2006-05-03 12:13:00

Paper of Donal Brendan Murray, Bishop of Limerick, Member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, read at the international Orthodox-Catholic Conference “Give a Soul to Europe. The Mission and Responsibility of the Churches”

Economy and solidarity in Europe vis-a-vis developing countries.
Charity as the task of the Church



Ireland is perhaps the country in Western Europe which has changed most rapidly over the last twenty years. Poverty and enforced emigration have been replaced by affluence and immigration, an overtly religious society has become increasingly secularised. In that time the country has moved from a situation where poverty and forced emigration were the dominant social realities, to a point where affluence and immigration from many parts of the world, especially Africa and Central Europe, are the most obvious realities. It is, therefore, a useful illustration of the issues that we face.

I want It is interesting to reflect on how this dramatic change has affected our culture our and how it has affected religion and faith and in particular how it has affected our sense of responsibility towards the developing world.

The factors which really influence people’s attitudes are often unrecognised and unspoken, which makes it difficult to respond to them. The ‘hidden culture’ takes itself for granted.

In a very perceptive book written almost ten years ago, Father Michael Paul Gallagher gives a striking image of how listed some of the ways in which culture shapes us and our identity. They included: It is, he said, like, an ocean surrounding us as water a fish. a lens which we see through without realising that it is not the only way of seeing. a womb in which one feels completely at home without realising that there are other worlds. a playground of possibilities inviting one to creative freedom

The limiting effect of culture is not inevitable. Culture can also be the foundation by which we reach out to others in the dialogue through which they and we can grow. The influx of new immigrants Irish opens such a possibility, but sadly, apart from some excellent Church groups, this has not happened to a significant extent.

The hidden culture which is at work in Ireland at present has a number of characteristics which I might list, in no particular order, so as to reflect on their impact on religious belief and on the commitments that arise from it, particularly towards the developing world.

1. The first is a loss of cultural identity and difference both within the country and with other countries. The speech patterns and behaviour patterns in Ireland, and particularly of people under forty, are virtually identical with those of people in Britain, the USA and Australia. The music, television and cinema are also very similar.

It is remarkable that such profound changes in culture have taken place with little or no questioning and little or no sense of loss. The religious dimension of that culture seems to have disappeared from the minds of many people so that, as Pope John Paul put it, the question of God does not appear above their existential horizon. In other cases the religious dimension is intact but almost totally privatised; so that it makes no visible impact on how Christians live the social, political, economic aspects of their lives.

The words spoken by Pope John Paul in Limerick in 1979 were prophetic:

It is [lay people’s] specific vocation and mission to express the Gospel in their lives and thereby to insert the Gospel as a leaven into the reality of the world in which they live and work. The great forces which shape the world - politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work - are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission.. On the positive side, the commitment of Irish people to development aid is impressive, through the Catholic development agency Trocaire, the word means ‘mercy’, through Concern founded by two Catholic priests, and through Goal and other smaller agencies. Trocaire, the word means ‘mercy’, holds its main annual collection for development in Lent. Last year (2005) its income from donations for the year was € 74.3 million in a country of about 5 million Catholics, (although this included an extraordinary contribution of € 26.5 million for the Asian tsunami - for which the other agencies also received very large donations.) I have no doubt that the tradition of faith is a large part of the reason for such generosity. But the how far is that motivation is understood and consciously grasped. It is certainly less spoken of than it would have been in the past. The idea that one is acting on the basis of religious motivation is not easily expressed in the context of our hidden culture. This would be a great loss. Deus Caritas Est is quite clear that as a community, the Church must practise love. The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These activities presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being. The lack of a conscious, expressed appreciation that the ministry of charity is an essential element in the life of the Church would be a serious weakness. “It is very important that that the Church’s charitable activity does not become another form of social assistance” One fears that this activity of Christian charity may be beginning to lose its soul.

These changes were hastened by the sudden affluence which brought a great change in people’s expectations and goals. A half a century ago, parents wanted to have a happy family life, they wanted their children to ‘do well’ with a ‘good steady job’. Their economic ambitions were not high. They were aware of a duty to the developing world, but more in terms of support for missionaries than development in the economic sense.

