Cardinal Brady address to the priests and people of the Diocese of Kerry

13 Jan 2009

13 January 2009


Address given by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland to the priests and people of the Diocese of Kerry

Malton Hotel, Killarney, Co Kerry

  • As we face into a year which will see many challenges to hope in our own country, we need witnesses to hope. As we face into a year which will see the Church here confronted with the painful reality of its own human failings, we need voices of hope.
  • What is happening in Gaza is appalling and we should all pray that the current military offensive by Israel as well as the attacks by Hamas on Israelis will stop immediately.
  • Is the global economic crisis really the most urgent problem in the world today or is it the failure to build global structures of solidarity, justice and peace?
  • Ireland has a proud tradition of generous, selfless and heroic priests and religious. They have been beacons of humanity and hope at home and across the world for many years. Hope is born of courage.
  • There is no pastoral issue more critical for the Church in Ireland today than to ensure the right attitudes and the right procedures are in place to safeguard children.
  • It is a challenge to our imagination to come up with initiatives that will allow the Word of God to reach everyone, especially those in our parish communities who have been catechised but who may not have been evangelised – those who know about Christ but who do not know Christ

Thank you, Bishop Murphy, for your very generous words and your kind invitation to be here today. I am conscious that in coming to Kerry I am not only in a diocese but also in a Kingdom! Kerry is a Diocese with a reputation for the strong faith of its people as well as religious and priests of outstanding generosity and service. Whether on the football field or in the field of faith, it is often said that Kerry sets the ‘gold standard’ for the rest of the country: Today I am happy to admit its success on the field of faith! As regards the football field, all I can say is that in Cavan we believe when you beat Kerry in an All-Ireland you have actually won two all-Irelands! I thank you most sincerely for having me here today.

In wondering what I might say to you this evening on the theme of Contemporary Ireland and the Church I was drawn to three events which made a lasting impact on me in the last year.

The first was a visit to the Gaza strip in April.

The second was the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec in June and

The third was the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church held in Rome last October.

I thought I might share some thoughts on each of these with you. They put a kind of Eucharistic structure on the year just past: a celebration of the Word, a reflection on the Eucharist and the mission of a small, but very committed, Catholic community bringing Christian dignity and hope to a society in despair.

The conviction which underlies my reflection is this: in a world which yearns for hope, Christians are called to be witnesses to hope. We are bearers of hope – the hope of the Gospel – a hope – as St. Paul reminds us – that cannot be confounded. It is a hope that comes from the knowledge that God-is-with-us. It is a hope that comes from knowing Jesus Christ who conquered evil and despair. It is a hope that comes from knowing that the message of the Gospel is the way to a just, sustainable and united future for the human family. It is the hope that comes from peace, mercy and understanding healing an often anxious and volatile world.

As we face into a year which will see many challenges to hope in our own country, we need witnesses to hope. As we face into a year which will see the Church here confronted with the painful reality of its own human failings, we need voices of hope. We need courageous voices which can identify and challenge the attitudes which have put our spiritual, moral and economic resources in Ireland at risk. We need balanced and constructive voices to remind us that these resources, while shaken to the core, are more than capable of a strong recovery.

We need voices of hope that can point to the seeds of that recovery already beginning to emerge in the talent and confidence of our young people like those who took part recently in the BT Young Scientist competition, or in the new movements of faith and prayer which are continuing to grow around the country. We need prophets who, in the months and years ahead, can direct our imagination to more just and human models of social and economic growth than we have had in the past. We need courageous people who will challenge our tendency to self interest and call us to a deeper solidarity with each other and with the rest of the world.


And this brings me to the first of the events I mentioned, my visit to the Gaza strip in April of this year. The images of death and destruction flashing across our screens from Gaza at the moment are heart rending . Having been there you appreciate just how small a place it is, probably no more than half the size of Kerry. It is one of the most populated places on earth. There are 1.5 million people in this tiny space. This means there is nowhere to hide. Dropping leaflets to tell people to leave is meaningless. There is nowhere else to go. It is so built up that collateral damage is inevitable from any bomb which is dropped.

