‘If we dismiss our past as a source of shame and embarrassment only, we risk depriving a new generation of connection with deep wells of spirituality’ – Bishop Crean
Just over 100 years ago a poem by T.S. Eliot was published – entitled “The Waste Land”. It’s a long complex piece of reflection which was inspired by the impact of World War I. It comes to mind as an apt description of our world as it comes to terms with a pandemic and a war – just like those who lived through a similar experience a century ago.
To describe the World as a “Waste Land” as T.S. Eliot did was to evoke a world that had grown weary, tired, dreary and devoid of hope. His poem makes for tough reading because he piles one negative image on another to show how bleak the world has become – without purpose, meaning and hope for so many. He puts this reality down to the growing lack of culture, right living and the abandonment of things spiritual and religious. Yet while on one level he is very pessimistic he is very much open to redemption, hope and inspiration.
Today is designated as Vocation Sunday – one in which we especially pray for those discerning a vocation to priesthood or religious life because while the harvest of dedication to life in the Spirit is great the labourers number is decreasing. It leaves us with questions and concerns for the future of the “community of believers”. Too often we feel the breath of our prayer is lost in the stench of the waste land. The sound of our pleading evaporates in a valley of deafness.
My friends, we have ample commentary on the negative impact that the Catholic Church has had on the lives of many who with the support of the State found themselves confined in institutional settings. The harsh and cold nature of many of these institutional settings has been acknowledged – and forgiveness sought for the hurt caused. Sadly, words of sorrow and regret however genuine will never be adequate or healing for some.
The odium of the nation has been poured out on virtually all religious women and men from previous generations. All who responded to a vocation did so with generosity and humility and having expended their lives in nursing, teaching or social outreach they left the world without a cent in the pockets of their shrouds. They gave of their all for others. But they were like all humanity earthen vessels subject to failure and imperfection.
From Penal Times we have a well-documented history of the contribution of priests diocesan and religious who dedicated their lives to the service of people spiritual and temporal. Priests and religious as ones who had the benefit of education were the voice of the people who had no voice. So many of the educational and health care structures of the nation were laid down by those in Church leadership in service of the poor and under privileged. While through the decades of the 19th and 20th century so many left our shores because of the lack of opportunity at home, they still distinguished themselves by their dignity, sense of values and initiative, despite their difficult backgrounds.
In the current narrative ‘round the place of the Catholic Church in Ireland there is a real imbalance. Because of our skewed populist and inadequate historical perspective, a whole dimension of our culture and identity is being denied at our peril. What is at stake is the inclusion or exclusion of the “community of believers” from participation in key dimensions of society.
That selective narrative which conveys a message of negativity ‘round all things religious and spiritual is the fruit of a commentariat group think that operates in self-referential silos. As an entity it exercises great influence. Even the representative political apparatus is on the run before them. Our Citizens assemblies are a fabrication of controlled selectivity to which unaccountable authority has been ceded.
These issues are worth considering on this Vocation Sunday. We rightly are proud of our modernity and sense of progress. Hoverer, we will be deluding ourselves if we do not acknowledge the profound levels of social disintegration that is taking place among us. If society does not nurture things of the soul and spirit, we too are on the way to becoming a “Waste Land”. We are more than an economy.
The human person does not live on bread alone. That is why all those who nurture our spiritual nature and quench our thirst are so important.
We need prophets to alert us to the social snares that lie ahead. We need a vision for the 21st century that acknowledges both the light and shadow of our religious legacy, appreciate its richness, learn from its failures and take forward all that was best in forging a shared future. We need to come to accept our religious heritage as part of what we are. Memory can be both painful and powerful. It should never be dismissed. If we dismiss our past as a source of shame and embarrassment only, we risk depriving a new generation of connection with deep wells of spirituality and inspiration for living. Without these riches we risk walking headlong into the arms of a sterile secularity where political correctness robs us of genuine colour and sense of joy and humour.
On this Vocation Sunday we continue in faith to pray for those discerning a vocation. There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit at work in all. For those sensing a call to service we pray for a generosity of spirit and humility of response. For the “community of believers” may we in their families and parishes encourage and support and pray for them in their desire to serve.
- Bishop William Crean is Bishop of Cloyne. This homily was preached at the Cloyne Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine on Vocations Sunday, 8 May 2022.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678