Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association National Pilgrimage to Knock, Sunday 18 July 2010

19 Jul 2010

19 July 2010

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association National Pilgrimage to Knock, Sunday 18 July 2010

It is now 112 years since the foundation of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association in 1898. The message then was welcome and unwelcome in equal measure. It was praised by many as a serious attempt to muster spiritual energy and enthusiasm in the face of alcohol abuse that thrived amid a people whose spirit was crushed in many ways by poverty, urbanisation and lack of self-respect. It was laughed at by those who thought that nothing could be done in the face of widespread social problems and the associated human degradation – and that all we could expect of life was to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow or the next day or some day we die. Those early members of the PTAA believed that people were capable of great acts of generosity and heroism. They believed that things could be changed. That is reflected everywhere from the title of your Heroic Offering to the courage of so many who still try to escape the painful claws of addiction that have so damaged their self respect, their relationships, their health and their hopes.

The fact that numbers of Pioneers in Ireland have fallen over the last years is perhaps a sign, not of your irrelevance but of the need that we have for your witness. After all, the Irish drinks market is estimated to be worth about €5bn per year. That means €100m per week is spent on intoxicating drinks. That is a huge part of our national budget. Not surprisingly we have the highest percentage of heavy under age drinking in Europe. Figures I saw recently suggested that 25% of 15-16 years olds in this country get drunk at least three times a month. It is estimated that 50,000 children get drunk every weekend in Ireland. The actions of intoxicated adults and some young people’s own inability to have control of themselves would imply that many children are being physically, emotionally and sexually abused across this country on a daily basis – and especially at weekends. I am not scaremongering when I suggest that frightening numbers of children are being physically abused because of addiction and that many under 18s are being sexually exploited each weekend – often in the name of harmless freedom and craic. But an abused child is an abused child whether they are in care or in a pub.  That is a national disgrace and we seem unable to acknowledge it. It affects not just people living somewhere else. It seeks to insinuate itself in to all families and all social strata. That is the dark underbelly of the image of the happy carefree Irish who enjoy socialising. Somebody pays the price and too often it is battered wives and abused children who pay the biggest toll. Too often it is our hospital and emergency staff, who have to pick up the pieces or defend themselves against intoxicated patients. Too often it is communities and key people like clergy, who have to try and deal with the effects and consequences of this dark secret that lurks in the corner of every part of this country. In a particular way, young people are both the beneficiaries and the victims of our new culture. But they are rarely the architects of it. However, if we dare criticise the situation, there are those who will say we are exaggerating or that Church people are trying to deflect attention from the evils of the past. To them I say that the price of repentance for the past is not silence about the present.  Practising self-denial for the greater glory and consolation of the Sacred Heart, abstinence in an age of over-indulgence is a powerful and uncomfortable counter-cultural sign. You might not be popular for it – but never let yourself be ashamed of it.

One key element in your daily Heroic Offering is making reparation for sins of intemperance. Many criticised the Holy Father when, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, he spoke of the need to do penance and proposed that Friday should be kept as a weekly day of penance. Some commentators dismissed that as asking the ordinary people of Ireland to do penance for the sins of clergy and bishops – and they couldn’t understand that idea. But all Christians come from the strange belief that Jesus is the innocent One, the Lamb of God that took away the sin of the world. Our secular society – that so often likes to locate sin and repentance only in individuals rather than accepting the possibility of corporate responsibility – cannot easily comprehend the idea of doing penance and making reparation for others. But Pioneers and all Christians can. Making reparation for ourselves and for others is at the heart of being a Pioneer and a part of what all Christ’s followers are called to do. In fact St Paul takes up that theme in our second reading. He is, he says, happy to suffer for the Colossians, doing what he can in his body to make up for what still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. Of course, that should never be a smoke screen for a failure of church leaders to do penance for their own sins and the sinners of departed colleagues. It can never be an excuse for not instituting the necessary reforms. But in the Body of Christ, we share both a story and a hope. When one rejoices, we can all rejoice. When one is diminished, we are all diminished. The shame of child abuse is a shame for us all. But it would be great if the powerful who lead the new secular hierarchy in our country could accept that they too share responsibility, not just for righteously punishing offenders, but also for the addiction and crime of so many across our country – and learn the need for shared reparation because of the dangerous world that we have created for too many of young people.

