Address by Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan at the 2016 Evangelium Conference in Maynooth

13 Jul 2016

The purpose of the Evangelium Conference is to spread the richness of the Catholic faith in the modern world.

Just to mention at the outset that the Lord has been very good to us all in the past few days.  This weekend there are several wonderful faith events- the Focolare Marieapolis in Dungarvan with around 250 participants, the Youth 2000 summer retreat in Roscrea with something around 800, the Knockadoon Fith Camp run by the Dominicans, eight men ordained for the Dominican Order yesterday, and now here in Maynooth the Evangelium Conference.  These are all examples of the green shoots of faith which the Spirit is making grow.  They are all examples of the New Evangelization called for many years ago by Pope Saint John Paul II.

But what is the New Evangelization?  Primary evangelization is the proclaiming of the Gospel to those who have never heard it.  Now in countries which have lost their fervour for the faith a new evangelization is needed.  Pope Saint John Paul used the expression ‘new evangelization’ for the first time in June of 1979 on his first visit as pope to his native land.  He was speaking in Nova Huta – a district of Krakow.  Which had been built by the communists who deliberately excluded any religious element to this new development.  No church was allowed to be built.  There was no need of God.  In 1983 in Port au Prince in Haiti Pope Saint John Paul called for a new evangelization of the Americas.  He called for this to begin in 1992.  Why 1992?  Because the first evangelization of the Americas took place after the discovery of America in 1492.  Five centuries earlier the great Catholic countries were Spain, France Italy.  Now the great Catholic countries are Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, even one can say United States.  Europe has become tired in the faith in many places.

New evangelization

We need a new evangelization here in Ireland.  We all know that Irish society faces real and present challenges, and on many fronts.  I am not going to go through the list of woes, we all know them I think.  For example, I heard recently from the father of a seventeen year-old secondary school girl and who is studying in Ireland.  The student was taken aback when she realised that in her new environment promiscuity, fuelled by a peer pressure to take alcohol and drugs, prevailed amongst most of her contemporaries.

The number of people in Ireland who have undergone divorce or separation has shown massive growth since 1986.  It has increased six fold in that time.  It has increased by 47,332 since Census 2006 alone.  In fact, the rate of suicide in Ireland hit its peak in 2001 at 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people and by 2004 – a “Celtic Tiger” year in which economic growth was running at 4.6% – the rate still remained at 12.2.  That 2004 rate of 12.2 per 100,000 has never been exceeded since.  The rates began to drop in 2005 and even though some of those gains were lost during the recession, making a clear cut link between the state of the economy and suicide is nowhere near as simple as people sometimes think. There is an equally compelling argument to be made that suicide in Ireland was at its worst in the period between 2000 and 2004, during the height of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger (see RTÉ Website).

One of the best things that you could do to help your faith and the faith of those around you is to read up on Church history.  I am reading at the moment a book on the life of Saint Alphonsus Liguori.  It is a fairly typical story of the founding of any new initiative in the Church.  And the only conclusion one can arrive at on reading it is: if the Holy Spirit were not behind it, it would never have survived.

Saint Alphonsus had to battle against: the opposition of good people, intrigue, calumnies, the desertion of close friends and members, misunderstandings, the efforts by some to control the beginnings of the order, jealousies, lack of funds, the enormity of the workload, etc.  If there was not of God it would have crumbled after a year or two.  If the Church was not of God it would have ended at 3.00pm on the day we call Good Friday all of 2000 years ago.  Today let us rejoice that we are involved in a Church which is of God.

We also must accept that in Ireland at the moment faithful Catholics are in the minority.  We can point to recent referenda to prove our case.  I think that this is widely accepted.  What do we do?  One very helpful approach to this question is to learn from the approach of Pope Benedict XVI – the ‘creative minority’.  The term ‘creative minority’ came into the public square via Pope Benedict XVI in an interview he gave on a flight from Rome to Prague in 2009.  A journalist on board asked: “The Catholic Church is a minority.  In this situation, how can the Church effectively contribute to the common good of the country?”  Pope Benedict replied: “I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality.  The Church must actualize, be present in the public debate, in our struggle for a true concept of liberty and peace.”

The phrase, which Benedict has used for several years, comes from English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975).  Toynbee’s thesis was that civilizations primarily collapsed because of internal decline rather than external assault.   “Civilizations,” Toynbee wrote, “die from suicide, not by murder.”  The “creative minorities,” Toynbee held, are those who proactively respond to a civilizational crisis, and whose response allows that civilization to grow.   For the Church this has always been the case.  The group around the Cross of Christ was a very tiny minority, the twelve apostles sent out by the Lord and the 72 disciples chosen by Him were again, minorities who made all the difference.

Another example was the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in the 5th century AD.  The Church responded by preserving the wisdom and law of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, while integrating the invading German tribes into a universal religious community.  Western civilization was in that way saved and enriched.  Irish monks played a significant role in this.

In the lives of so many of the saints we see how they battled against the majority sometimes from within their own orders or dioceses to bring about renewal: Saints Bernard, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Simon Stock, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Cure of Ars, Francis de Sales, Josemaria Escriva, etc.  This is Benedict’s vision of the Catholic Church’s role in contemporary Europe.  In fact, it’s probably the only viable strategy.