One of the things which shocked me was how intimidating the roar of a fighter jet can be. I had never heard it before. It is terrifying, especially when you have no idea whether it is going to fire a rocket or what it is targeting. The people of Gaza live with this fear constantly, every day. They are not allowed in or out of this small strip of land, except for a handful of people let out for the most exceptional of reasons. Over 80% of the people are fed each day by International Relief Agencies. Only 15% of people have any kind of full time paid work. It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of isolation and the level of destruction which surrounds you in Gaza. What is happening there is appalling and we should all pray that the current military offensive by Israel as well as the attacks by Hamas on Israelis will stop immediately.

The failure to resolve this historic conflict is ultimately a failure of international political will. We should pray for a new determination within the international community to address this and the other conflicts of our world as a matter of priority.

The context of my visit to Gaza was a pilgrimage of peace to the Holy Land by the leaders of the four largest Christian denominations in Ireland. We went to show our solidarity with the Christian community in the Holy Land. It is, as many of you know, struggling to maintain its presence there. It is a very sobering thought that in the land of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection, the Christian community has gone from approximately 25% of the population there thirty years ago to less than 2% today. It is worth bearing this in mind when we hear about the Holy Land on the news or when we pray for the Christians in the Holy Land on Good Friday. We need to show our solidarity and support for the Christians in the Holy Land in any way we can.

As four Church leaders we went to listen to all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We heard moving stories from an Israeli mother whose son was shot dead by Palestinians and from a young Palestinian man whose brother was shot dead by the Israeli army. We met political and religious leaders on all sides. We joined a rabbi and his family for the Sabbath service at his Synagogue and for the shabat meal in his home afterwards. It was a very moving experience and brought to mind very vividly the intimate links between Christian and Jew, our older sisters and brothers in the faith.

But the most powerful memory I have is of the day I travelled with the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah to Gaza city. I was met by there by the Parish Priest, Fr Manuel Musallam. He has worked in Gaza for almost twenty years. Although his elderly mother only lives forty miles away he had not been able to visit her for several years. The very strict visa conditions mean that he couldn’t leave Gaza for fear the Israelis would not allow any priest to return.

His parish is made up of only 200 Catholics but it runs one of the largest schools in Gaza – the Holy Family primary school and high school. Almost all the pupils at the school are Muslim.

On the day I visited they were having the high school graduation. Hundreds of parents, grandparents and brothers and sisters had gathered to celebrate the success of the young graduates. The young people themselves put on a magnificent display of music and dancing. It went on for over an hour. It was one of the most joyful things I have ever seen. They also put on a play based on the story of the prodigal son.

This play was written especially for the occasion by Fr Musallam. It was very moving. People became very emotional at the dramatic scenes of the young son leaving his mother and father for a distant land. I think it touched on their constant fear of losing a loved one as well as their frustration as parents for the dreams of their young sons and daughters. Fr Musallam had written the play to emphasise the need for reconciliation of brother with brother – a clear reference to the relationship between Hamas and Fatah and between Israeli and Palestinian. I don’t think anyone missed the point he was trying to make.

I tell you all of this because I was very inspired by this courageous, generous and hard working Catholic priest.  He brings dignity and hope to a community in despair. He is a reconciler and a peace maker. He is a builder of community. He is accepted and respected by the Muslim community because of his transparent goodness and his unquestionable commitment to people around him – whatever their religious or political background. His concern is to help the young people in his school to discover their dignity and to reach for their dreams. His work is focused on helping people to build up solidarity and community with one another and to be reconciled with their historic enemy. He is, as every Christian should be, an oasis of hope in a desert of despair.

