[Photo of Archbishop Dermot Farrell from the Catholic Communications Office archive]
Mass of the Holy Spirit on the occasion of the commencement of the Michaelmas Law Term Saint Michan’s Church, Halston Street, Dublin
I am very happy to be with you this morning to celebrate this Mass at the commencement of the new Law Term. In doing so, I give thanks for your work as lawyers and judges, in the courts and their allied services. I express my gratitude for your service to society, and for your contribution to the development of law that respects the dignity and rights of every person in our country, irrespective of social status, ethnicity, or religion.
In the Gospel we have just heard (Mark 10:35–45), Jesus responds in a somewhat surprising way to the request of James and John that they sit at His right and left when He would come in victory. Like a shrewd counsel, He counters with a keenly formulated question. He draws them out, and seeks to shift the horizon of His disciples.
The Risen Lord – the one who is always with us, our Emmanuel, as Saint Matthew calls Him (Matt 1:23) – constantly seeks to do the same. Our living Lord asks us to look at our lives, and the world, not only with new eyes, but with other horizons. It is in that perspective that I’d like to put before you one key dimension of our Catholic faith, a beacon on life’s horizon. The tradition of our faith is a living tradition. It is a living tradition, because its life is the Holy Spirit, ‘the Lord of Life’ – to use the wonderful expression of the Creed. The living Tradition is always moving forward, because Christ whose presence among us it is, constantly moves forward. Christ is alive, our God is the living God, and the world God creates is alive and growing. The true, living Tradition is always alive, growing, and responding. The true tradition of our faith is not something static or fossilised, it is alive, it is the actualisation of our Lord who leads us forward.
In that perspective then, I want to underline one dimension of the living Tradition this morning: the freedom and the primacy of the individual’s conscience over and above all other powers. In the great Tradition – Tradition with a capital ‘T’ – conscience has a primacy over all other powers, over even what we perceive to be the will of God. For an authority no less than Saint Thomas Aquinas, if one acts against one’s conscience, one is certainly in the wrong (Summa Theologiae, 1-2, a 19, aa. 5-6 and a. 17, aa. 3-4).
We live in an age of the individual. While the rights and needs of the individual must be balanced with the needs of the common good, one has to affirm that our culture’s concern with the autonomy of the human person is, in itself, both welcome and worthy. We are all shocked by societies and cultures where the legitimate rights and needs of the person are radically subordinated to the dominant ethos of the ambient culture. This resonates profoundly with the heart of our Christian faith. Both the Old Testament and the New bear witness to the Lord’s attention to the individual. In today’s first reading (Exod 3:1–10), while the cry of the Hebrews is heard, it is to an individual, to Moses, that the Lord reveals Himself.
Ultimately, the law touches human existence not just in an extrinsic way, but in the very core of the person’s being. It is in the interiority of the individual’s conscience, that the ultimate court of appeal is to be found. Last year in an address to Italy’s High Council of the Judiciary, Pope Francis was at pains to underline this centrality of conscience: “No political reform of justice,” he said, “can change the life of those who administer it, if one does not first choose, in the light of one’s conscience, ‘for whom,’ ‘how,’ and ‘why’ to do justice.” He continued, “in order to reform, one must reform oneself” (Pope Francis, Address, April 8, 2022). Such reform of the self, cannot bypass our conscience.