Nowadays as one author put it, “The New Irish Dream is about me, mine and yours. The New Dream speaks in the possessive case.”

Ireland has taken to the new affluent lifestyle with even more enthusiasm than most countries. The Irish consumption of alcohol was the fifth lowest in the OECD in the 1960s. Now we consume more alcohol per head than any other nation.

The old Irish Dream was seen in community terms in the achievement of Irish unity, in overcoming the suffering of the past and, for the vast majority, in ultimately being able to enter into eternal life with the Risen Christ. The sense of a deprivation and of past suffering and oppression created a real sense of solidarity with countries seeking independence and attempting to build up their resources.

The new Irish Dream, on the other hand, is one of achieving affluence, of constantly improving one’s standing vis-a-vis others: Its catch phrase is ‘I want to be Number One’: “The Old Irish Dream was about us, ours and them. The New Irish Dream is about me, mine and yours. The New Dream speaks in the possessive case.”

The drive for affluence, for having more ‘success’, thought of almost entirely in economic terms, is very strong. House prices continue to rise very steeply so that young couples are in increasingly greater debt and very vulnerable to an economic downturn which would leave them unable to meet the financial commitments they have undertaken.

The result is a society which is always busy, always active. It is a society which leaves little space for contemplation.

It is strange that, in the midst of all of this dramatic change and pressure to ‘succeed’, Irish people consistently show up in surveys as being among the most contented on earth - happy and optimistic about the future. In late 2004, a study conducted by British magazine, The Economist, placed Ireland at the top of the world quality of life index. The Irish media reacted with some hostility to this result. Perhaps in this case the media were right. Is it optimism or complacency?

2. This leads me to the second characteristic. The statistics of religious practice in the Catholic Church are in decline. Vocations to the priesthood have all but disappeared. In the 1960s there was a national seminary with over five hundred seminarians as well as six other seminaries in Ireland and one in Rome. Some of these were preparing a proportion of their seminarians for ministry in dioceses outside Ireland; one did so exclusively. This does not count those who were in preparation for the religious life. Thus, there were not far short of a thousand young men preparing for the diocesan priesthood. The figure now is about sixty.

This decline has been predicted for twenty years. In 1983, Father Michael Paul Gallagher identified what he called a ‘shallow faith’. People, he said, were more marginalised from their faith than their external behaviour would suggest. Such ‘shallow faith’ would not last. Only faith expressed in a free personal decision was likely to survive in the new situation.

In spite of the expressions of optimism and happiness there is a hunger for some kind of spirituality. The hidden culture suggests that the Catholic Church and mainstream Christian denominations cannot provide that because they are dying.

In his challenging book, to which I referred already, David McWilliams, an economist and journalist, David McWilliams a journalist and economist, points to a phenomenon that has emerged in the last five years or so - people seeking a new synthesis in many different ways.

points to a new phenomenon that has emerged in the last five years or so. This is a group of people who see the possibility of reconciling the division between the old Irish Dream and the new one into a new synthesis. He regards them as the elite among those about whom he is writing - people he calls ‘the Pope’s children’ because they were born in the 1970s, the decade during which Pope John Paul visited Ireland.

They do not look to the Catholic Church. He makes one oversimplified comment which is not entirely wrong: “Old conservative Ireland is has become a magnet for pagan New Age travellers and old liberal Ireland is brimming with evangelical Christians.

That is something of an oversimplification but it gives an indication of how complex the issue is. What is clear is that at both ends of the spectrum, there is a recognised hunger for spiritual sustenance which is not seeking answers in the religious traditions they have inherited.

The numbers attending evangelical churches have increased ten-fold in ten years and over three-quarters of those attending are of Irish birth. Something in the region of twenty five New Age groups are listed on the website of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation which concerns itself with cults and sects. The list, incidentally, includes groups which, in my view, should not be included under the heading of cults and sects.

