Milwaukee Irish Fest 2007

Sermon by
Cardinal Seán Brady

My dear friends in Jesus Christ,
It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning. We come together to give thanks to God for all his blessings but especially for the success of this year’s Irish Fest. As Archbishop of Armagh, it is an honour to be here as part of this celebration of all things Irish. It has been a spectacular event. I congratulate all those who organised it and wish you continued success for future festivals.

When I was growing up on the family farm in County Cavan, the name MILWAUKEE was already well known to me. It was the name of the mower, with which with we cut the grass. This grass made the hay, which fed the animals, which kept the family alive. All of this took place during the summer holidays, a time of great peace and care free enjoyment. It was a time when I really appreciated the joy of living on the land.

What a joy then to discover that the original meaning of the name Milwaukee is ‘a rich and fertile land, abounding in rivers and lakes.’ Looking around this beautiful place I can understand why. It not only reminds of my childhood but also words of the Psalm: ‘fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose, near restful waters he leads me, to revive my drooping spirit’. I can think of no more appropriate place to celebrate the things of Ireland, with its lakes and glens, its fields and mountains and – of course – its forty shades of green!

Ireland too is a beautiful place. I hope that many of you in future years will come and visit. The link with our relatives of Irish descent in the United States has been a critical part of Ireland’s success in recent years. I thank all of you who have kept those links alive. I also thank you this morning for ensuring that this Mass for Justice and Peace is the highlight of the Irish Fest celebrations. There is no more urgent task in our world today, than to build the structures of justice. There is no more pressing need than to find the way to peace – peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of soul – social, political and economic peace on an international scale.

And the good news I bring to you from Ireland today, is that such a peace is indeed possible. As many of you know, for centuries Ireland has been marked by conflicts over history, resources, power, land, identity, culture and religion. These are the fault lines around which all the conflicts of our world take place today. But in recent years we in Ireland have discovered how to set aside our centuries old conflict and create a better way. It is not a finished work – there are many challenges ahead – but with the disposal of paramilitary weapons by the IRA and the creation of a power-sharing government in Belfast in recent months, a real and substantial peace is emerging among us.

In the second reading the author tells us, ‘We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us… persevere in running the race that lies before us…’. We thank God today for those many witnesses who have persevered in the difficult work of justice and peace. I am thinking of people like Senator George Mitchell who brokered the peace in Ireland. I am thinking of those many peace-makers throughout the world and especially in the USA, who continue to work for peace in Ireland and across the world. I am also thinking here of that great crowd of witnesses who persevered in the faith when they came to Milwaukee at the time when the Diocese was founded in 1843. At first the Catholics came, mainly from Germany and then, after the Great Famine of 1847-48, from Ireland. Later the Italians and the Poles followed of course.

Wherever they came from, they all met opposition – fierce opposition – in the form of segregation, isolation and misrepresentation. This was an opposition sponsored by various groups such as the infamous ‘know-nothings’ and the ‘nativists’. It was an opposition that was confronted and eventually overcome by a Church that became well organised. It established parishes, schools and Catholic societies. These are the same parishes, schools and Catholic organisations that you continue to support so generously today. It was a Church that eventually, through a vigorous and informed Catholic press, succeeded in making Catholics respectable in the eyes of the public.

These heroic witnesses from your past remind us that the work for justice and peace can bear fruit. Things can change for the better. We also have the powerful witness of St. Patrick. As you will recall, he was kidnapped and cruelly dragged to our shores at the tender age of sixteen. After a number of years he escaped back to his family, only to return among us again as a great missionary, fired up by the call of the Gospel. Like Jesus, how he wished that fire of love would blaze in the hearts of the Irish people. And when, like Patrick, you are consumed by the love of God – all things are possible! He made peace with the people who had once held him captive. He forgave those who maligned him in his mission. He persevered to the end in following Christ’s call.

Another group of who persevered in following Christ’s call, another great cloud of witnesses set before us, are your fore fathers and mothers of generations back who set sail for this great land of freedom and hope. The first Catholics that came to this region from Ireland probably didn’t have a lot by way of formal religious education. One thing they did have was a strong and tender love of the Mother of Christ – the most loving and beloved of all women. They came from an Ireland where, due to the penal laws, their parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to Mass often. So the Rosary was their favourite form of prayer and devotion. They learned to love God and neighbour by meditating on the love and charity of Christ’s mother. Mary, who loved Jesus most, suffered more than all others on Calvary. In that immense suffering Mary learned compassion and shared compassion with others.

This compassionate love, this ability to feel and respect the needs of others, shown to us by Mary, is the road to the peace of Christ – to the civilization of love – of which Pope Benedict speaks so eloquently in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is impatient to see this civilisation of love take root among us. The fire which he seeks to bring to the earth is the fire of the Holy Spirit, the consuming fire of selfless, transforming love.

Of course Jesus has now suffered his passion and his saving death. He has triumphed over death and returned to the Father and from there he has sent his Holy Spirit – the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Because all this has happened, each one of us is now faced with the choice. Do we allow the fire of the love of the Spirit of the Risen Christ to be lit in our hearts or do we not? That is where the division comes in – some people will welcome that Spirit of Love – others will reject it. For, if we believe in Jesus Christ, and in his teaching, well there can be no room for prevarication. Each one of us has our responsibility to act in accordance with the grace of the Holy Spirit offered to us. And when we accept that grace, when the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit take hold among us – the gifts and fruits of love, joy, understanding, patience, perseverance – then peace can take hold more rapidly than we ever thought possible.