The Power of Conscience: Saint Thomas More and Saint John Henry Newman
Every person’s conscience testifies to the existence of a more profound law written in the heart, a law written by our Creator. Saint Thomas More (1478–1535) bore witness to this profound reality amid the flux and flow of rapidly changing times. Executed at the age of 56, he left us not only the strength of his credible testimony, but “also his defence of the freedom and the primacy of the citizen’s conscience before the power of the state.” (Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, motu proprio, proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, 31 October, 2000). A man of the world who loved life, his home, his family and friends, this Catholic lawyer dedicated his life to the principle of our duty to our own conscience, and to hear in it, the very voice of God. In his pithy phrase: “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Over three centuries later, in 1874, that other great witness of conscience, John Henry Newman, did not shrink from letting it be known that he would drink “to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” (J H Newman, “A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr Gladstone’s Resent Expostulation”). Conscience, for Newman, rather than being subjective, is a conformity to the truth which, in the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, “must stand higher than any human tribunal or any type of personal taste … Conscience cannot be reduced to social advantage, to group consensus or to the demands of political and social power” (Conscience and Truth, Keynote Address at the Tenth Workshop for Bishops, Dallas (Texas), 4 February, 1991).
And we too, must we not constantly keep before ourselves, and entertain, this law written in our hearts (Rom 2:15; cf. Rom 10:6–8)? In the end, is it not the burning heart of God in our hearts, God’s sacred presence in the middle of our work, in the midst of a wounded world?
The Cry of the Poor
The bush that burns, and through which God is revealed (Exod 3:2–6), is not only in the desert of Sinai, but is also in the hearts which burn with a passion for justice and for what is right – your hearts, and mine, and the hearts of the wounded world with which we are confronted day-in-day-out.
In today’s First Reading (Exod 3:1–10), we have a narrative that unfolds in two stages: the first, God’s self-revelation in mystery to Moses, followed by the revelation of God in His compassion and in His action. Unlike the gods of the nations, who, first of all, hear the prayer of the king, or the powerful, or the elite, the Lord, the God of Israel hears, first of all, the cry of the poor. Here we see our God, the living, compassionate, Father of the Poor, the pater pauperum, as the medieval hymn, Veni Sancte Spiritus, so eloquently calls Him.
The cry of the poor, of the oppressed, of those who see themselves as forgotten, is thus shown to be, not only a locus humanus – a place of profound humanity, a place where we realise who and how we truly are – but also a locus theologicus, a place where we come to know who God is, and how God truly is. Our God is a God who acts: He calls and sends Moses – Moses, the greatest prophet of all (Deut 34:10–12) – who puts flesh on the true character of God, the liberator of His people.
Justice in the biblical and Christian traditions demands fidelity to God, to others, and to the earth. Today, we must ask: is justice equal for all, especially the poor? Is justice equal for the homeless, the unemployed, migrants and refugees, the low-paid workers in our midst? Is equal justice an ideal rather than a reality? When the bottom line is profit, who represents these sisters and brothers of ours? You appreciate better than I, how the corporatisation of law means that the wealthy have far more weight than the helpless and the homeless. But we can never forget that “the rights of the weak are not weak rights” (Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, Archbishop of Milan from 2002–2011). The rights of the poor are not poorer rights. When rights are not recognised and guaranteed, might is right, and the only law is the law of the strongest.
Neither the bench nor the bar can be so focused on the letter of the law that justice and compassion are jettisoned. Compassion is not opposed to justice. Compassion, in the words of Pope Francis, “does not mean that justice is to be devalued or rendered superfluous … God does not deny justice. God rather envelops it and surpasses it” (Misercordiae Vultus, 11 April 2015).
In hearing the cry of His enslaved people, the Lord responds not only by sending Moses, but also, in the very same moment by revealing Himself in the mystery of His name, and wonder of His presence. No one can genuinely respond to the pain and injustice of the world without, at the same time, coming to know the pain, the compassion, and the justice of God in its mystery, not before or afterwards, but at the same time. These two dimensions of the life, God gives us, are inseparable, they always go hand-in-hand. To seek justice without being drawn into the mystery of the living God is to risk mistaking a mirage for the real.
May the God whose presence burns in the heart of every person, “so enlighten the eyes of our hearts,” (Eph 1:18) that His compassion, mercy, and hope would become more and more the foundation and rule of our lives.
Saint Thomas More, pray for us.
Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of the poor, pray for us.
- Archbishop Dermot Farrell is Archbishop of Dublin