Pioneer Total Abstinence Association /Matt Talbot Pilgrimage to Knock – Homily by Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois

20 Jul 2008

20 July 2008

Pioneer Total Abstinence Association /Matt Talbot Pilgrimage to Knock – Homily by Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois

“Reparation for excessive drinking is one of the pillars of pioneer spirituality … and it calls for a certain generosity of spirit which is very central to Christian life as a whole” Bishop O’Reilly
There are many people who are appealing to authority, in State and Church, to speak strong words of condemnation on the subject of excessive drinking. Very explicitly some have asked clergy to speak “from their altars and stop beating around the bush” on this great social problem of our time. I am not so sure of how effective that approach will ever be in putting our society back on track in this area. In any event that is not the place to go today. The people before me here in Knock are not the ones who are creating the problems which are being dealt with by the Courts every month of the year.

The Gospel reading you have just heard suggested to me that I take a different approach today. Jesus had to deal with impetuosity in his apostles. For instance, they once wanted him to call down fire from heaven upon those who would not listen to his word. He would have none of it. The parable that he uses in the Gospel read in today’s Mass makes the same point. The wise landowner in the story had to convince his workers that their suggested solution to the problem of weeds among the wheat would in fact do more harm than good. Yes, they could indeed tear up the weeds but the wheat would be destroyed in the process. The better solution was to wait until the harvest and separate the wheat from the darnel and in that way save the crop.

The great founders of the Temperance Movements whose vision is still alive in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association came to believe that the problem of abuse of alcohol would be best addressed by taking a positive approach. Father Theobald Mathew and Father James Cullen were convinced that something other than condemnation or legislation was needed. They invested their best effort in motivating people, an approach which has proved in fact to be the better way.

I was very pleased when I was asked to be celebrant and preacher today to concentrate on the spirituality of the Association. So I gladly leave aside the social analysis which throws light on the problems of excess. Instead I want to reinforce the conviction that you surely share that temperance and total abstinence are choices based on Christian conviction.

When I thought through the basic aspects of the spirituality of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, I came to a conclusion which took me by surprise. I left the main road, you might say, in my journey. Let me tell you where my line of thought has led me. I began with the thought that reparation for excessive drinking is one of the pillars of pioneer spirituality. That, it seems to me, is very important. And it calls for a certain generosity of spirit which is very central to Christian life as a whole. The more I thought about this the more I came to realise that the spirituality of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association has much in common with the spirituality of, for instance, Alcoholics Anonymous, and indeed of people who drink in moderation in a culture afflicted by abuse of alcohol.

Most people know that those courageous people who have recovered sobriety through the AA movement believe they are helpless without “the greater power” that comes from God. Less well known in the fact that they rely heavily on each other to remain sober. So their spiritual strength comes from faith in God supported by mutual help.

What about those who drink in moderation? In our world people, especially young people, find it difficult to be moderate in their drinking, once they take alcohol at all. Where do those who drink in moderation get the strength to remain moderate? There is a prayer which all Mass going people hear every Sunday. “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink”. The wine which is offered at Mass comes from grapes that grow on vines. The wine is nature’s gift. It is therefore God’s gift. It is also the gift of civilisation going back deep into human history. The spiritual basis of moderation I believe has to be respect for the great gift of God’s creation and for the gift of human ingenuity as well. I fear that this way of thinking is rare in our land. Some cultures are better than we are. In Italy, where the lowest level of abuse of alcohol in Europe is found, there is, on the one hand, a great abhorrence of drunkenness and, on the other, a great tradition of enjoyment of food and wine which is truly wonderful to see. If only those who drink in moderation in Ireland could see how wholesome their lifestyle is when shared by the majority of a country’s population.

I have been speaking about the spirituality which underpins the Alcoholics Anonymous movement which is based on trust in God and reliance on mutual support. The spirituality of moderation is quite similar, drawing its strengths from a great respect for God’s creation and our interdependence on each other to make the most of God’s gifts.