In Ireland we have seen this. The heroes of the peace process are those who, like Mary, have suffered and deepened their faith through their suffering. Because of their suffering, they are compassionate people – people who have learned through their own suffering to be sensitive to the sufferings of others.

I think of the example of a lady in my own diocese whose three sons were shot dead many years ago. They were not engaged in violence and now their mother prays often for those who shot her sons.
Tragically the opposite is also true. Some people choose to remain locked in isolation and fear. They put their trust in domination and threats. They look for safety and security in physical might. They put their hopes in one day defeating or controlling their opponents.

Of course this can become an almost unbreakable cycle. The search for military security generates further suspicion and fear. That is why it is always easier to talk your way into conflict than work your way out it. The question of who was right and who was wrong, what started the conflict and what the original issues were, becomes ever more confused in the fog of violence and revenge.

We desire peace from the depths of our hearts. But what kind of peace do we want? Peace is not the just the absence of war. It is not just a question of trade-offs such as “I will scratch your back if you will scratch mine”. It is not simply the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies. The peace of Christ is built on a correct understanding of the human person. It is basically a matter of truth and integrity. It is a matter of ‘I will do this because it is the right and true and loving thing to do; not for what I am going to get out of it’. The peace of Christ is built on justice and charity – on what is the right and loving thing to do.

Unfortunately, the link between justice and charity is often missing. It is too often missing from the purely secular and political view of conflict resolution. Of course politicians must, and do, call for fair play for their own constituency. There is absolutely no risk to their elected base in that. But that is not enough. That on its own will never deliver lasting peace. The courageous and loving thing is to call for mutual respect and understanding. We also have to appeal for compromise and forgiveness. We have to rise above our fears, our ignorance and our sectarianism. To do this we need to build relationships across the many divides in our society and in our world. We need to recognise the rights of the other side. All of this draws us well beyond the limits of self-interest towards the possibility of a shared future.

What can help to break this sometimes seemingly endless cycle of violence – a constant appeal for prayers for peace. The constant appeal to all that is best within the culture of those involved in the conflict. The appeal is to go back to our shared humanity and to remember that we do, in fact, depend on each other for so much.

In the Irish context, this creation of a culture of peace was critical. It arose from the shared Christian values of the Catholic and Protestant communities. Brave ambassadors for peace, both lay and clerical, crossed over the community divide. They did so often at great risk to themselves. They were trying to understand the other side through dialogue. They wanted to build trust and dispel suspicion. This culture was best illustrated by what I see as the real heroes of the Northern Ireland conflict. I am talking about the many, many totally innocent people who, in the midst of great tragedy and pain, issued heroic words of forgiveness.

I think of Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter in the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing appealing to those responsible to desist. I think of Michael McGoldrick, whose son, Michael Jnr, was shot as he went about his taxi driving business appealing at the graveside for those in conflict to throw their hatred and their bitterness into the grave with his dead son. They appealed for no vengeance, no retaliation, no reprisals, towards those who had so cruelly harmed them. They echoed in our time, for our day, the words of the prophet Jeremiah “I myself know the plans I have for you, a plan of peace and not of war, to give you a future full of hope”.

The world stands today at a decisive crossroads. Some may wish to sensationalize the situation. They do so by speaking of a clash of civilisations. Others refer ominously to a final conflict between the great ideologies of the planet. I prefer to stick by Jeremiah’s description – a future full of hope. I believe we are at a moment of great opportunity, not of destruction. Nevertheless, a stark choice lies ahead –
Do we choose the things that build trust and reduce fear?
Do we opt for policies that deepen anger and increase suspicion?

One thing appears certain. The future for all of us is going to be global. The critical question is: Will it be a future of global solidarity or of global competition, a future of global compassion or of global aggression? That is the kind of question that will bring about the division of which Jesus spoke. In a world of finite resources, the answer to this question will determine the kind of peace that will follow – the peace of God or the illusory peace which the world brings.

However, I have the impression that something important is lacking right now in the international efforts at conflict resolution. Perhaps it is the shared understanding of peace. I mean an understanding that would be rooted in the values and beliefs of the three great traditional religions, Judaism, Islamic and Christianity. I believe that such a shared vision is not only possible but essential. Each tradition has much that is valuable to offer to it. Producing this vision and committing ourselves to living it, is a compelling priority. It is compelling because the future of our world depends upon it.

We need to agree an understanding of what that plan of peace might involve. We must give our wholehearted commitment to ensuring that the vision becomes a reality. Perhaps the United Nations could have a role in facilitating this dialogue between the faith traditions of the world and developing a vision for peace. I think this was part of the thinking of Pope John Paul II when he established the Inter-Religious Day of Prayer for Peace initiative. As Christians, Jews and Muslim, this is the greatest glory we could give to God and the greatest witness we could give to those who do not believe”.

The search for this peace will require our perseverance as we learned in Ireland. Like young Jeremiah, thrown into the well, the struggle for justice and peace will always suffer many setbacks along the way. But let us remember that those same people who threw Jeremiah into the well, eventually had a change of heart.

It is for that reason I say to you that while there are obviously many challenges facing our world today, there are more reasons to hope. In the words of the famous Wisconsin poet of the 19th century, David Fletcher Hunton, written as the gazed upon the beauty of this Lake Michigan beside us,

This is a grand prophetic time!
It gives us hope for joys sublime,.
Within a fairer, bright clime,
Where shadows are unknown!

Or in the words of the Irish mother to her fearful children as they left their beloved homeland for the promise of this great land:

Believe in hope because God is in your future
He will not let you down.

Perhaps your own forefathers shared those sentiments as they too left to come to this place. Believe in hope because God is in your future. He will not let you down.
Thank you and thank God that He is with us and will be with us to end of time.