People like Fr Musallam and the dedicated Christian faithful of Holy Family Parish in Gaza are a reminder to us of our call as Christians to be light to the world and salt to the earth. People are drawn to the Gospel when they can see Christ in us – Christ in his mercy, Christ in his gentleness, Christ in his generosity and healing love. You only have to watch the images coming from Gaza at the moment to know how much the world is in need of this healing love. Tragically, one of first people to be killed in the current Israeli action in Gaza was a young girl called Christine. She was fourteen and a member of the Holy Family Parish, one of the few Christian children living in Gaza. In the words of Fr Musallam, she died ‘due to the severe shock she had from the bombing around her house.’ Just think about that for a moment. A fourteen year old girl dying from pure fear and shock! Just think about the images we have seen of Israeli and Palestinian children crouching in fear to shield themselves from missiles and bullets. With the image of these innocent and frightened children in our minds let us ask ourselves: is the global economic crisis really the most urgent problem in the world today or is it the failure to build global structures of solidarity, justice and peace? I think I know the answer the children of Sderot and Gaza would give us. I think I know what the children of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan would say. I think I know what the children without food or basic medicine around the world would say?

The most urgent need in our world today is to develop an economy of peace, one which confronts the unjust distribution of the goods of the earth and progresses a culture of global solidarity, sustainability and sufficiency for all. This may require painful adjustments to our own understanding of wealth, what some economists have referred to as our ‘competitiveness’. But of itself such a model is not anti-wealth or anti-growth. It is simply an acknowledgment that an economy which supports authentic human development requires more than fiscal considerations. We have to evaluate wealth in terms of the whole person, in communion with others at a global rather than simply a local or national level.

Ireland is well placed to flourish in a more just and interdependent environment. Our experience of addressing the historic conflict on our own island for example has some significance for other parts of the world. I was surprised at the number of people in the Holy Land on all sides who spoke of the peace process in Northern Ireland as a beacon of hope. For my part I could never have imagined ten years ago that I would have had several formal and informal meetings with Dr Paisley, with the leaders of the Loyal Orders or that we would have moved so quickly to a stable, normalised political environment. I am also happy to say that I enjoy an excellent relationship with my colleagues in the other Christian Churches and that inter-Church meetings are now accepted as part of the essential and normal part of the life of all the main Churches on the island. The peace process in Ireland is a good news story for us and for the rest of the world. It is a beacon of hope which we should celebrate and seek to share in appropriate ways with others.

It is important to recognise the positive contribution made by religious leaders to the search for peace in Ireland. Courageous witnesses to the Gospel were critical to constructing the vocabulary and culture of peace which eventually prevailed. I think of the many inspiring examples of Christian forgiveness I have met since moving from Cavan to the North. I think of people like the Reevey family who lost three of their members, of people like Gordan Wilson and Michael McGoldrick. I think of Monsignor Denis Faul. He was a free man, free enough to take on the British Government and the British army, the RUC and the IRA with equal courage. He was willing to take on his own community when they actively opposed his taking part in police partnerships. Ireland has a proud tradition of such generous, selfless and heroic priests and religious. They have been beacons of humanity and hope at home and across the world for many years. The life of Msgr Denis Faul challenges me to act with more courage when I feel inclined to take the easy route. Hope is born of courage. We must rediscover our courage in these challenging times and we should do all we can to en-courage each other.

For my part I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the priests and religious of our country who have persevered faithfully through the difficulties of recent years. If it was not for the quiet fidelity of thousands of priests and religious in the last few years the impact of the scandals would have been even more damaging than they have undoubtedly been. I would also like to thank all those here in the Diocese of Kerry and across the country who have offered so much encouragement and support to their priests and religious through these incredibly difficult years.

They have been difficult years first and foremost for those who have suffered abuse and further hurt because of failure to respond appropriately. Our first thought should always be for those who have suffered abuse. The scandalous behaviour of some clergy has caused immense pain to them and to their families. Recent events also remind us that there is absolutely no room for complacency in this area. There is no pastoral issue more critical for the Church in Ireland today than to ensure the right attitudes and the right procedures are in place to safeguard children. Of course we must also address issues such as healing and atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation which are always a part of the Christian response to even the most appalling and unacceptable behaviour.

