Address by Mr Justin Kilcullen, Director of Trócaire, at Knock Novena

20 Aug 2012

Address by Mr Justin Kilcullen , Director of Trócaire, at the National Novena, Knock, Monday 20 August 2012

 Theme: Eucharist and Life

The young man said to him…  what do I still lack? Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19, 20-22)

This gospel talks to us in a very deep and challenging way about both today’s world and our own lives. How should we respond, given the plight of the bottom billion, the poorest people on earth; one in seven of the world’s population locked into poverty, living on less than one dollar a day and with seemingly no way out.

And we have extraordinary disparities between rich and poor, a veritable gulf, where three quarters of the world’s population share just one fifth of global wealth, and the top 1.7% a further one fifth between them.

The Social Teaching of the Church, going back 120 years, addresses such issues of deep social concern. The teachings of John Paul II call incessantly for economic justice and respect for human rights. Pope Benedict has called for a sense of “gratuitousness”, or “gift”, the generosity of spirit to resolve the issue of poverty, not by negotiation between the powerful and the weak, where clearly only the powerful will win, but giving freely in a spirit of justice.

Why are people poor?

I would like to share the story of one Ugandan family of which I am aware that illustrates the reality such families face.

Some years ago a Trócaire staff member following a visit to Uganda reported having witnessed the following scene. When visiting an isolated rural community she encountered a man in a field with his plough, and pulling the plough were his three children.

That image has never left me. Children had been brought to the level of draft animals in a country that could no longer provide basic education or health services to its people nor guarantee basic levels of food supply.

How did this family end up in this state of abject poverty?

Was it just because the farmer was lazy? Are these people just the undeserving poor? Are poor people just incapable of managing their affairs? These are questions sometimes asked. But they are simplistic questions.

The reality is much more complex.  Let us reflect for a few moments on what might have happened in that family’s history to reduce them to such a state of penury.

If we freeze frame the image, then go back and see what possibly happened to lead up to this point then we may get some clues.  For instance they had an ox plough, but where was the ox?  The family had been displaced by the civil war (involving the Lord’s Resistance Army). Six years ago they left their home to avoid the fighting.  They travelled some distance, and sold their ox along the way and lived in a displaced persons camp until recently.

Now they have returned to their home village with essentially nothing.  The old ox plough has been taken down from the roof of the house where it was stored and now they have tried to start again.  Clearly they will not get far if they carry on like this. The political and social infrastructure had also been destroyed by the war. Northern Uganda is isolated and is out of the political mainstream, neglected by the national government.

When I visited this part of Uganda life was not much better. Yes, seeds and oxen and other necessary supplies had been provided but the people were finding it nearly impossible to grow a crop. Rains had failed for two years. I asked them why they thought this had happened.

“The war”, they replied. “We are being punished for the terrible things that were done”; “the weapons of war have destroyed the clouds.”  One farmer blamed the overuse of fertilisers. Nobody mentioned climate change!

In Ireland we produce almost exactly one hundred times the amount of carbon emissions per person as they do in Uganda.  We know the havoc that climate change has wrought on the poorest countries.  Those that have done least to cause the problem are those that suffer most from it, lacking the resources to mitigate the damage done.  Rainfall is now so unpredictable farmers don’t know when to plant. To sow seeds is now a gamble.  If the rains fail they lose!  If floods come equally they lose. With each failed crop they must borrow more to buy more seeds and fall into debt.

Now back to our family. What might have happened next to them? The father probably joined the many men who leave for the cities to seek work, returning every few months to bring money to the family. Such a life destabilises the family.  The husband in the city develops a lifestyle of a single man, resorting to drink and the company of women to comfort himself.  And then the scourge of HIV strikes. He comes home to his wife, often with disastrous consequences as the virus is passed on.

This is not an unlikely scenario. In 2010 24 million people were living with HIV in sub Saharan Africa. It is one of the great ironies of this impoverished life that the married woman is the most vulnerable person to HIV infection, with little power over her own sexuality, regarded as the property of her husband, often threatened with abandonment if she seeks to protect herself.  As she and her children are dependent on the husband’s earnings for survival she will yield to him.  HIV has ravaged so many families, leaving 16 million orphans worldwide.

