Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo
In 1967, Pope Paul VI established 1 January, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, as World Day of Peace. This was not just because it was the first day of the New Year, but because Mary, the Mother by giving birth to Jesus became, in a very real sense, the Mother of Peace. In his message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis says: “Every threatening situation feeds mistrust and leads people to withdraw into their own safety zone. Mistrust and fear weaken relationships and increase the risk of violence.”
We have been exposed for almost three years now to the fall-out of the Brexit debate in the UK. One aspect of this has been the very real concern that Brexit would bring with it the return of a hard border in Ireland. Not only would this be very inconvenient and costly, but it would also pose an enormous risk to peace. The return of a physical border would almost inevitably lead to the militarisation of the border regions in both jurisdictions. In recent weeks the fear of a disorderly Brexit has diminished, but much of the uncertainty still remains.
The physical border, as many of us remember it, was the product of a mentality, to be found in both communities in the North and on both islands, that our cultural, political and religious differences meant that there could be no common understanding or trust between us. The physical infrastructure of the border was the fruit of that mentality and, of course, it tended to reinforce that mentality. If we hope the prevent the return of that hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then we need to keep open the channels of communication and to develop relationships of trust. Local authorities and businesses, sports clubs, schools and Church communities can all contribute to this in the course of their daily activity.
I think it is important, however, that we also acknowledge the existence of other borders in Ireland; borders which in recent years are becoming more visible. I’m thinking of the growing division between urban society and rural society, which has been brought about by the serious imbalance of population; the over-development of our cities and the underdevelopment of rural areas. Alongside this urban-rural divide, the past year has seen the breakdown of trust between farmers and the meat processing industry. The same need for honest and respectful dialogue applies in situations such as this.
The tensions and violence of recent years in North Africa and the Middle East have given rise to very high levels of migration as people try to get themselves and their families into a place of safety where they can live normal lives. Given the scale of the problem, the numbers of refugees who have arrived here in Ireland is relatively small. But, in one place after another, difficulties have arisen, which have resulted in vulnerable people being made to feel unwelcome. If you were to ask why this has happened, I think the answer, once again, is that trust has been undermined by a lack of appropriate communication. Small numbers of people promoting a racist agenda have been able to exercise undue influence in local communities, partly because State agencies have shown a remarkable reluctance to involve local communities in preparing for the arrival of refugees. This needs to change, because understanding and trust are essential components of peace.
Back in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, division between Catholics and Protestants, which was more pronounced in Northern Ireland, was an aspect of how Ireland was understood and defined all over the world. While we continue to have our distinct identities as communities of faith, new and more positive relationships have developed between communities, thanks in no small measure to the witness given by the leaders of the main Christian Churches in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the bigger challenge facing Christians today is the frontier between faith and unbelief. Some in our society obviously feel threatened by faith while others are quite uncomfortable in the presence of unbelief. For us Christians, inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the question must be: “how can we live our own faith with integrity and be witnesses to Christ in the world, while at the same time working alongside unbelievers to build a better and more peaceful world”? This will be difficult at times because of fundamentally different understandings of the human person and of what constitutes the common good. Nonetheless, we can only live and work effectively together, when we are prepared to engage in honest and respectful dialogue. We certainly won’t do it by building walls. What we Christians ask in return is that we are allowed the freedom to practice and profess our faith openly, and to be accepted as equal partners in society.
At our Mass on Christmas Day we heard, once again, the words of Saint John’s Gospel: “the Word was made flesh and lived among us”. Through His coming among us and His sharing of our human condition, Jesus Christ has taken away the wall that divided God and humanity. On this Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, we celebrate the essential contribution of one young women who, as the Gospel tells us “pondered” the Word of God in her heart. Through her willingness to be what God wanted her to be, she made possible the birth of the one who brought peace from God. In historical terms, this was a unique event, never to be repeated. In another sense, however, each one of us has the opportunity, as Mary did, to respond to the gifts and graces that we have received and to bring the peace of Christ to birth through our own work and our own relationships and even our own honest constructive opposition.
In the name of our own Diocese of Elphin, I want to make use of this World Peace Day, to acknowledge the generosity of so many whose lives are committed to the service of humanity in our civil society, in healthcare and in education, in the emergency services, in public administration and in the care of the poor and those who are on the margins. In so far as you are working for the authentic good of humanity, you are also contributing to peace. “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall inherit the earth”. Amen.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin
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