One false alternative would be for the Church to ghettoize itself.  This is not the kind of attitude Pope Benedict was talking about when he used the term ‘creative minority’. He is not talking about ‘circling the wagons’, about cutting oneself off from the world and surrounding oneself with like-minded people. It means instead engaging with the world.  Benedict’s creative minority strategy recognizes, first, that to be an active Catholic in Europe is now a choice rather than a matter of social conformity.  This means practicing European Catholics in the future will be active believers because they have chosen and want to live the Church’s teaching.

Second, the creative minority approach isn’t just for Catholics. It attracts non-Catholics equally convinced that modern society has fundamental problems that cannot be solved by government spending.  Creative minorities will play the essential role in restoring a Christian soul to Europe, and in defending Christian values against secularism and relativism.

Lastly, creative minorities have the power to resonate across time.  It is no coincidence that during his 2010 pilgrimage to the UK, Pope Benedict delivered a major address in Westminster Hall, the site of Sir Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535.  When Thomas More stood almost alone against Henry VIII’s brutal demolition of the Church’s liberty in England, many dismissed his resistance as a forlorn gesture.  More, however, turned out to be a one-man creative minority.  Five hundred years later, More is regarded by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a model for politicians. By contrast, no-one remembers those English bishops who, with the heroic exception of Bishop John Fisher, bowed down before the tyrant-king.(Position Papers)

So what does the creative minority have to offer to people?  What we have to offer is to tell the world that there is only “One Thing Necessary”.  God.

And God the Son tells the world its true story: that we are created by God, to live as children of the Father, but that we sin because we suffer from that original fault of Adam and Eve, that wound in our human nature which is prone to selfishness and sin, but that Jesus has taken our faults on himself and that through him we have redemption and the grace to live a new kind of life and the chance of eternal life, back to the paradise from which we were exiled. This is what we have to tell the world – that life has meaning, ultimate meaning.

We can tell the world that: The way to happiness is self-forgetful love and the way to unhappiness is self-regard, self-worry, and the self-centred search for personal happiness.  Our happiness comes to us only when we do not seek for it.  It comes to us when we seek the happiness of others instead.  We offer the world sanctity instead of spirituality.   The creative minority’s task is the rebuilding of Christian culture.  This is what the saints did time and again during history.

As Alasdair MacIntyre explains in his concluding reflections in After Virtue:

“What they [the reformer saints] set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. … We are waiting not for a God, but for another – doubtless very different – Saint Benedict.”

So we ask ourselves, what then is the Church for?  The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.  Evangelii Nuntiandi 15, the favourite encyclical of Pope Francis), states:

As the kernel and centre of His Good News, Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him. All of this is begun during the life of Christ and definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection. But it must be patiently carried on during the course of history, in order to be realized fully on the day of the final coming of Christ, whose date is known to no one except the Father.[23] EN 9

We need saints who know they are sinners not sinners who think they are saints.  So often we are tempted to offer grace on the cheap, Dietrich Bonhoffer:

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheap jacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! ……….

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

The creative minority is the way in which God has throughout history brought about reform.  He depends on the few.  That has always been the way change occurred in the Church.

Blessed John Henry Newman in ‘Witnesses to the Resurrection’. asked himself why did God use a few souls to begin and continue the work of the Church, and he answered in this way: “I have already suggested, what is too obvious almost to insist upon, that in making a select few the ministers of His mercy to mankind at large, our Lord was but acting according to the general course of His providence.  It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few.”

What are the weapons Christ has given us?  The same for Francis and Ignatius, Columbanus, and Teresa etc.  Prayer, the Gospel the sacraments, the Scriptures, and fasting … and 24 hrs each day to love God and our neighbour with all our minds and all our hearts and all our souls.

We have to be saints.  And we have to know that there will be challenge and fierce challenge at times. As Pope Francis has famously said about the Church: It is like a field hospital.  That is a military term.  We are involved in a war.  Christ’s followers will get bruised and battered.  There will be opposition even hatred, we will meet the Cross – Calvary was a messy place.  And God is in charge.  He is the One who gives us strength and hope.  And we must realize this fully.

We have to give God everything.  T S Elliot described Christianity as –“a condition of complete simplicity costing nothing less not everything.”  With Christ we can stand undaunted.  After all Christ has overcome the world.  Therefore the creative minority can stand unintimidated.

Saint Paul writes in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And that is the most key thing of all: our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Let the risen Jesus enter your life—welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk; you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid. Trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you, and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.” – Pope FrancisThe Church of Mercy

We are called to bring Christ to others – to be apostles.  If we are not apostolic we do not know Christ.  Apostolate is the overflow of the interior life.  One naturally follows the other.

And I do not have to save the whole world. I start where God has put me, with God’s grace changing hearts, one by one.   Once in an interview Pope Francis was asked (and I paraphrase): “what does the pope do all day?”  The Holy Father answered (and I paraphrase): “He discerns”.  A very Jesuitical answer perhaps, but a revealing one too, and one from which we can learn so much.

May we discern what God wants of us today and may God give us the courage to follow it.  Thank you for listening.


  • Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan is Bishop of Waterford & Lismore.  This address was delivered on 10 July 2016 in Maynooth.                                                    

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