Where does the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association get its motivation? I would like to state this in very simple terms. In fact I want to put it in the context of a comment I heard from an Irish politician who held a prominent position in Brussels. I heard him explain that the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association pin which he always wore was frequently the subject of conversation when he met colleagues in Europe. Most of these did not understand what it signified. Their best guess was that it had something to do with the fact that he may have been a blood donor, the heart on the badge suggesting this, I expect.

When I heard this long ago I remember thinking that while European politicians and civil servants were mistaken in regard to the meaning of the pin, they were not far from what is at the core of the pioneer contribution to society. Yes, the pioneer is in the business of giving. The giving is two-fold. The primary motivation is giving back love to Christ, whose thirst on the cross was primarily thirst for our love. The other aspect of the giving is linked to giving good example and to reparation.

Looking at the broad picture which includes the survivors of serious addiction, the well motivated moderate, temperate person and the total abstainer, all have these things in common: trust in God to keep them faithful to where they stand and concern for others. The members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association add something more. The quality of their commitment gives the lie to those who would say that people act only out of self-interest. This Association is an antidote to cynicism. In a world that finds it hard to believe in the power of motivation, proof of the opposite is especially needed. May the Association never cease to inspire and never lack members to keep its spiritual message alive.

Notes for Editors:

  • Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, leads the 2008 Pioneer Total Abstinence Association/Matt Talbot Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine on Sunday 20 July. Knock is Ireland’s National Marian Shrine and is visited by over one and a half million pilgrims annually.
  • The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) is a voluntary organisation whose mission is to address the problems in society caused by excess alcohol and addiction. The PTAA was founded by Fr James Cullen SJ in 1898. Its current membership in Ireland is 150,000. Fr Joe Dargan SJ is the Chairperson of the PTAA Board of Management.
  • For Lent 2008 the Irish Bishops’ Drugs and Alcohol Initiative (IBDI) produced a special web feature on, which includes:
  1. The DVD on alcohol: Find the Balance – Dare to Dream which was commissioned by the IBDI, distributed to secondary schools across Ireland and is available to all on YouTube;
  2. The Bishops’ Conference pastoral letter Alcohol: The Challenge of Moderation in English, Irish and Polish; and,
  3. The IBDI’s submission to the Government’s Alcohol Advisory Group.
  • The focus of this year’s PTAA annual pilgrimage will be on the spirituality of the Association. The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick will be celebrated at 2.30pm followed by Mass at 3.00pm. In attendance will be the Association’s President, Mr Shane Kitson, and its Spiritual Director, Fr Bernard McGuckian SJ.
  • The PTAA is both a pastoral and a social movement. Pioneers seek their inspiration from their devotion to Christ as manifested in his Sacred Heart, which is a symbol of his love for every single person. This love is especially central to those who are dedicated and devote their lives to the welfare of their brothers and sisters with serious alcohol or drugs problems, and for the victims of alcohol and drug abuse. The spiritual foundation of the Association’s witness, prayer and action is what makes the PTAA unique among temperance associations. This spiritual base gives the members a great sense of confidence in their ability to promote sobriety in their community, despite adverse trends and opposition from strong commercial forces. In this sense, it is clear that the Association is primarily part of the pastoral mission of the Church at the local, regional and national levels.
  • Venerable Matt Talbot

Matt Talbot (1856 – 1925) was born in the poverty of Dublin’s inner city. He began drinking at twelve years of age and became a chronic alcoholic. After sixteen years he decided to ‘kick the habit’. A priest helped him, giving him a rehabilitation programme, which providentially incorporated the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). That was fifty years before AA was founded. After a great struggle, he found sobriety through prayer and self-sacrifice. He remained sober for forty years until his death. His life story has been an inspiration for alcoholics and addicts throughout the world. Matt Talbot was declared Venerable in 1973 and is a candidate for canonisation.


Further information:
Martin Long, Director of the Catholic Communications Office 0861727678
Noreen Brady, Chairperson of the Spirituality Committee of the PTAA 087 9740730