have changed from being a small island on the margins of Europe to an island that is now an integral part of Europe which has taken on much of the social, cultural and secular values of Europe. We have come through the controversies and indeed the conflicts that surrounded the Referenda relating to Life and Marriage.

The Scandals of C.S.A.

Perhaps the most important lessons our society and especially our Church has learned is that we are a sinful people struggling to repent for our past and to discover the healing mercy of God in our lives. We have learned this lesson in many areas of life but especially in the pain and the shame of the child-sexual-abuse scandals especially by priests and religious. I believe that through it all, however embarrassing and painful the experiences, our Church has become more humble, more honest and more transparent. We have discovered with St. Paul that when we are weak then we are strong. (2 Cor. 10 -12).

Immediate Challenge for Church and State

All of us in Church and State have a definite responsibility to take on the following challenges immediately:

– the integration of our Migrants;
– the support of Marriage and Family into the future;
– the elimination of drugs, delinquency and crime;

Most people today believe that it is in and through parishes and communities of care and of faith that we can make the stranger welcome, support marriages and families especially through periods of crises and provide the community facilities in every big housing estate that will involve the youth of the community. Our communities must become more and more inclusive so that everyone from the native to the immigrant, from the poorest to the richest, from the weakest to the strongest will experience a sense of being wanted, valued and trusted.

And so we return to the question we asked at the very beginning:
How would the people who died in 1916 feel about how we have used our freedom purchased at such cost. I genuinely believe that they would be very proud of the progress made. They would know that we had little money until the second half of the century and they would be amazed at our rapid economic development and at the revolution that has taken place in our education, health and Social Welfare Services.

I believe that like all of us who experienced the education, health and social services before the 1960’s they would be amazed at the progress made by a small nation. We remember the small dark primary schools with dry toilets and no running water or electricity. We remember when access to second or third level education was for the privileged few. We remember the health services that operated under County Councils before the Health Board came in 1971. And we remember also the miserable assistance available for the unemployed, the disabled, the single mother and others. While constructive criticism is always a help we must thank God for the remarkable progress we have seen in all those areas. No doubt they would rejoice also in the success we have achieved in sport, music and song throughout the world.

I believe that people like Pierce and Plunkett would be disappointed to see how materialism has possessed so many hearts and minds and pushed God from the centre to the sidelines. No doubt they would rejoice also in the success we have achieved in sport and music and song throughout the world.

I believe they would be very proud that we have a President who represents all that is best and beautiful of our country and our culture and who through her visits abroad has earned the admiration and respect of Nations for herself and for all of us whom she represents.

I believe Taoiseach they would be very proud and amazed to see how you have led our people to a level of prosperity undreamt of fifty years ago. I believe they would be extremely proud to see the leader of our small nation address the London Parliament and in both houses on Capitol Hill. I believe they would be proud of the huge contribution you have made to the European Community and they would truly rejoice at the way you persevered in your pursuit of peace in the North of our Land.

I also genuinely believe that the people of 1916 would be extremely proud and grateful for the work of reconciliation that you Dr. Martin McAleese have been progressing so quietly and effectively over the years. John Hume always said that the greatest barriers and divisions were in the minds and hearts of Unionists and Nationalists. You have been knocking down those barriers and divisions and I hope that all of us will have the opportunity of participating in your great mission of peace.

May the Lord grant our people the Peace and Joy of His Kingdom now and forever. Amen.

+Christopher Jones


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