· Mass celebrated in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo, and broadcast live by RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta
“I welcome the fact that there seems to be some recognition in government circles in recent times that the system of direct provision is dehumanising and I look forward to seeing a more humane system in the very near future” – Bishop Doran
In my final year in seminary, a small group of us went from Rome to Sardinia for a few days after Christmas. Three members of the group were musicians, so we had a guitar, a bodhrán and a tin-whistle in the car with us. One day, after lunch at a little restaurant by the sea, a few local people heard us speaking and asked if we were German. For some reason, when we said we were Irish, they felt the need to apologise and sent us over a bottle of very nice wine. That was when some of our group went out to the car to get the musical instruments. After an impromptu fleadh cheoil on the beach, the Sardinians asked to borrow the instruments. They loosened the guitar strings to suit their particular style of music, and off we went again for another half hour.
I tell this story because I think it reveals something of the capacity of music to overcome divisions. There is, of course, a much better-known story about how the troops left the trenches during the First World War and played football together at Christmas, all because someone had begun to sing Silent Night. I don’t know if that was because of the lyrics, or because of the music, or perhaps just that the singing evoked a truly human experience with which each one of them could identify.
One of the most ancient traditions in religious music is the singing of the psalms, which were the folk hymns of the people of Israel. We may have lost track of the original Hebrew musical settings, but they are still at their best when they are sung. We may be living in a very different world, but the feelings expressed in the psalms; joy and sorrow; strength and weakness; repentance, gratitude and praise are just as real for us as they were for people living three thousand years ago. Some years ago when I was teaching religious education in a vocational school, I gave the class a copy of Psalm 137 and asked them to read it and tell me what they thought. Almost immediately, one of the boys said “Hey Rev. This is in the charts; how did it get into the Bible? The pop group was of course Boney M and the song was By the Rivers of Babylon!
Music touches something deep in the spirit of our humanity, deeper often than words could possibly express. They say it “sooths the savage breast”. Far be it from me to suggest that there are any savages here, but the National Fleadh Cheoil certainly gathers people from all over Ireland and from further afield; people who have never met; people who in the ordinary course of events might not have much in common. Like the children of Hamlin, they follow the music of the piper. Ceol agus Cairdeas. None of this happens by accident of course. People gather in response to an invitation and the invitation is only possible because of the many people whose love of music has helped them to discover other gifts with which to serve.
The Scripture readings today speak to us about doing justice and acting with integrity and about a welcome for all in the house of God. Saint Paul also speaks about the mercy of God which is for all without exception. It is God himself who has put the music in our souls and who invites us to live together in harmony. All of this prompts me to suggest that the music and the prayer which we share in these days might help to deepen within us the awareness of our common humanity and of the fact that we are, together, the children of God who loves us all. It might inspire us to work more consistently for that justice and that spirit of hospitality in our society about which the prophet Isaiah speaks.
In recent years our economic difficulties have brought real suffering to many and, with that suffering there has, understandably, come resentment. To use a musical image, there often seems to be a lack of harmony in our society. Instead of all the instruments working together, the different sectors seem to be in competition and sometimes in conflict. There is a certain discord between labour and capital; between the public sector and the private sector, between the urban and the rural. It is perfectly legitimate for us to see things differently. But beneath that, at a deeper level, we are all one body; we have the same music in our souls. If I lose respect for the other as a person like me, with the same hopes and the same fundamental needs, then I have lost respect for myself.
Our Gospel today is about a foreigner living in the land of Israel, whose need for healthcare is just the same as anyone else’s need. Initially, the attitude of Jesus seems rather unsympathetic to say the least. In reality, I think, He is putting words on the attitude he sees in his disciples. By so doing, He gives the woman an opportunity to demonstrate her faith. The bottom line, as far as Jesus is concerned, is that a foreigner is just as worthy as anyone else to share in the gift that God originally intended for all.
We have, living among us, but on the fringes of our society, people who have come here seeking asylum. Like the Irish who have gone to England, Australia and the United States, they all have their own good reasons for being there. An insular society might be inclined to see their presence as a burden, but there is another way of looking at it. They bring, as Saint John Paul II once said when he was pope, “gifts which would normally be offered to their own society and which, for one reason or another, are now placed instead at the service of the host country” (Laborem Exercens 23). That assumes, of course, that they are allowed to use their gifts.
More recently, in his encyclical letter of last November entitles The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote:
Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity,
will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis. How beautiful are those cities which overcome paralysing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development!
How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others! (Evangelii Gaudium, 210).
When people apply for asylum, it is reasonable that the State makes a fair judgement as to whether or not they should be given refugee status. It is not reasonable, however, that the process should go on for years. Nor is it fair that men, women and children should be required to live in conditions which prevent them from living a normal family life, developing their skills, or earning their own bread. Living such a half-life would suck the music out of the soul of any human being. It seems particularly cynical that, while imposing this kind of regime on asylum seekers here, the Irish government consistently appeals to the US government to offer an amnesty to illegal Irish immigrants in America. I welcome the fact that there seems to be some recognition in government circles in recent times that the system of direct provision is dehumanising and I look forward to seeing a more humane system in the very near future.
Returning for a moment to the Fleadh, I want to say how happy I am to have had the opportunity to welcome you all to our beautiful cathedral here in Sligo and to celebrate this Mass with you. I am afraid that my musical skills are limited to singing along, but then all God’s people have a place in the choir. I hope those of you who have welcomed others here to Sligo have felt enriched by the experience, and that those of you who have been visiting have felt truly welcome.
As we go from here, may the music go with us and may it echo throughout the land in a new spirit of solidarity and a fresh sense of common purpose.
· Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin
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