I often pray to the Holy Spirit for two gifts:

1.     The gift of wisdom, to know what God wants me to do and

2.     The gift of courage to have the strength to do it.

That often involves doing the thing I would least choose for myself. A mature faith today needs the courage make difficult choices. This includes the courage to go against those currents of our surrounding culture which diminish our humanity and block out the voice of God.  Faith will often be counter-cultural.  As Christians we are in the world but not of the world. But how should we live this tension with our surrounding culture?

The first step is to acknowledge the many signs of God’s presence in our culture. There is a danger of retreating to a defensive or aggressive stance, judging the new culture to be utterly astray and decadent.  Some groups adopt this position, a separatist position.  It is an understandable reaction.  It may be based on fear of all the new complexity but it might be tinged with a kind of fundamentalism and therefore be unworthy of the call of faith.  Of course we need to critique the dehumanising aspects of the culture around us but with the aim of rescuing the deeper human aspirations for God.  We have to understand before we can judge.  We have to listen to the new sensibility of young people instead of imposing our old answers too rapidly.  Young people, for example, are very alert to the possibility of greater human solidarity provided by globalisation.

There is also no reason to believe that the current generation of young people in Ireland has any less generosity than any previous generation. In fact, there is ample evidence that young people in Ireland today have a very lively sense of concern for others. In my experience young people readily acknowledge that materialism does not answer the deeper questions of life. The challenge is to present them with practical opportunities to know the joy of giving, to experience the fulfilment that comes from serving others.

I have been impressed by some parishes which organise their young people into care teams, taking on responsibility for visiting the elderly of the parish and making sure they are safe and well. We are all familiar with the generosity of the young people who help the sick on our Diocesan pilgrimages to Lourdes. These are the new seed beds of Christian commitment and of vocations to priestly and religious life. We need to develop these opportunities for young people wherever we can. We need to bring them into the very heart of parish life – as faith friends, as helpers in children’s liturgies and as readers and musicians. Perhaps most importantly of all, we need young people to see hope and joy alive in us.

We say that we live in joyful hope. A class mate of mine told me of a young person who said to him recently about a fellow priest – how can he be a messenger of hope if he looks as if he is in perpetual mourning?  It is worth noting that we have never had such a large pool of young people in this country who have studied theology at third level in Maynooth, St Patrick’s College Thurles, Mater Dei, Mary Immaculate in Limerick and so on. Perhaps we are not utilising fully the resources we already have.


And this brings me to the second event which I mentioned, the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec last June. Canada is a country that is very secularised but I was told by the organisers that the Eucharistic Congress was worth every moment of the immense preparation that went into it.  They had a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which was carried from parish to parish as a visible rallying point for study and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. 

When it was learned that Ireland was to be the Host Nation, in Dublin in 2012, for the next Eucharistic Congress, one man said to me, ‘You are courageous, but it will be worth every moment of it.’  Somebody else said that they thought that Ireland was not as far down the road of secularisation as Canada and that the Eucharistic Congress would bear much fruit.

I think it has great potential.  I think there is a wonderful devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament in this country.  I think we need to get in contact with that devotion, recognise it, and affirm it draw on that devotion to muster our energies.  We must use our resources to seize, as best we can, this opportunity for evangelisation.  We need to help each other to internalise the values represented by the Blessed Sacrament and the value of love and self-sacrifice and self-giving – the value of building communion and community.

It will also present a great opportunity to return to our roots as a people who worship God, publicly and as a community, especially in those areas where participation at the Sunday Mass is in decline.

This will be helped by reflecting on our participation in what is sometimes called the Ars celebrandi – the art of celebration. Do we celebrate Mass and other liturgies with an appropriate sense of their beauty and dignity? Our society is yearning for an experience of community. They are also yearning a sense of the transcendent – of  that which is beyond us and ahead of us in eternity. How we celebrate the liturgy should allow people to experience both.

