Cardinal Seán Brady’s homily for Temperance Sunday
22 February 2009, St Patrick’s Church, Dundalk
Can you imagine the scene in that house described in today’s Gospel, when that commotion started on the roof? What must have been the look on the owner’s face? Suddenly it dawned on him! They are actually stripping off the roof. First of all small lumps of dried clay would have fallen on those inside. Then there would have been the dust getting into their eyes and their throats. Then a ray of light would probably have appeared. Then a hole and a face, then there were four faces and more roof was ripped away. Then two men would have jumped in – another two stayed on the roof or on what was left of it. They would have begun to let down the stretcher with their patient on it to their friends below. They look towards Jesus. No words were spoken but their eyes would have said it all: ‘We have come because we believe in you’. And that is exactly what Jesus saw first in them – he didn’t reprimand them for destroying the man’s roof. He saw their faith and the next thing, when he saw their faith, his next reaction was rather surprising, he said: “You sins are forgiven”. That man got more than he expected when he came to visit Jesus!!
Jesus cuts through the fudge, to the essentials. He cuts to the chase as they say. Lent begins on Wednesday next. It is a time when Jesus calls us all to be honest and to cut through the fudge and to admit that we have sinned. We are invited to identify our sins honestly, to turn away from them, to detest our sins sincerely and to do penance.
This is Temperance Sunday. It is a good time to have it – just before Lent. Temperance is a virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasure. We are not here on Earth simply to eat and drink and be merry day and night. So it is good that Temperance Sunday comes right here at the beginning of Lent.
I suggest that we pray earnestly and long this Lent that this beloved country of ours would come to its senses and recognise the damage that abuse of alcohol is doing to our people each year. The current economic crisis highlights the fact that for too long alcohol related problems such as absenteeism, accidents and health care, which are estimated to cost the State three hundred euro annually have been ignored.
The example of the 100,000 strong Pioneer Association testifies eloquently to the virtues which apply to many areas of life. Temperance refers not specifically to drink but to all pleasures. It means not necessarily abstaining but going the right length and no further.
I congratulate the Pioneer magazine’s initiative to challenge us all to review our attitude and behaviour in the use of alcohol. It invites us all to play our part in building a society where people can live to their full potential and alcohol can be enjoyed moderately.
Pioneers learn to accept whatever crosses come their way and to unite their sufferings with the sufferings of Christ. They try to reduce their own selfish needs so that they can enter into the closest possible communion with the heart of Christ. Pioneers know that alcohol is a gift of God, that it shouldn’t be abused. They know too that by doing without it, they are doing without one of life’s pleasures. But they have decided to make that sacrifice – they are abstaining for a greater good – for the good of making reparation to the Lord for the sins of excess of drunkenness – for the sins of drunken violence.
Four of Ireland’s best known sportsmen are pioneers:
• Mickey Harte, Tyrone County Manager
• Horse trainers, Aidan O’Brien and Jim Bulger and
• Michéal Ó Murrchearty who is well known for his broadcasting on the RTE radio for sports programmes.
He says his advice to pioneers this Temperance Sunday is: ‘Be fearless in putting your important message across. Keep in mind, he says, the Irish seanfhocel which goes like this: ‘Even if you have nothing else to sell than an old puck goat, make sure you are out there in the middle of the fair’. Well we have a lot more to sell than an old puck goat. We have an old wisdom to try and bring to our people: nothing to excess, virtue stands in the middle.
So it is Temperance Sunday – a day on which we usually talk about the need for self-control and moderation in our lives. The unfortunate thing is that we usually confine our discussions to the question of alcoholic drink.
C.S. Lewis – famous writer – is very upset at this. ‘Confining temperance to drink’ he says, ‘helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things’ and he gives a few examples: A man who makes his golf or his car of his motor-cycle the centre of his life or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog is being just as intemperate as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course it does not show on the outside. Golf mania or Bridge mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the street.
The point he is making is that the virtue of temperance does not refer only to drink but to all pleasures. It means not abstaining totally but going the right length and no further. There are, of course, those who may have a duty to abstain from strong drink at a particular time. They may be the sort of people who cannot drink at all without drinking too much; they may want to give the money to the poor. They may be with people who are inclined to drunkenness and they don’t want to encourage them by drinking themselves. But the whole point is that they are abstaining for a good reason, for something which they do not condemn and which they like to see other people enjoy.
The three pillars of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association are
• Self-denial – in the form of fasting from alcoholic drink
• Reparation for the sins of excess on the part of those who abuse alcohol
They get a huge boost this year from the Lenten Message of Pope Benedict. He speaks of the value and meaning of fasting. He asks: what is the meaning of depriving ourselves of something that, in itself, is good and useful for the nourishment of our body. His answer is: Fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to sin.
We have all sinned. We are all weighed down by the effects of our sins. The worst result is that we lose God’s friendship. Fasting is a means of restoring our friendship with God.
Jesus had some strong criticisms for the Pharisees. They fasted often and scrupulously yet their hearts were far from God. True fasting is to do the will of God Our Father. In our own day fasting has lost some of its spiritual meaning. It has taken a certain value for the care of the body. It helps us to keep the figure in shape and to look well on the outside but for the believers, it is the inside – it is the heart that matters. Fasting helps us to heal everything inside us that prevents us from doing the will of God.
Pope Benedict says that fasting is an important piece of armour with which to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. When we choose freely to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of some food or drink, we are helped to control our natural appetites. If those appetites are out of control, they can have disastrous negative effects.
The man in the Gospel today got more than he expected. He expected to be cured of his bodily paralysis. But Jesus saw that he was spiritually paralysed by his sins and so he cured that problem first.
Only God can forgive sin. He sent His Son to offer that forgiveness to al of us. He will not force his ideas down anyone’s throat like the late Father Malachy Coyle. I know I am preaching to the converted but perhaps you can reach and influence those I cannot reach. Your Lenten prayers and fasting can lift up those in this parish who are paralysed and you can lay them before the Lord and he will give them more than they expect.
A lot of people have a disordered relationship with alcohol. In other words, it is out of control – let us keep them especially in our prayers this Temperance Sunday and this Lent.