SUNDAY, 16 JULY 2006

The name Matthew means Gift of God. The year 1856 linked two men bearing the name of Matthew. In 1856 Fr Theobold Matthew, the Capuchin priest known as the Apostle of Temperance died in Cork. That same year Venerable Matthew Talbot was born in Dublin. Both of these men were outstanding gifts sent by God to the people of Ireland – gifts sent by God to help us in the struggle for freedom and independence. I am not speaking of the struggle for political freedom and national independence from foreign oppression but rather of the struggle for personal freedom from slavery to drink and of the journey to independence in place of dependence on alcohol. Now, 150 years later, it is calculated that almost nine out of ten public order offences committed in Ireland are linked to alcohol. Obviously Ireland is now facing a new struggle for freedom.

Freedom from its reputation for the abuse of alcohol,
Freedom to enjoy, rather than be destroyed, by this gift of God’s creation.

In an Ireland where one quarter of the cases treated in Accident and Emergency units of our hospitals are as a result of alcohol abuse, is it not time to plead with the people of Ireland to give priority to addressing the serious problem that stems from the abuse of alcohol in our society?

Fr Theobold Matthew was an inspiration in the struggle for temperance. Venerable Matt Talbot succeeded in giving up his excessive drinking – thanks to the pledge movement, begun by Fr Matthew. Subsequently Matt Talbot became in himself a bright beacon of hope to people caught in the toils of addiction to alcohol. At the age of 28, Matt Talbot had become a seemingly hopeless alcoholic. At the tender age of 12 he got a job as a message boy for a firm of wine merchants. He quickly fell into the habit of drinking too much, a habit, which lasted some 16 years.

At the age of 28 Matt Talbot came to his senses. His own money had run out. His friends refused to buy him a drink. That day Matt took the pledge, went to Confession, the next day he received Holy Communion for the first time in years. At first he took the pledge for 3 months, then for 1 year and finally for life. The struggle to break the habit was not easy but with the help of a life of prayer and penance, Matt Talbot succeeded gloriously. He slept for only three and a half hours per night on two wooden planks and a wooden pillow, got up at 2 am to pray and went to 6 o’clock Mass. He ate no meat for 9 months of the year and at midday he ate a slice of dry bread and a cup of cold tea. Matt Talbot decided to replace the bad habit of drinking too much with the good habit of temperance.

Those who are moderate in life are admired for two important qualities, their freedom and their strength of character, freedom from slavery to excess and freedom for the things which lead to real joy and fulfilment, freedom from the demons which block and destroy wholeness, freedom for the journey to genuine happiness and maturity.

“There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength” says St. Paul (ph.4.13).

The greatest strength of all is strength of character – the strength of self-control. The recent World Cup has often shown how costly loss of self-restraint can be.

People need help to resist the temptation to drink too much. They must be convinced with information on the potential damage to their health, physical, mental and moral. People must be helped to become confident and so secure in themselves that they don’t need to turn to alcohol to get Dutch courage. They need time and attention to know that they are loved, first of all by their parents and families. The first call must go to young people themselves to take responsibility for their lives and for the consequences of their actions. They must be called and helped and motivated. They can be given self-confidence through the abundant love of their parents, which will give them the strength of character to live lives of sobriety and self-control.

At the marriage feast of Cana, Mary, the Mother of Jesus said, “They have no wine”. Her son, Jesus, responded by working his first miracle. But in the midst of the mindset in which John wrote those words they refer not to the wine of the grape, but to the wine of the heart of Christ – that is compassion for all. Today in Ireland the growing drinks crisis calls for a major and concerted response from the people and from their leaders. Compassion for the plight of our young people – ‘drowning in an ocean of drink’, as one politician described it, should move the minds and hearts of all to action.

What can parents and guardians do? In the first place they can offer to each other and to their children an example of sobriety and/or abstinence. In this way they would be doing their best to convince their children of the damage that results from becoming addicted to alcohol. They could decide to spend more time talking to their children, praying with their children and relaxing with them.

They could meet with other committed parents from the extended family or neighbourhood to explore together the chief influences on their children, their own best hopes for their children and the support and assistance, which they need as, parents. They might even consider exploring together why drink, drugs, gambling and even vandalism sometimes seem more attractive than the challenge of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ.

Irish young people have the right to grow up in a society free from pressure to consume alcohol. Leaders in that society have a responsibility to help parents in keeping childhood and early adolescence alcohol-free in our present culture of indulgence. Could those with influence in society, clergy, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, police and media, pool resources in order to create a more effective counterdynamic against intemperate consumption and behaviours? The problem is so serious that its remedy must become an issue of public priority. It deserves the same focus and determination from all the leaders of our society as we give to the peace process, to road safety or to the economy. The peace of so many homes, the health of so many of our young people and the happiness of our society are at stake.

Surely there is an excellent case to be made for the provision of more ample facilities and activities for young people which are drink-free. The efforts of the Pioneer Association, the No Name Club and responsible youth clubs in this regard are to be highly commended.

The questions must be asked,
How do the various vested interests subvert the efforts to address the drink problem?
Why do the images of “the good life” so often give the false message: – “You have to drink alcohol if you want to really enjoy yourself”?

The fact is that it is irresponsible and illegal to serve alcoholic drink to minors. It is immoral to serve drink to people who are already drunk. It is a grave dereliction of duty to fail to try to dissuade a person, with too much drink, from driving a motor vehicle on the public highway. The widespread promotion, in various guises, of cheap drink to students, is especially reprehensible. The result is behaviour that can adversely effect their future in a wide variety of ways.

It is always better to light the candle than to curse the darkness. Those many generous people who help the addicted and their dependents deserve greater support. The example of Venerable Matt Talbot gives inspiration to all of us to give more support to those helping the rehabilitation of those addicted to alcohol and drugs.

At his death, Jesus shouted out, “I thirst.” This is not thirst for a drink of beer or spirits. It is the thirst for what Jesus bestowed on each one of us, the Holy Spirit of love. Our greatest fear should be of ever losing that precious gift of God’s love. Unfortunately if we abuse the gifts of the Creator we run the risk of losing the love of the Creator.

The stakes are high, very high indeed. A significant part of Irish contemporary society is deeply wounded in its relation to alcohol – alcohol, which is something good in itself but which if used to excess is anything but good. Alcohol – wine is something good, created by a good God to give joy to the human heart. The temperate person masters the excess to which nature invites. Only when wine is not used properly but abused in a misplaced exercise of human freedom does it become a problem. The primary cost of this misplaced exercise of human freedom is borne in the home by the family.

At the marriage feast of Cana, Mary said to her son, Jesus, “They have no wine”. Today it is not a question of having no wine; rather it is a question of not having the ability to deal with the temptation to excess. It is a question of not having enough moderation, enough temperance and enough self-control, ultimately it is a question of knowing how to use the goods of the earth properly.

A temperate person gladly avoids any useless and intemperate use of the goods of this earth. Venerable Matt Talbot, with his outstanding life of prayer and penance, gives hope. May his life inspire all who are troubled by their use of alcohol.