Annual Pilgrimage to Saul: Bishop Noel Treanor and the UK referendum on Europe

20 Jun 2016

Speaking notes for the homily delivered by Bishop Noel Treanor


Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down & Connor, yesterday (19 June) led the Annual Diocesan Pilgrimage to Saul in Co Down.  In his homily, Bishop Treanor addressed the forthcoming UK referendum on Europe which takes place this Thursday on 23 June.  Please see homily below:


I   “Who do the crowds say I am ?  –  “the Christ of God”

Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, as recounted in these lines of St Luke’s gospel,  was at the heart of St Patrick’s work of evangelisation on his return to Ireland via the Strangford waters, the pathways of Saul and the lands of Lecale. The local chieftain, Dichu and his compatriots, received this stranger, gave him refuge and a base and, like so many other peoples on the continents of our planet through the centuries of human history, Dichu and his people opened their minds and hearts to the new life offered by the Good News of the gospel of Christ. That Good News about “the Christ of God” made all the difference, as it still does for all who engage with its truth, its power to save and its promise of divine hope.

Today, as every year at Saul, we remember St Patrick’s life and mission among us. He came here to Ireland, Hibernia, by sea and the waterways of Strangford and its rivers. Next Sunday week, July 4th, fellow Christians and fellow Europeans will gather in Bregenz in Austria on the shores of Lake Konstanz, to remember and celebrate St Columbanus :  circa the year 580 he sailed from this County Down, from the medieval monastery at Bangor, as a pilgrim for Christ. Royal households and people in contemporary France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy saw his monastic foundations re-evangelise, civilise, develop and ennoble peoples, just as Patrick had evangelised the peoples of this island some centuries earlier.

Patrick arrived initially among us from Roman Britain. In his preaching and work on his return here  he carried also the riches of the Christian culture of Gaul, modern-day France, which in turn was a conduit of thought and spirituality reaching back through wellsprings of Roman, Greek, Coptic and Jewish spirituality and cultures. St Patrick and his companions scattered the seeds of this rich heritage among us ; in later darker ages St Columbanus was eminent among those who carried the same heritage back to mainland Europe.  In these two saintly figures we see how our religious, cultural and indeed civic origins are inextricably European.  Water, commerce, trade, and the movement of peoples were the highways of faith, of the Good News of the gospel, of civilisation and culture.

II  “Posterity of Abraham, the heirs he has promised” (Gal 3.29) 

Patrick and Columbanus lived and worked long before the division between Eastern and Western Christianity and long before Martin Luther pinned his theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in autumn 1517. Yet from their surviving writings it is evident that both were involved in intense debates and differences of opinion in their time. Each era of human history, life itself, your life experience and mine, generate issues, questions, difference of opinion, perception and aspiration that have to be resolved. Such resolution does not come easily. It requires capacities to listen, think, reflect and sometimes to take the big step of changing’s one’s views or judgements.

Tragically in the course of human history even as children of this promise in Christ, we have surrendered to the forces of destruction and war as we built, crafted and configured our civic and political orders and societies. Whether under kings and chieftains, feudal lordships, monarchies, the nation state or empires, peace among peoples, a gospel value, remained fragile and was a side effect of a balance of power politics rather than its objective.

III “Something completely new in human history  (Pope Francis, 6 May 2016)

In the aftermath of the wars of the late nineteenth century and the horrific World Wars of the last century, an impulse of God’s grace steeled Christians, citizens of erstwhile enemy nations, to forge, as Pope Francis put it in his acceptance address on receipt of the Charlemagne Prize last month, “something completely new” in human history.

That “something completely new”[1] was the European project, which  became the European Communities and in turn the European Union with their new institutions and their institutional architecture that has forged the new pathway of peace, the consolidation of peace, economic development, workers’ rights and the enhancement of standards of safety, security and well-being in our countries over the past six decades and more. This European project, “made up of states united not by force but by free commitment to the common good” [2] set out and “dared to change radically the models that led only to violence and destruction.[3]

The European “community method” needs to be made better known to us citizens, so that we understand its checks and balances, its provisions for democratic accountability and how it serves the common good of the members states and their peoples.

With its new, hesitatingly and slowly agreed institutional architecture, providing for the pooling of a degree of national sovereignty by its member states on the basis of agreed principles for the promotion of the common good of the peoples and nations freely involved, the European project “dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems”[4]

Rooted in the vision of its founding fathers – men such as, Robert Schuman, Jean Monet, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Henri Spaak and many others who worked with them – and in what it has achieved and delivered in infrastructure, on road, farm, in school, university, industry and work, for mobility of capital, goods, services and people, and particularly in its contribution to peace here in Northern Ireland, the European project with its institutions has helped transform and improve our lives and our societies. Yet this new project, a new departure in political history, remains poorly understood, little appreciated and often unjustifiably maligned.

The European project is not a monstrous bureaucracy. With the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Affairs Committee, not to mention provisions in the treaties to provide for democratic accountability, it is a serious and honourable attempt to realise that aspiration for a world governance authority at the service of the common good of the human family, set out by Pope John XXIII in his 1963 Encyclical Letter, Pacem in Terris [5]

As our rendez-vous with history approaches in the form of this coming Thursday’s referendum on the future of the UK within the European Union, many among us feel confused and uncertain. The debate of recent months has avalanched us with competing figures and viewpoints, argued with conviction and passion. To our horror we have witnessed the murder and tragic death in recent days of a young mother, Jo Cox MP, a Member of Parliament. Such an act contradicts totally the aspirations of our new Europe.  Yet notwithstanding all that the EEC and the EU have achieved and delivered, despite the fact that it is much envied beyond its borders, despite its prophetic character for future configuration of global governance and politics, for many reasons it is something of a victim of its own success.  Greater courage is needed on the part of our political classes to communicate the achievements of European supra-national cooperation and the positive results of pooling degrees of national sovereignty to promote the common good of the peoples of Europe and of this earth.