I do not wish to exaggerate the negative here. There are large numbers of people attending Mass, and growing numbers involved in their parishes in pastoral planning and pastoral initiatives. People An increasing number have begun to appreciate that the decline in religious practice and in vocations is not a problem to be dealt with by the clergy alone. There are signs of hope and, under God, that hope depends in the creative and active involvement of lay people who realistically read the signs of the times. To tell the truth, this is what kept the faith alive in the past centuries. In relation to the outreach to the developing world, The most There is very significant support for Trocaire, the Catholic development agency, is from throughout the parishes of the country.

In this situation, of increasing religious diversity and confusion, where some groups seem to see little or no social implications arising from their faith, we need to have clarity about how our faith should influence this new society. The various parts of our world have very different understandings of the relationship between faith and politics. For some, like much Western opinion, faith should have nothing to do with politics. In other parts of the world, there appears to be no distinction at all. So how is the Gospel, to use Pope John Paul’s phrase in Limerick, to be inserted as a leaven into the reality of the world in which we live and work? Deus Caritas Est deals with this question in terms of the commitment to justice on the one hand, and the ministry of charity on the other.

The just ordering of society, Pope Benedict says, is the central responsibility of politics - of the institutions of the state and of people in their role of citizens. The role of the Church and indeed of faith is not to establish such structures and institutions, not, to put it crudely, to draw up the budget or to decide what proportion of taxes goes to road building and what proportion to education. The Church’s role is to help to form consciences, to stimulate greater understanding of the authentic requirements of justice and greater readiness to act. This will involve a purification of conscience so that people can recognise how their self interest may blind them to the true requirements of justice.

Justice is not enough, however. The State cannot provide ‘loving personal concern’. “There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable”. [moved down three paragraphs]

The Church’s role is not to attempt to usurp the proper function of the State, but “to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run”.

It is essential, therefore, that we try to get the balance right. The Church and individual members do not approach political questions with any coercive power or indeed with any detailed answers. Rather, as Vatican II expressed it, the Church “goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family”.

This is an obligation on every follower of Christ - to awaken the soul of human society. There is no point in lamenting the fact that life seems lonely or pointless or unsatisfying for so many people, that there is something superficial and empty about contemporary life, if we who have come to believe in God’s love do not live that faith and share it, and if large parts of our lives are, in practice, lived as though God did not exist.

Justice is not enough, however. The State cannot provide ‘loving personal concern’. “There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable”.

Everything we do, every decision we make, every policy we support should express “a love nourished by an encounter with Christ”. We should try to see Christ in every person we meet, in everybody affected by our actions or attitudes. This means giving the other person not just his or her due, but ourselves:

“My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own but by very self. I must be personally present in my gift”.

This is where our participation in social life begins; this is what gives it spiritual energy. This is what demands of us that we approach our social obligations seeking to love our neighbour as Jesus has loved us (John 15:12). That is why we must not be misled by the claim that religion should have nothing to do with politics.

3. The third characteristic is that there is a profound distrust of institutions of all kinds, which Traditions and institutions are seen as cold, manipulative and oppressive. All of the areas of life which Pope John Paul called on us to try to influence and to work within are seen to a greater or lesser extent as institutions: “politics, the mass media, science, technology, education, industry and work.” The distrust of institutions means precisely that people cannot feel that they fully belong in any of these areas except in a strictly limited and limiting capacity.

One of the most urgent priorities for the mainstream Churches, therefore, is to enable people to see the Church for what it truly arise in its deepest reality - not an institution or structure but a communion. How can we act as a community in any sphere, including development, unless we recognise ourselves as being in communion?

The attraction of evangelical or house churches is the warmth of the welcome that they offer. We need to remember that hospitality was seen as almost the fundamental virtue of Christians when they gathered to worship (James 2: 2-8).

I would like to share a thought about a very successful youth movement in Limerick, started long before my arrival. It set itself three foundational pillars. Welcome, Learning and Prayer (in the Irish language, Failte, Foghlaim agus Gui). Prayer and learning were of course vital elements, but I am convinced that the most crucial one was ‘welcome’. ‘Whoever you are’, they were saying, ‘whatever you believe, you are welcome because you are you; you are a person to be loved and respected and listened to”. That is precisely what people, and particularly young people, fear that they will not hear when they approach what appears to them as a cold institution rigorous and severe in its demands about orthodoxy and about moral standards.