It is but one stark example of the plight of women, who are the poorest of the poor, the first to be withdrawn from education when money is scarce, not allowed to own land by tradition, yet expected to work all hours planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. Women work two thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half its food and earn only one tenth of its income. They are denied access to positions of political and economic influence, and are rarely consulted about so many issues that will have an impact on their lives.

It is for this reason that we in Trócaire have put gender equality at the heart of all that we do.  Without women’s equal participation on the social, economic and political life of the community it will be impossible to defeat poverty.

The Global Causes of Poverty

These are some of the causes and manifestations of poverty – war, climate change, HIV, inequality – that we see at the level of the community and the family.  But there is another dimension – the political and economic – at a global level which ultimately is responsible for maintaining the structures that keep the poorest people poor.

Africa has been described as a wealthy continent populated by poor people. Africa is now one of the busiest parts of the world for investors in oil, diamonds, gold, timber and land.  Millions of hectares of land have been leased to non African countries e.g. Saudi Arabia, China and India, for the cultivation of crops for export to these countries.  Food is now a major commodity for investors in the markets of London, New York, Singapore and elsewhere.  Land formerly producing food is now being bought up to grow crops for bio fuels to ease our problems in the West by reducing our carbon emissions.

Deals are done behind closed doors, selling off the assets of the poorest peoples so that a very small number will get very rich.  The people see little if any of the benefits accrued by the sale of their country’s riches.  In return we give development aid. It is just a tiny percentage of the revenue lost to the developing countries through tax evasion and corruption. Each year $250 billion is lost in tax alone, more than twice the global aid budget. In that sense even development aid can be compared to the crumbs that fall from the Rich Man’s table.

Attempts by citizens to organise, to hold governments and leaders to account, are resisted.  In the past five years sixty countries in the developing world have passed legislation limiting the scope for human rights organisations, journalists, academics, people’s movements, to operate.  Criticism is not tolerated.

This is the ultimate exclusion, that citizens cannot have any influence on the decisions that govern their lives. From their rural fields to the ministries in the capital, to the trading floors of the commodity markets, in distant cities, they have no voice in what happens next.

Is all hopeless then?


The struggle for justice and to overcome poverty continues daily across the globe and, against all the odds, it continues to succeed. We in Ireland are part of that struggle on many different levels.  We have a proud record of support to the poorest peoples. It is marked by charity and solidarity.

By charity we mean not just a handout given from our surplus and walking away leaving the beneficiary to cope as best they can.  Charity in the Christian sense goes way beyond what has now become commonly known by that term.  It is “love in action”.  As Pope Benedict has put it: “charity goes beyond justice, but it never lacks justice. If we love others with charity then first of all we are just towards them…. justice is inseparable from charity.”

Pope John Paul II defines solidarity this way:  “Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far…. it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”.

Though supporting the work of Trócaire over nearly forty years, Irish Catholics have lived out these virtues of charity and solidarity.

The Trócaire box has become part of the nation’s life.  Generations of children have grown up with it.  It has served as their first means of expressing their solidarity with the wider world.

When these boxes are brought by families to the church on Holy Thursday, the Feast of the Eucharist, we can see the living out of Blessed John Paul’s teaching that “the Eucharist is not merely an expression of communion in the church’s life, it is also a project of solidarity for all”.

It is here that John Paul gives us the solution to our dilemma about how to live out the spirit of today’s gospel in the modern world.

A project of solidarity for all is a demanding affair.  It is not, as already said, a vague sense of compassion, a handout, something to make us feel good about ourselves.

It challenges our lifestyles, based as they are on a consumerist culture, which is leading to the destruction of our planet.  This culture promises us a life of plenty for the relative few while denying hundreds of millions of people the basics for a life of human dignity.

When Jesus says to us sell all and give to the poor and follow me, I believe he is saying:

“Live a life of solidarity with the poor”!

As Christians we must strive to build a world which does not just offer the good life to a few, but rather a life that is profoundly good for all.