Archbishop Martin, representatives of other Churches and faith communities, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen;

It is a great pleasure to open this Conference on Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est. It is a mark of the appeal and significance of the Holy Father’s chosen theme, unexpected by some, that this Conference is so heavily oversubscribed. We haven’t quite filled Croke Park, but we have certainly stretched the capacity of this large Conference room in the Hogan Stand and more people wanted to come. I thank all of you for being here.

I thank, in anticipation, our speakers; Professor Conor Gearty, Lucy Fallon Byrne and Bishop Donal Murray. I thank our Chair and speakers on the afternoon discussion panel: Mayor Rotimi Adebari, Sister Joan Roddy, Professor John Monaghan, Dr Duncan Morrow and Dr Fergus O’Farrell.

I congratulate Bishop Raymond Field and the Advisory Board of the Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Social Affairs on this excellent initiative. In a relatively short space of time Bishop Field and his colleagues have brought the ICJSA from a standing start to become one of most active and widely known Commissions of the Bishops’ Conference. On behalf of the Conference I want to thank them for their vital work.

I want to welcome especially this morning the newest member of the Commission’s team, Miss Nicola Rooney from just outside Newry. As the new Researcher and Administrator of ICJSA Nicola brings with her many personal and intellectual gifts, including the gift of youth. I hope many of you who work in this field already will get to know Nicola in the weeks and months ahead. I know that her doctoral studies on the role of the Catholic Church in conflict resolution will make a particularly important contribution to the work of the Commission.

Of course, no event like this comes together without a lot of careful preparation. In formally opening the Conference I also want to thank those who worked so hard behind the scenes to bring today’s event together. A special word of thanks to Sandra Garry, Bernie Moloney and others from the Columba Centre in Maynooth; thanks also to Martin Long, Brenda Drumm, Marie Purcell and Kathy Tynan from the Catholic Communications Office. They are all here today to provide you with whatever assistance you may need as the day goes on.

Our day began with the beautiful prayer service which they prepared. At the heart of that prayer service was the Gospel of the Good Samaritan. It is significant, I believe, that the story begins with the fundamental human question: ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The Lord responds with the perfect summary of the law, the prophets and the new Covenant: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind – and you must love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
Clearly this answer catches the questioner somewhat by surprise, and the part which most challenges him, is the emphasis given to making our love of God a reality in our human relationships. His inclination is to deflect the question because something within him instinctively tells him his comfort zones are about to be challenged: ‘And who is my neighbour’? The answer – someone you do not expect, someone from outside your assumed cultural, political, social and religious parameters for inclusion. The answer is the iconic story of the Good Samaritan. It is a story of love, of the face of God, revealed in unexpected people. It is the story of borders in our minds and hearts becoming new horizons of hope and healing for the whole human family because of the message of Jesus Christ.
Three weeks ago this story of the Good Samaritan took on a whole new significance for me. Thanks to Trocaire, who are co-sponsoring today’s event with the Bishops’ Conference, I was in the Holy Land. We said Mass in a Christian village called Zababdeh in the north of Samaria – near the border with Galilee. The village was on the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem. The Holy Family would have passed through there several times. The village is near the place where Jesus cured the ten lepers. I seem to remember that the only one who came back to say thanks on that occasion was also a Samaritan.
Well, we had this extremely lively liturgy – great singing – great participation. After Mass we all went to the Parish Hall for a cup of strong Bedouin coffee and a very hearty Ceád Mile Fáilte from the village elders. I thought to myself that the Lord surely had some of the ancestors of these sturdy people in mind when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. They were so welcoming and so helpful. It was a real joy to be in their company.

As I drove through the Israeli check points on the long car journey back to Jerusalem, I looked, in amazement, at the huge and winding concrete wall which hemmed people in, separated them physically and psychologically throughout the territory. As I did so, I was also struck by how relevant, how urgent the story of the Good Samaritan still is for our world today. Even in Belfast, despite the progress of recent years in our own country, score of peace walls continue to exist. Of course, there are other walls of social, cultural, religious, philosophical and political division in our world and in our society. There are other walls of prejudice and exclusion in our minds and in our hearts, walls of suspicion and distrust.

Hence the significance of Pope Benedict’s compelling exposition of the theological, spiritual and practical consequences of God’s identity – God is love.
Last weekend I was in Drogheda. I called to see the Medical Missionaries of Mary. I love being in the company of people like that who, despite the fact that they are now in their twilight years of life, are so happy that they have given their best days to the love of their neighbours in the mission fields of Africa and elsewhere. By the way, it is wonderful to see so many religious sisters here today!
I met there a religious sister in her autumn years, with her arm in a sling because she had had a slight accident. That was not going to hold her back though. She was setting out the next day to return to her mission field, bringing medical care to those would not otherwise receive it. She didn’t need to be reminded that God is love and that love is the service which the Church carries out to attend constantly to the sufferings and needs of humankind, including material needs. She knew it instinctively. It was a reflex, born of prayer, of a personal closeness to the Lord. She was, like so many others, a person who knows what it is to make the civilisation of love a reality. She did so by transforming the ordinary tasks of everyday life into moments of encounter with God’s life giving love. She was, like so many others – mothers and fathers, medical personnel, carers, the list could on – she was the living embodiment of that which Pope Benedict speaks of in paragraph 19 of his letter when he says: “The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of the human family: it seeks his evangelization through Word and Sacrament, an undertaking that is often heroic in the way it is acted out in history; and it seeks to promote the human person in the various arenas of life and human activity.”