Speaking of those who are divorced and remarried, and excluded from Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul stressed that the Church is their merciful mother and earnestly called on pastors and faithful “to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptised persons they can and must share in her life.” I have to say that I still find priests and people who are not fully comfortable with this.

It is fundamental that we have to address this issue. We are not primarily an institution; we are the family of our Father, gathered by the Holy Spirit of Communion into the Eternal Son,

What can we do?

a) First of all, we must try in an age of distrust of institutions and structures, nothing is more important than that we try to recover that sense of welcome and belonging which was present in the past in our countries. In the Irish language, the Church building is called ‘the house of God’s people’ and is still the case in some places, when the Church community was made up of people who were already neighbours and friends and who shared each other’s lives in many ways.. And we have to deepen and broaden it, because, in the past, it was sometimes weakened by a judgemental attitude which made people feel excluded because of their failures and weaknesses.

We can no longer assume that people will feel a sense of welcome and belonging. Increasingly, our congregations do not know one another. Increasingly they are made up of people whose first language and national culture are different from ours. We need to make our liturgies and our parish communities places which actively reach out to new parishioners, which provide them with opportunities for integration and which respect and value their cultural heritage.

To put it more biblically, the Church must not appear to those who seek its Good News to be like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. The challenge we face, especially in the West, but perhaps it may have begun also in the East, is to allow God to make the bones live: “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (Ezek 37: 5)

If we do not live as a community of love, if we do not live in communion with the Holy Trinity, we cannot be a community that witnesses to that love and shares it with the world.

b) But, we need to be realistic about the strength of our hidden culture. Christians, working with one another, and with other religious groups, need to live, and to strengthen in their own families and communities, a culture which is centred on faith. All cultures, as Pope John Paul said, have at their heart our attitude “to the greatest mystery, the mystery of God”. They are “different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence”. We in Western Europe live in a unique culture which tries to remove that question from the centre.

In Orientale Lumen This was the question specifically addressed by Pope John Paul pointed out that we in the West live in a culture in which in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, on the importance of the Eastern tradition for us in the West. We have a culture which seeks as far as possible to avoid looking at the mystery. We live in a hidden culture in which as he said precisely in his letter we are “often afraid to be silent for fear of meeting (ourselves), for fear of feeling the emptiness that asks itself about meaning”. He pointed out that the Christians of the East perceive that one draws close to the living persons of the Blessed Trinity, who are tenderly present, “above all by letting oneself be taught an adoring silence, for at the culmination of the knowledge and experience of God is his absolute transcendence” ..

He also said in that Letter that, “The cry of men and women today seeking meaning for their lives reaches all the Churches”. The lesson that we have learned in the West is how easily that cry can fail to meet a satisfying response from the Churches when the seeker has lost an understanding of the full depth of his cry because the underlying sense of mystery and transcendence has disappeared below his or her horizon.

If we ask the question, ‘who can help to build up this sense of mystery?’ the only answer has to be ‘all of us working together’. What we are trying to counter is not just an idea or influences that are incompatible with Christianity. It is a whole culture, taken for granted “like a womb in which one feels completely at home without realising that there are other worlds”. This culture sees religion as being, at best, a purely individual, private phenomenon which has no relevance to the rest of life. But a god who is not relevant to every part and every moment of life is not God at all.

That is why we have to find ways of ensuring that religion is open to the full dimensions of God’s Kingship and to the universal concept of neighbour:

The concept ‘neighbour’ is now universalised, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now.

We must create other worlds, other lenses, through which people can see the questions that they have come to regard as irrelevant. Liturgy and prayer are the most fundamental ways of doing this, when we worship God with all the angels and saints. There we meet Jesus and in him all of the brothers and sisters in whose name he will challenge us about how in responding or failing to respond to them, we did it to him (Mt 25). This must extend to social life at home and to developing countries.

We have to proclaim in words and actions, and where possible together, that there is more to us than our hidden culture would lead us to believe. We have to proclaim the central truth of Pope Benedict’s encyclical: “We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life”.


Vienna, May 3-5, 2006