It is interesting to note, for example, the recent success of the CD of the three priests from Down & Connor. They are singing classical sacred music and it is very popular. Along with the success of the CD’s of prayer and music from places like Glenstal in recent years it is another reason to be hopeful. It is evidence that people are still searching for the things of God – that they can still be touched by stillness and beauty and uplifted by more traditional forms of sacred music.  We need to be careful that we do not short-sell people in terms of the beauty and power of the liturgy. The ‘quick-mass’ might be a pastoral necessity on occasions but it would be a discredit to the central place of the Mass in Catholic life if it became thought of as the norm or as a virtue!

The Eucharistic Congress in 2012 will be an opportunity for each of us to recapture what Pope John II described as our ‘Eucharistic amazement’! It will be an opportunity to refocus our lives on the gift of Christ’s living presence among us as healer and unifier. The Congress will be markedly different in style from the Congress in Ireland in 1932.

There will be an emphasis on preparation and catechesis at the local level and a focus on the opportunity for faith renewal and development in every Parish. I am also confident that there will be an important ecumenical and inter-religious dimension to what will be an important moment in the renewal of hope in our country.


And this brings me to the final event I wanted to mention, the recent Synod in Rome which took place last October on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I must say it was a very challenging three weeks but very worthwhile because it gave me a whole new insight into the place of the Word of God in the Life of the Church, in the Mission of the Church.  It gave me a new appreciation of the potential of the Word to bring the Good News and to have it accepted.  For that we don’t need more priests, we just need more people who know the Word of God, and above all who love it and who want to share their love of the Word of God with others.  I think there are a lot of people in the country with this desire for a better knowledge of the Word of God. What we need to do collectively is to mobilise this desire and to give the lead to those around us. We need to encourage them and inspire them to rediscover the Word as viaticum – as food for the journey of life – for I believe this has the wonderful potential to reawaken the missionary dimension of the baptised.

The Synod agreed that how the Gospel is communicated is critical in this regard. There was concern though about the standard of preaching. Concern was expressed that poor preaching was contributing to a loss of faithful to the Pentecostal movements, particularly in South America. Some estimates of 400-600 million were suggested. It was said that preaching must link the concrete experience – everyday core concerns of a congregation to Jesus – the Word whom we preach and especially to his life-giving passion, death and resurrection.

This presents a tremendous and urgent challenge to every preacher in terms of ensuring prayerful preparation of every sermon. It is also worth noting that the Synod recommended at least a short homily on the readings every time Mass is celebrated.

In this respect I am reminded of a very inspiring address given by Cardinal Daneels of Belgium during the Synod.  “The obstacles are many” he said “to the preaching of the Word of God today.  There are difficulties in communication.  Of course the culture is hostile.  There is distrust, there is a sometimes a lack of understanding on the part of the listeners.  But maybe” he said, “the biggest obstacle is in the heart of the preacher and the teacher.  His own his/her lack of self-confidence and ignorance of the laws of announcing the Good News.  For they are different as Jesus illustrated with three parables”.

First of all the parable of the sower, tells us loud and clear, there will always be some good soil.  It will bear fruit so that, despite all the obstacles, let us get out and sow, there will always be a harvest and remember, the harvest of tomorrow for the future, will always be the fruit of what is sown today.  You don’t necessarily know what that harvest will be exactly, but sow.

Secondly, there is the symbolism of the grain.  It grows spontaneously.  The farmer sows the seed and then he goes home to sleep.  He didn’t get up in the middle of the night to go and check that the seed had sprouted. “For, by itself, the seed produces its fruit” Jesus said.  Success doesn’t depend on our worrying about what we are doing.  “So” says Jesus, “Trust in the Lord and be patient.  The harvest will come”.

