Address of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Opening Mass for the 17th World Council of the ICCG

10 Aug 2009

10 August 2009

Address of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Opening Mass for the 17th World Council of the International Catholic Conference of Guiding (ICCG)

Disciples and missionaries along the Girl Guiding path

“The high levels of volunteerism in Irish society are a reflection of a maturity and wisdom that come from our Christian tradition, not a sign of a pre-modern society”

These are interesting and challenging readings that you have chosen for the liturgy this evening. The call of Abraham is a very stark call to him and obtains a ridiculously clear response. It is not so unusual to see youthful teenage enthusiasm in an old person. He will take an unknown road and accept the uncertainty of it all because that is the road he has been called to walk. That is because he is convinced that someone is calling him and that he will be guided, accompanied and helped to climb the physical and emotional mountains involved. Similarly, the meeting of the two disconsolate disciples in the Gospel send them back to where they came from – but with a lightness in their step and a new perspective on things that will stay with them whatever dark days they will face, whenever and wherever in the future. They feel rejuvenated, young again, confident about the future.

These readings fit in very well with the intriguing theme that you have for your conference – Disciples and Missionaries along the Girl Guiding Path. This language does not immediately find resonance with the cultural context in which many of us live, especially in the world of Western Liberal values. The use of the word ‘disciples’ suggests an understanding of education that is centred, not on a mere acquisition of knowledge and information, but on a formation that comes from following someone. It implies a long process of transformation that is motivated, not by a search for knowledge that will lead to power, but the quest for a wisdom that will lead to transformation. Similarly, the use of the word ‘missionary’ does not find great understanding in our current cultural context. If you are a missionary, you believe that you have something specific and valuable that you want to share with others. It implies that there can be a search for the true, the beautiful and the good. In our context, the idea of truth is very suspect. The ‘truth’ is seen as referring merely to what is true or right for me. A relativist culture is suspicious even of those who believe, not that they have the truth, but that the truth can actually be searched for. When you use the terms ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries’, you are using a counter-cultural vocabulary. So it is good that you can meet regularly to clarify your own values and to gain the strength you need to be true that set of values. The journey will not be easy. But then, nothing that is worthwhile is easy. That is what Abraham and the Emmaus disciples were about to discover. The Bible clearly tells us that God walks with those who dare to love, grow and walk with others.

It is not hard to see where you are coming from when you use this challenging vocabulary. After all, your international website is clear that you are clear about what you are trying to do through your work together.

The mission of ICCG is to help Catholic leaders fulfil their mission of education and service and to help Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to experience more intensely their Christian faith through Guiding.

That is an impressive statement of what you strive for. Three words spring out at me – education, service and faith. And they resonate with the core words in the names of your various organisations – ‘scouts’ suggests those who are going on ahead of the rest, searching out new paths, taking risks in the service of the others who will follow. ‘Guides’ suggests a confidence in showing the way, in not being ashamed of what you hold important, in believing that you have discovered and learned something valuable, and that you want to share it with others. Abraham and the Emmaus disciples needed both the confidence to set out and the humility to accept that they would be led along the way, wherever they were going. That is the language you use about yourselves – and it is no wonder that this language has inspired idealism down through the decades.

I’d like to spend a little while on each of those three words above. Firstly your work takes place in the context of ‘faith’.  Your explicit faith perspective adds something quite distinctive to what you offer. It is the context within which you aim to educate and serve. Many groups work with young people to develop their skills and their gifts for the future – and, of course, you do that as well.  But you have a context for those skills and for that learning. In Guiding, as in Catholic education, that faith is not some sort of optional extra, a harmless peripheral hobby that won’t do much harm, will keep some parents happy but which really is a sort of brainwashing in a sensible modern society and a distraction from reality.

Your faith is not about peripheral things. Your core message to your young people is not just that they can learn skills – but that their lives are of eternal beauty and value, dependent not just on how they match up to changing expectations of body size and sensual attractiveness. That is subversive in a destructive culture which promises that beauty comes out of a bottle or a tube, that there is no deep beauty in people, that – at heart – all is fake and make believe and a game. That sadness is evident in the gloom which seems to affect many young people, despite their having so many things. 

The rates of self harm and addiction suggest that many are crushed to know that nothing is expected of them in life, that they are capable only of being consumers, that their lives are of no real value. With your faith you encourage the girls to dream that their actions are not just trivial games in the search for fun but have ultimate beauty and value. You say that some actions are good and helpful and that others are wrong. You tell them that what you do influences who you are and who you will become. You whisper gently but insistently that there is much more to life that the surface, that God has a dream, not for what they can achieve or the job they will do, but for the person that they can become here and hereafter. You help them to have dreams that come from deep in the human heart, dreams that they can achieve. And you tell them that the poor little impossible glossy dreams of our pop culture can often turn into nightmares because they are excluded and deluded rather than included by the fantasy world that we laugh at – but which they are encouraged to take seriously. Rather it tells that them they are capable of great and beautiful things.

