Archbishop Diarmuid Martin Presentation and Dialogue on the Book of Mgr Luigi Giussani BEYOND OPTIMISM

09 Jan 2009

9 January 2009

Presentation and Dialogue on the Book of Mgr Luigi Giussani

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin speaking notes

National College of Ireland, Dublin, 9 January 2009

Being a Bishop in these times can be very frustrating.  There are many challenges to face in the Church in Ireland today, above all that of proclaiming the Gospel in such a way as to help and accompany young people on a path of faith. 

We have to face that challenge of renewal today within Church structures which find themselves with a “trust deficit”.  As we have seen in these days, we have to face scandals, or better said we have to face the scandal of the suffering of people whose trust in the Church was abused and then not recognised. 

Here in Ireland, when I was younger, if you did your Leaving Certificate examination through the medium of Irish you got a bonus on your mark – I think it was either a 10% or 15% – just for that fact.   Today for the Church to make a credible statement on many aspects of public life or simply to talk about faith you start out with the opposite. You start out with a substantial percentage of credibility deficit.

In such a climate, how does one really begin to speak about faith?  How does one attempt to reach out and lead young people on a journey of faith, when they in many ways have lost trust in a Church which many young people find no longer just “irrelevant” but a Church in which many young people say they have very little confidence. 

How does one begin to speak with young people about a faith which seems to demand from them that they row against the tide of many of the dominant cultural trends of their peers and when at the same time many young people have become sceptical of the results of what the Church is asking of them.  These are the everyday challenges which not just bishops, but above all parents face.

Perhaps I should stop here in case I give the impression that a commentator on a book about hope, and an Archbishop at that, might seem to be losing hope himself in the face of the pastoral challenges that have to be faced.  And many might be happy to say to me that I have many good reasons for losing hope.

The book we are reflecting on this evening, already from its title Beyond Optimism – Hope, gives us some indication as to the answer to the question of finding hope in a world where there are many reasons for not being optimistic.  It does so strangely by warning us about optimism.  It is hard to hope when times are not optimistic.  Don Giussani reminds us that it might well be even harder to hope in times when society is registering uncritical optimism. 

I am not saying this to repeat the sort of cliché being bandied about in the period after the serious illness of the Celtic Tiger, namely, that a little bit of depression and recession will do us all good and we will repent our superficiality and get back to living more serious, sober and more spiritual lives.  It does not work out that way. 

Those who liked the highlife when things were high, will find a way of living an albeit reduced highlife even when things are not so good, while those who worked hard to make ends meet when things were going well for others, will find themselves the first victims of an economic turn down.  That would not be a situation about which anyone could rejoice.

Where things are not objectively optimistic, then it is foolish to be optimistic; but that does not mean that it is foolish to have hope.  Nor does it mean that hope is just some sort of narcotic which helps us to bear with it when times are not so good.  

It is harder to recognise when optimism is false optimism which can quickly deceive us into false hope.  I say false hope and not false hopes, because hope is not simply a series of quantifiable, predictable outcomes of a mechanism.   Hope is deeper.  It is never just an outcome; it is a way of life.

Hope is true realism.  It is a realism founded on what is true and real; but this truth and this reality are often not what we expect.  Hope does not come from having and possessing and being powerful or being in control.   Hope is not just the fruit of our own endeavour.

I was reflecting the other day on the Gospel narrative of the visit to the Magi to Jesus.  It recalls the wise men who having been led by a mysterious star, take the risk of setting out to follow it. They then seek advice from a wily yet hypocritical politician who responds with lies, and hear the advice of scholars who can read texts but perhaps not really believe them.  Strangely this ill-founded counsel still sets them out along the right path, but they only come to truly encounter Jesus when they encounter a sign that is the least expected to be the sign of the presence of the One who was to come, Jesus Christ:  a manger.

Worldly wisdom and political wiliness, scholarly research and understanding of the scriptures, even when coupled by the desire to follow the light of the path of sincere questioning will only lead to the recognition of the identity of Jesus if we also are led to the manger, to a place which symbolises radical detachment from every dimension of wealth and power; a place where the value of human life is not linked to power and prestige, but to the simple detachment of a helpless child.  Jesus cannot be found anywhere else.  Everyone – the powerful, the learned, the wealthy and the celebrity – must make that same journey to the stark simplicity of the manger that the three wise men did.  There is no fast track for anyone.

Jesus can only be found when we strip ourselves of all the human additions and short-lived supports and the fleeting empty hopes which we tend to build around ourselves to create our own self-image, our own identity.  Our true humanity requires no image making.  Human dignity has no privileged corner for the powerful or the prestigious.  It belongs to all identically.   This is because that human dignity, which is the root of hope, is not simply a social construct; it is a given, a gift.

This path to finding Jesus is not one which rests on our own devices.  But it is not something entirely passive.  Following the light requires us at least to take the risk at least of setting out on a journey about which we have no idea where it will lead us to. It requires us, as Giussani points out continuously in his book, to set out on the path towards Another.   This search does not and indeed cannot exempt us from carrying out that search within the realities of a concrete today or tomorrow.  But it involves us coming to the realization that the foundation of hope, within the realities of the world in which we live, involves recognising the demands and the identity of that Another.

Where do we encounter that Another?  This brings us back to the manger. Recognising Jesus means recognising a child who is born entirely by the power of God.  This child, at his birth and in his life, shows us what God’s power is about and what all power is about.  It is about saving and protecting, caring and nurturing and radically transforming humankind.

I come back to where I set out from.  A Christian who betrays trust is inevitably someone who has misplaced his or her own trust. Renewal is not about structures, it is about conversion of each one of us.   Abusing trust means always presuming a power over others which is not ours.   God reveals himself not as one who comes to dominate, but is revealed in Jesus who comes to serve. Hope then is not about me attaining just what I want for myself.  Hope springs from that encounter with that Another who changes me.

I am convinced that so many young people today reject God because they have never been presented with the true God, since many believers so often do not witness to God as God reveals himself.

Renewal in the Church will not be possible simply through accepting or dialoguing with the values of the day.  Dialogue between faith and culture cannot end up being simply polite conversation, it must lead to real challenge;  real challenge based on the manner in which we as Christians have rooted our own values in something different, something beyond us, in that Another who represents the radical otherness of God. 

That is the challenge of evangelization.  That is the challenge also of building a hope-filed society, one which we recognise we need more than ever, but which cannot be attained by our own forces.  As  Pope Benedict XVI recalls in his Encyclical Spe Salvi (#23): “There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God — a kingdom therefore of man alone — inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again”.


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