This Encyclical talks a lot about responsibilities and this is a welcome change. Responsibility obviously has to do with answering for something to somebody.

The first challenge is to face up to the fact that love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, first and foremost, is a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful. Anyone who needs help, and whom I can help, is my neighbour.

But love of neighbour is a responsibility for the Church at every level – at parish level; diocesan level; the level of the Universal Church. “Love of neighbour needs to be organised” the Pope says. The introduction of Deacons in the early Church was the response to this need. The decision has been taken to introduce Permanent Deacons to Ireland. The realisation that this exercise of charity is one of the essential activities of the Church alongside that of proclaiming the Word and celebrating the sacraments should add a new energy and urgency to our approach to the introduction of the permanent diaconate.

There is a special challenge for bishops in this encyclical. It recalls that in the Rite of Episcopal Ordination, the Bishop-elect promises to be welcoming and merciful to the poor and to all those in need of consolation and assistance. The directory for the pastoral ministry of bishops highlights most specifically the duty of charity as a responsibility on the whole Church and on each bishop in his diocese.

The directory emphasises charity as an action of the Church as such and that like the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, it too has been an essential part of our mission from the very beginning.

The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in this three-fold responsibility:

1. To preach the Word of God,
2. Celebrate the sacraments, and
3. To exercise the ministry of charity.

The Catechism which I learned at school had a question, who is my neighbour? The answer went something like this. ‘My neighbour is all mankind, of every description without exception, even those who injure me or differ from me in religion’.

What a difference it would make if, in fact, we were to love all humankind, of every description, without distinction, even those who injure us or differ from us in culture, politics or religion. What a difference it would make to the history of this country for example, and to the history of the world.

In the words of Pope Benedict, “Love promises something far greater and different than our everyday existence”. But the way to reach the something greater is not simply to give in to instinct but to grow in maturity. This happens when body and soul are intimately linked. Christian faith has always seen the human person as a unity – where spirit and matter mix – where each is brought to a new nobility through purification and self-control”.

Genuine love seeks the good of the Beloved. Love involves care and concern for the other person. Love is ready and willing to make sacrifices but the human person cannot always give but must sometimes receive. And so, biblical faith intervenes in this human search for love by enriching the notion of love. Biblical faith purifies the search for love and enriches it. It does this by presenting, first of all, a new image of God. We are created in that image. We are called to be the living presence of God’s image to others.

Jesus, in the Eucharist, is that living presence to us. Jesus not only offered himself for us on the cross. He now invites us to share his body and blood so that we may be united with him and united with God. But union with Christ also implies union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ for myself. I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become His Own.

This is why for the Church charity is not an optional extra that could be equally well left to others. It is part of our nature and an indispensable expression of our very being. The Church is God’s family in the world. In this family, no-one ought to go without the necessities of life. And yet, charity extends beyond the frontiers of the Church.

This is why, in the words of Pope Benedict “Love of neighbour needs to be organised”. This Conference give us an opportunity to begin the reflection on how we are organising it?

It gives us the chance to:

1. Study the content of this most important encyclical.
2. Take on board the urgent challenges which it addresses to the Church in Ireland at this time;
3. Assess how we are, in fact, responding to those challenges,
4. Identify what needs to be done and what can be done to fill the gaps in our response.

The Church is called to ‘reawaken’, the encyclical says, ‘the moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor proved effective’. There is quite a challenge here – are we, for example, to reawaken the moral forces to pay more taxes so as to provide better social services? Are we called to redress the balance between individual pursuit of wealth and our duty to the common good in the form of better education for our children and better health services for the elderly and those who are ill? No doubt these are the kind of questions which will underpin much of what we reflect on today.

Yet it is not to economists, to politicians or even human rights activists that the Church turns in this Encyclical for example, vital and respected as the work of these vocations are. The encyclical turns attention instead to the saints. In doing so, it is not suggesting that these other insights into the human condition are secondary. It is reminding us, in a timely fashion, that what we need are economists, human rights activists, politicians and journalists indeed, who are themselves saints, who are themselves in touch with, motivated by and witnesses to others of the love and care of God. What we need today are more St. Vincent de Paul’s, new Mother Teresa’s, new St Brigid’s of Kildare who built her monasteries to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless.

These are the people who will be able to bring young people to Christ, young people with their instinct for justice and solidarity in a shrinking world. Indeed, one of the great signs of the times is a growing sense of solidarity between all the different people of the world. It is a source of hope for the future of the human family, one which we should build on.
State agencies and humanitarian associations are increasingly co-operating to promote this. Many forms of co-operation between State and Church agencies have borne immense fruit. Here I pay tribute to the contribution of the Irish State and to their willingness to co-operate with agencies like Trócaire in offering humanitarian assistance to our brothers and sisters in need.

In conclusion, let me note that the story of the Good Samaritan ends with words that sum up the whole mission of the Church – Our Lord turns to the man and says – ‘GO AND DO THE SAME!’ These words sums up the reason for the Church has Trocaire, Accord, Cura and all its other activities which support the cause of the human person. It is why Pope Benedict reminds us that the fundamental vocation is every Christian is to make the civilisation love a reality in the bits and pieces of everyday life – from politics and development, to our own homes, parishes and neighbourhoods.

As I formally open this Conference, let me conclude with the prayer with which Pope Benedict concludes his encyclical. It expressed my heartfelt wish that today will be a source of renewal for all is in our knowledge of and witness to the first truth of our faith – God is love! Let us pray:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know him and to love Him,
So that we, too, can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.