Speech proposing the report of the Diocesan Council for Mission at the Diocesan Synod of Dublin and Glendalough, 21st October 2009
Visiting Rwanda in the summer was a humbling experience. Fifteen years after the most hideous genocide Christians now stand together for the Gospel they share. Perhaps we have taken longer in Ireland, after centuries of sectarian division, we have a long history to leave behind, but we are getting there. If mission in Ireland is going to be possible, if making the Good News of Jesus Christ real in every community is going to be possible, we need to reach the point where we are able to stand together. True mission and ecumenism have always gone together, the modern ecumenical movement was born out of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.
There is only one church that has the capacity to reach the overwhelming majority of the people of this country; only one church that has the capacity to reach the poorest and most remote communities; only one church that has a physical presence in every corner, and our Catholic brothers and sisters have asked our support, our partnership in the Year of Evangelisation.
A series of flagship events is proposed, from singing carols at the heart of the city to walking in the steps of Saint Kevin at Glendalough, but these are meant as no more than signs of what is going on. In every parish, there needs to be local expressions of the Year of Evangelisation; it needs people to go from this synod and ask their Catholic neighbours, ‘how can we work together to tell Good News in our community?’
In this week of all weeks, we need to be people of encouragement. Pending the verdict of the High Court, the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Child Abuse in Dublin Diocese is due for publication. John Cooney’s bleak assessment of its possible impact appeared in last Friday’s Irish Independent,
“Now, finally, the Dublin report will appear just months after the nation reeled from the horrors of the systematic scale of abuse of children in reformatories and industrial schools by members of religious orders as chronicled in the Ryan report. As Archbishop Martin waits patiently for the fall-out of the Murphy report, he has warned that “the report will make each of us and the entire church in Dublin a humbler church”. But for many lapsed Catholics — and for the many more who are still clinging onto the faith of their fathers — their trust in the institutional church has already gone.”
There seems a profound voicelessness within our Church of Ireland community; our Catholic friends and neighbours and the goodly priests whom we have known for years have been betrayed by clergy who used the cover of their priesthood as a veil for evil, and they have been betrayed by leaders who sought to conceal the most heinous of crimes, and we have not known what to say in response. What is there we can say? What is there a community as small as our own can do?
William Trevor wrote a short story called “Of the Cloth” back in 2000. It alludes to the case of Father Brendan Smyth. I think the emotions felt by the Church of Ireland Rector in the story are the emotions felt by many of us; Trevor captures brilliantly a sense of where we find ourselves this week. I would beg synod’s indulgence for a few paragraphs.
Grattan Fitzmaurice, is the bachelor Rector of a group of three country Church of Ireland parishes. His gardener has died and on the evening after the funeral Mass in the town’s Catholic church, the Catholic curate calls; as he is leaving, the conversation touches upon thoughts prompted by Smyth’s photograph on the front of the newspaper:
‘Time was, a priest in Ireland wouldn’t read the Irish Times. Father MacPartlan remarks on that. But we take it in now.’
‘I thought maybe that picture -‘
‘There’s more to it all than what that picture says.’ Something about the quiet tone of voice bewildered Grattan. And there were intimations beneath the tone that startled him. Father Leahy said: ‘It’s where we’ve ended.’
So softly that was spoken, Grattan hardly heard it, and then it was repeated, increasing his bewilderment. Why did it seem he was being told that the confidence the priests possessed was a surface that lingered beyond its day? Why, listening, did he receive that intimation? Why did it seem he was being told that there was illusion, somewhere, in the solemn voices, hands raised in blessing, the holy water, the cross made in the air?
At Ennismolach, long ago, there had been the traps and the side-cars and the dog-carts lined up along the Sunday verges, as the cars were lined up now outside the Church of the Holy Assumption. The same sense of nourishment there’d been, the safe foundation on a rock that could not shatter. Why did it seem he was being reminded of that past?
‘But surely,’ he began to say, and changed his mind, leaving the two words uselessly on their own. He often read in the paper these days that in the towns Mass was not as well attended as it had been even a few years ago. In the towns marriage was not always bothered with, confession and absolution passed by. A different culture, they called it, in which restraint and prayer were not the way, as once they had been. Crime spread in the different culture, they said, and drugs taken by children, and old women raped, and murder. A plague it was, and it would reach the country too, was reaching it already . . .
. . . ‘Anywhere you’d be,’ Grattan said, ‘there’s always change. Like day becoming night.’
‘I know. Sure, I know of course.’
Father Leahy’s cigarette dropped on to the ground. There was the sound of his shoe crunching away the spark left in the butt, then his footsteps began on the gravel. A light came on when he opened the car door.
‘You’re not left bereft, you know,’ Grattan said.
“You’re not left bereft”, in three words William Trevor expresses a profoundly Christian hope. For a Christian, it might be an obvious statement, the Spirit is always with us, but when the news media brings only bleak stories and when there seems no way forward, bereftness might be felt very widely in the Catholic archdiocese when the report is published.
But we can do more than say, ‘You’re not left bereft’, we can go back to our parishes and provide the partnership and the encouragement that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has asked from us. We can pick up the phone, tomorrow, and say to our neighbours, ‘what shall we do together for the Year of Evangelisation?’ It might be to come and sing carols at the Mansion House, it might be walking the ancient paths of Glendalough, it will hopefully be one of many things happening throughout the diocese; what we cannot do is to do nothing.: when asked for help by a neighbour, Christians do not turn their backs.