Faith does not encourage people to remain childish.  It is not a barrier to people developing their potential. Indeed it can be a huge asset in re-imaging the past and the future. The faith we celebrate is faith in a God who has enormous faith in us and in our young people. Abraham and the disciples on the road to  Emmaus discovered that the world was so much bigger than the poor dreams of human expectations.

The second word that I take from your website is ‘education’. You have a vision of formation for young people that is based not on seeking the best ways to acquire knowledge but in the development of the individual. Teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach people. Education is what remains after you have forgotten all that you were ever taught. The product of education is not exam results but personality and integrity. So you bring girls together, not just because that is the most economical way of passing on skills but because discipleship takes place in the context of journeying together. Arts, crafts and problem solving are vital skills. But the hardest skill for most of us is the skill of living with and loving other people.

A paltry vision of us as merely economic units suggests that we are ultimately under-socialised loners, concerned only with maximising our own preferences so that we can be ‘better off’. There is the alternative threadbare vision of each of us as being little more than individualists, floating around, sharing little with the universal family of humankind and thus incapable of solidarity with it.  Your commitment to education is to enable girls to grow with others and to believe that our true maturity is to be found in the capacity to love, forgive and share. It is a philosophy which says none of us is as smart as all of us. In theological terms, it is expressed well in the image of us as being living and complementary cells in the Body of Christ. We don’t have to be capable of everything and we can rejoice in or own gifts as well as in the gifts that others have. In a lonely world, your model of education for solidarity is a vital antidote to the temptation to frantically gather large numbers of virtual friends but fail to learn how to develop faithfulness, loyalty and love. It is only those who know how to love to have been educated to be really human. Real education is about measuring what you value, not just valuing what you can measure. The Jesus of the Gospels keeps telling you to stay faithful to that dream and quest. All teachers know that the best missionaries and guides are those who are constant learners. Real leadership involves both confidence and humility – confidence in the wisdom that you have learned and humility that it is not your wisdom but one that you have been blessed to receive.

And finally, I come to the third word – ‘service’. The last decades have emphasised the reality of human rights that pertain to each individual, no matter where or who they are.  No-one should ever portray that as anti-Christian or anti-religion. Jesus was very clearly concerned about the rights and dignity of the person. But there is always the danger that an assertion of my right to my rights can obscure the fact that we also have a call to serve one another. That was the strange sort of Messiah that the Emmaus disciples had to accept – was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer?

Real service is not demeaning of the one who serves. Indeed, it takes a great maturity to be able to serve another and yet to retain my own dignity. That is why the high levels of volunteerism in Irish society are a reflection of a maturity and wisdom that come from our Christian tradition, not a sign of a pre-modern society. A society where all rights are preserved and where all services are provided but where there is no sense of community, hope or sharing is a barbaric society. You are committed to promoting service of one another and a sharing by those who have with those who do not have.

There is a recent pressure in modern Ireland to promote a vulgar form of wealth acquisition, to admire those who accumulate large amounts of money. You say to young people that service, generosity, solidarity and compassion are the signs of true maturity. And we all know how generous young people can be when called to do great things. Jesus still invites people to widen their hearts rather than their purses. A society which tells young people that they are really only fit to consume and to look for fun demeans their innate sense of the boundless possibilities of life. You tell them that love is possible and that this alone will heal the broken heart of the world. In a world that is afraid to invite them to be disciples and missionaries of that path, it is not surprising that too many young people are dying for want of a reason for living.

So we ask the Lord’s blessing on your work. That work will require those graces of courage, fortitude and readiness that you espouse. After all, those echo the core gifts that the Spirit of God offers to all of us at Confirmation. We ask that you continue to walk down exciting and challenging new paths, just as God asked of Abraham and the Emmaus disciples. Part of that walk will involve solidarity with the reality of where young people find themselves. But if you are to be people of faith in a secularised world, you will also have to wrestle, not so much with the answers that our society gives, as with some of the core questions that it asks. We pray for courage, wisdom and discernment for yourselves – and we pray that, through the path of Guiding, many of our wonderful young girls will come to fullness of life and love that Jesus wants for all his disciples, and that the world will continue to be blessed by your discipleship and missionary work.


Notes to editors:

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor and Chair of the Youth Ministry subgroup of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference Commission for Pastoral Renewal
  • The 17th World Council of the International Catholic Conference of Guiding takes place in Dublin from 10 to 14 August 2009.
  • The opening Mass will be celebrated at 7pm this evening (Monday 10 August) in the Pro Cathedral, Dublin.
  • For more information about the conference and the organisations involved see or

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678