4 October 2010
Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the Votive Mass to mark the opening of the Michelmas Law Term
St Michan’s Church, Halston Street Dublin
One of the great acquisitions of modern democratic constitutional States is that of the division of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Where that distinction begins to unravel inevitably the door opens for totalitarian rule to prosper and for a culture of corruption to thrive. We see the world over how organised crime attempts to infiltrate into the very foundations of society and weaken the independence of the powers so that it can prosper freely and with impunity.
But it would be wrong simply to look on these powers as totally distinct. Together they serve the wider purpose of establishing a particular form not just of a State but of a society. Each of the powers in its own way has the task of fostering, serving and protecting a society in which people feel secure in themselves and secure in their ability to bring their contribution to the common good and to be protected and supported when they are vulnerable.
In the late nineteen nineties the World Bank conducted what is the widest-ever consultation of people living in poverty in developing countries. It was entitled “Voices of the Poor”. It asked people living in poverty – and especially those who were exploited even by those who were institutionally charged with their protection – what it was that they felt they most needed if they were ever to come out of poverty.
To the surprise of many, the dominant answer was not about food or jobs or subsidies to alleviate their poverty. The most important thing they felt they needed was Voice. They wanted to be heard, listened to and respected in what they said – respected in the fullness of their dignity, respected in their innate talents. They wanted to have an active voice in the society to which they belonged.
A democratic system is a system in which all have voice and all assume responsibility, in respect for others. A democratic system is NOT just about voting people in or out of office, no matter how vital that is. A democratic system is one which fosters a vibrant civil society which has the ability to develop new forms of societal discourse, the ability to challenges any of the powers, whether in the court of public opinion or if necessary in the courts of law. Voice without the support of law is stifled. Law which does not hear the voice of society becomes arrogant and tyrannical.
Where voice is heard then a new form of communication begins, new language which is understood by all and respects all. New patterns of discourse emerge in which not only words are understood, but in which each of us feels understood for who we are.
The first reading, the account of Pentecost, is interesting in this context. The Acts of the Apostles lists the various places from which pilgrims had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast. It was for the time an extraordinary international gathering, with people of different cultures and backgrounds: “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; people from Mesopotamia. Judea and Cappadocia; Pontus and Asia; Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors form Rome – Jews and proselytise alike – Cretans and Arabs”.
It is in the midst of this confusion of the noises of a Jerusalem over brimming with pilgrims that the Spirit inspires the Apostles to expound the message of Jesus Christ, and to the amazement of all that message is heard and understood by all. The Spirit begins to form though the message of Jesus a new model of society where words and above all people are understood.
For the Scriptures Jerusalem is not just an important city with religious significance. It is the symbol of the coming together of peoples; the place where the message of salvation would forge new forms of unity between peoples. Jerusalem is not just fact, but dream and prophecy of the special unity in diversity which are the gifts of the spirit.
We celebrate at the beginning of the Michaelmas Law Term that gift of the spirit which enables not only that language is understood, but people are understood and relate in a form of exchange in mutual respect. Law is not just about rules. Regulation in a market economy is not just about norms. Law and regulation are there to protect the weak and the vulnerable and to curb the arrogance to which all are tempted. This is the mission of all who work within the administration of justice. The poor and the marginalised must see us as people who listen to and hear their voice and the dignity they possess: listening to the voice of the poor is indeed a characteristic of God himself.
Let me come back to the Pentecost story of the new understanding between people of different backgrounds. The Pentecost narrative is linked to another story much earlier in the Old Testament, in the Book of Genesis, that of the Tower of Babel. Those who set out to build the Tower of Babel hoped that they would be able on their own to build a tower which would reach God himself: “Let us build a tower with its top in the heavens”, they said, “let us make a name for ourselves”.
The Tower of Babel is the image of uncontrolled growth, growth dominated by personal and intellectual greed and ambition. It is the opposite of Pentecost. The builders of the Tower go ahead with their plan regardless of any other factor. They loose contact with the reality of what human and societal growth is really about.
At this point God intervenes and not only puts an end to their folly, but scatters them around the earth and introduces the confusion of language. Uncontrolled growth inevitably ends up in bringing about division and ends that pattern of trusting exchange which should be the mark of every participative democratic society.
The images of Pentecost and Jerusalem are thus images which leave us with many lessons about the type of society we wish to build today, in which people are understood and respected and where growth is seen as always having a social purpose, which if ignored damages the very fabric of communication of society and leaves those who voice is weakest more precarious than ever.
The Scripture texts we have heard do not offer a concrete road map to help us achieve such a just society. The Scriptures do not establish a political programme. That is the task of politicians, economists and public servants like yourselves.
What the Scriptures do is to indicate for us is what sort of people we should be, if we wish to be Spirit-filled people. A just society will only be achieved by people who live justly. A caring society will only be achieved by people who care; a society in which talents and gifts and discourse are recognised and exchanged will only be attained by people who know how to listen rather than simply assert themselves and their interests.
The second reading set out the actions which are the fruit of self-indulgence rather than of the spirit. Each generation has to bring that list up-to-date through looking at the new forms of arrogance, self-centredness and exploitation which emerge and remerge in society.
The gifts of the Spirit, however, remain the same from generation to generation and need not be updated but made a reality in our lives: “love, joy, peace patience kindness goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self control”. These are perennial values which constitute the discourse on which a truly just and caring society will be built, today, tomorrow and in any generation. These are the gifts of the Spirit for which we pray this morning for our own lives and for the responsibilities we bear in society.