The current debate on the place of the United Kingdom in the EU needs to continue and indeed to open new chapters. In terms of the shape the recent debate has taken, the Northern bishops remarked in their recent statement that:

“we need to be cautious about arguments that would reduce the wide ranging benefits of EU membership to a single calculation of net economic gain or loss”[6]. The bishops of England and Wales in their statement made the same point : “we must ask ourselves in the face of every issue, what will best serve the dignity of all people both within Europe and beyond. The referendum therefore is about much more than economics[7] For their part the bishops of Northern Ireland further asserted that “in an ever more interdependent world, the EU provides individual member states with a valuable mechanism of international influence in terms of peace-making, development, trade negotiation and shared environmental responsibility, in support of the global common good” [8].

Faced with the complex challenges of governance at local, national and global levels in our contemporary technological and communications society, marked by unprecedented acceleration of scientific and technological know-how, our models and paradigms of political governance require adaptation, renewal and new injections of imaginative transformation to enhance accountability to the citizen. The EU and its institutions are no exception. Yet any review of their short history shows how they have sought to develop and to grow their constitutive and fundamental democratic openness and this should not be misrepresented.

IV  Thinking out Christian Social Ethics for Europe in our time

As our societies face issues of education and employment for our youth, the future of work and the economy, the politics of international trade arrangements, justice and peace issues between nations and peoples, the urgent current challenges of migrants and refugees, the development of poorer countries, environmental and climate change challenges, there is an urgent need to think out how these issues are to be addressed in an increasingly interdependent world.

By virtue of the gospel Christians have responsibility to contribute to the development of a social ethics and to the shaping of a politically adequate architecture capable of responding to these issues.  Indeed in its primary law in article 17 TFU the EU has provided for input by Churches and faith communities to the European political debate on such issues: it is for us Christians and our Churches to avail of this and to continue activating and giving life to this EU treaty provision with competent input from among the people of God.

Our countries have freely joined the European enterprise.  It is a project, a highly calibrated political architecture, unique on the face of the earth and in human history.  It will develop and reform like all human institutions.  Our countries can achieve more within than without.  If it were to leave, in the words of the Irish Council of Churches, “the UK would move from the role of an active participant to that of a passive observer” [9]

In our contemporary world with its complex interdependence through information technology, rapid communication facilities and mobility, if the EU did not exist, it would be invented : “despite all its difficulties, and the progress it still needs to make, the world would miss the European Union if it were not to exist. Its member states exercise considerable influence and their cooperation strengthens that influence”[10]

The EU is battered by the tsunamis of relentless forces of change in our times like all our nation states. Its leaders have been tested by the almost indomitable forces emerging from the post 2008 financial crisis and its causes and they still try to find equitable and sustainable solutions. As a group of nations the EU remains the largest donor to international development.  On balance this EU, of which we are citizens, “demands our full quota of patience and our ongoing cooperation”[11]. Like all human constructs it requires review, refinement and updating and over the years it has shown its capacity for development.

The value of the European Union project cannot be measured in net billion gains alone; its vision for Europe’s peoples and nations and for the world, rather than billions, is its saving grace.

May our Christian heritage of social thought and reflection rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, mediated through the mission of St Patrick,  inspire us as we reflect on the complexity of the issues before us in our contemporary world as we  prepare to vote in this forthcoming historic referendum, decisive for our future and for future generations.


For media contact: Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444

[1] Pope Francis Address, Sala Regia, Friday 6 May 2016

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] 137. Today the universal common good poses problems of worldwide dimensions, which cannot be adequately tackled or solved except by the efforts of public authority endowed with a wideness of powers, structure and means of the same proportions: that is, of public authority which is in a position to operate in an effective manner on a world-wide basis. The moral order itself, therefore, demands that such a form of public authority be established.

  1. This public authority, having world-wide power and endowed with the proper means for the efficacious pursuit of its objective, which is the universal common good in concrete form, must be set up by common accord and not imposed by force. The reason is that such an authority must be in a position to operate effectively; yet, at the same time, its action must be inspired by sincere and real impartiality: it must be an action aimed at satisfying the universal common good. The difficulty is that there would be reason to fear that a supra-national or worldwide public authority, imposed by force by the more powerful nations might be an instrument of one-sided interests; and even should this not happen, it would be difficult for it to avoid all suspicion of partiality in its actions, and this would take from the force and effectiveness of its activity. Even though there may be pronounced differences between nations as regards the degree of their economic development and their military power, they are all very sensitive as regards their juridical equality and the excellence of their way of life. For that reason, they are right in not easily yielding obedience to an authority imposed by force, or to an authority in whose creation they had no part, or to which they themselves did not decide to submit by their own free choice.
  2. Like the common good of individual states, so too the universal common good cannot be determined except by having regard for the human person. Therefore, the public and universal authority, too, must have as its fundamental objective the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person; this can be done by direct action when required, or by creating on a world scale an environment in which leaders of the individual countries can suitably maintain their own functions.

[6] Statement from Northern Bishops on EU Referendum, 8 June 2016

[7] The Bishops of England and Wales, Statement on the EU Referendum, 14 April 2016

[8] ibid

[9] The Irish Council of Churches and the EU Referendum, A Discussion Paper, prepared by the European Affairs Committee of the Irish council of Churches.

[10] Jean-Dominique Giuliani, President of the Robert Schuman Foundation

[11] Pope Francis, ibid