Finally, the parable of the mustard seed tells us that the smallest seed produces the biggest tree.  Unlike the world of economics, in the kingdom of God there is no expectation of proportionality between the investment and the result.  “Sow”, says Jesus, “even if the seed is small”. This too is an expression of hope. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s word will not return to him empty – without achieving what it set out to do.

The big challenge is to imagine new ways in which we can communicate that hope.  The traditional interaction of home, school and parish may no longer be enough.  Michael Paul Gallagher talks of the ‘disturbing freshness of Christ’.  How can we communicate that freshness, that uniqueness, in a way that both consoles and, like the new wine of the Gospel, bursts open the old wine skins.  Nobody can give what they have not got.  We must, ourselves, know Christ Jesus and try to embody the Christ in the modern world.  We must be awake each moment – to both inner and outer reality.
Proposition 38 from the Synod says:

The mission to announce the Word of God is the responsibility of all disciples of Jesus Christ, as a consequence of their baptism.  This awareness must be deepened in every parish, every community and Catholic organisation; initiatives must be proposed that allow the Word of God to reach everyone especially to those brothers and sisters who are baptised but not sufficiently evangelised”.

That is where the challenge comes. It is a challenge to our imagination to come up with initiatives that will allow the Word of God to reach everyone, especially those in our parish communities who have been catechised but who may not have been evangelised – those who know about Christ but who do not know Christ.

This new evangelisation while not new in content may be new in methodology. It may involve exploring new methods of praying together. For example, in the Synod there was much time given to the importance of introducing people to the tradition of Lectio Divina. There was also ample recognition of the opportunities afforded by new technologies. I know that in Kerry local radio, for example, is very popular. It is vital that we encourage well informed believers to engage with these opportunities to share our faith, to respond to the issues of the day with an informed Christian perspective using these new technologies.

The lay faithful of the Church have a critical role in this new evangelisation. They can make the Gospel present in places and in ways that the priest or teacher in the school simply cannot – in the home, in the work place, in the golf club, in the coffee club. The lay faithful are called to rediscover their responsibility to exercise the prophetic duty. It arises directly from the call of their baptism, to testify to the Gospel in their daily life; at home, at work, or wherever they find themselves.

It is also vital that clergy encourage a proper engagement of the gifts of the lay faithful in the mission and life of every parish. Two Parishes in the Diocese of Armagh conducted an interesting survey recently about the role of women in the Parish. Contrary to the impression sometimes given the results found that the vast majority of woman there feel they have a definite role and ministry in the Church and specifically in the Parish. They believe that role to be significant and fulfilling. A small minority felt that their role at present is not as significant as they would like it to be. But generally they feel part of the Church at Parish level and they find this life-giving. Some would appreciate more opportunity for example for shared prayer outside of the Mass; they would appreciate help with prayer and with praying the Scriptures in particular.

This is the kind of initiative that was strongly recommended by the Synod. In fact the Synod recommended that every home should have a Bible and that we should encourage families to pray together using the Bible. We need to explore how we can put these and the many other recommendations of the Synod into practice.

In conclusion it is worth remembering that the Gospels tell a story of the closest friends of Jesus who found it practically impossible to open their minds to the possibility that God was present in Jesus.  It was more a question of opening their imagination.  Imagination is the place where faith blossoms into living truth. As Newman says, “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason but through the imagination”.  This is worth remembering as we face into the future.

Some would claim that the tide is going out for faith but then, as you people know better than I, the tide always comes back in and we have to be ready for that.  In fact, I read somewhere recently where it says that the history is a series of advances and recessions, even in spiritual matters.

The first Christian symbol of hope was the anchor – something that gives stability and security in turbulent seas. The person of hope knows that life will be fulfilled, that existence is blessed and since we are all held fast by God’s love – trust and confidence fit us far more than despair. Hope knows that even though we are forever on the way, our confidence is in a final happiness that will not be betrayed.

Thank you.    


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Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer (087 233 7797)