And the wisdom of the PTAA goes further than that. You believe that sin and the powers of the Devil cannot be overcome merely by prison sentences or fines. Evil can be overcome only by grace and by spiritual warfare. The defeat of sin and of its destructive consequences is part of a spiritual warfare in which we are all involved. Sin cannot be overcome by human effort alone – that is the core of the Gospel message about Jesus’ death and resurrection. He absorbed sin and it crushed him. But his resurrection was a divine statement that even the worse that human do was not able to destroy God’s dream for the world. For he loved that world so much that he sent his only son that we might have eternal life. That is a statement that – as members of the Body of Christ – we can all become channels of God’s healing for ourselves and for others, even without knowing it. Christ, St Paul tell us, is not out there somewhere, a strange God. The God of Jesus is one who is among us, our hope of glory. As Abraham and Sarah discovered in the first reading, God’s presence is woven in and out of the daily fabric of our lives. Christ walks with all those who take up their cross to follow him. If doing penance, making reparation for others, was good enough for St Paul, it is good enough for all of us who bear witness to the love of God, revealed in the image of Christ’s Sacred Heart.

Do not be afraid or ashamed to encourage reparation for the sinful abuse of children and adults that has happened in Ireland and that continues to afflict so many. Do not be afraid to make reparation for the victims of alcohol and drug abuse. We have to keep highlighting past and present evil without being trapped in it or crushed by the truth. Continue to do penance for the sins of those Church personnel who abused children. We have all been diminished and humiliated by what they did. And never forget that any discomfort we feel is nothing compared to the lives ruined and scarred by the terrible abuse of trust and power that they suffered. They suffered a loss of dignity, of power, or peace of mind that has stayed with them day and night for decades. You know that because there are people here today who have been abused by people they trusted. And some will have sought comfort in alcohol or other substances. So any criticism we might utter about alcohol abuse is tempered. Perhaps we ought also to focus less on the victims of our society and more on the strong who take advantage of the young and the weak. That happened then – and it still happens across this land. In a strong church we were terribly blind to our sins. Our new society is equally capable of culpable self-deceit today. In a society where it is dangerous to be young and male and where self control, chastity and moderation are mocked as out-dated, you proclaim that we are capable of great things. In a society where self-indulgence is seen as a virtue, you proclaim that there are other ideals. In a culture that says we must obey our thirst and ‘just do it’, you say that the human heart yearns for love and meaning rather than just for another pint of ice-cool lager that promises everything and delivers nothing. That theological and psychological truth will win out in the end.

And where do we get the strength to be faithful to that rocky road that leads via Calvary to resurrection? In the Gospel Jesus tells Martha that doing is not everything. Jesus ultimately does not ask us to do things for him but to be with him. He is the one who leads. He is the one who tells us what is the best way to spend or time. He is the one who invites us to table with him where he can break bread and break the word of God with us. The PTAA is a spiritual movement, not just a social reform group. Focus on spiritual development of your members. It is remarkably easy to succumb to the temptation of being too busy for God. Jesus says that we need also to be quiet with God. Otherwise we will exhaust ourselves seeking to please God rather than be nourished by letting God feed us and share his dream with us. Jesus is not impressed even by years of abstention from alcohol. What pleases the heart of Jesus is that we allow that heart to enfold us, as Mary did. Only then can giving good example, practicing self denial and making reparation be a response to God’s righteousness rather than a hollow expression of our own self-righteousness.

We come to the shrine of Mary the mother of the Lord. We ask that she will help us know the love of her son’s Sacred Heart through the eyes of her maternal heart. And we pledge ourselves to work for an Ireland where we can all celebrate because we know love – rather than party because we fear silence. And we commit ourselves to be used as channels of healing to renew the wounded face of this country.


Further information:

Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678