5 MAY 2005

It is a great pleasure to be here this evening as we begin our latest gathering of the Inter-Church meeting in this European City of Culture 2005. The Irish Inter-Church Meeting has its origins in one of the most exciting and at the same time one of the most tragic periods of the interaction between religion and culture on our island. In March of 1972, when the troubles in Northern Ireland were at their most violent, the Irish Episcopal Conference, following a series of ongoing discussions between both sides, issued an invitation to the Irish Council of Churches to attend a joint meeting, quote ‘at which the whole field of ecumenism might be surveyed.’ This initiative in turn established the first Ballymascanlon Meeting in 1973, later to become the Inter-Church Meeting which continues to this day. In the words of one commentator at the time, ‘Never before had the Churches been seen to co-operate together so openly and vigorously. Rallies in Belfast and other towns revealed many thousands willing and anxious to follow their lead… The Churches were seen more clearly in a reconciling role than ever before.’

It was a far cry from the famous faith based riots in Cork in the mid 1700’s which led John Wesley to write the following words in his famous Letter to a Roman Catholic:

“Let us resolve not to hurt one another, to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each other . . . to say all the good we can, both of and to one another . . . to harbour no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper towards each other . . . and to endeavor to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God.”

It is in that spirit of ‘strengthening each other’s hands in God’ that we gather here this evening and commit the work of our meeting to the Lord in prayer. Our prayer during these days will be a very important part of our activities. After all, we are Easter people – Ascension people – but most importantly, we are Pentecost people. The Spirit has come – the Spirit of the Risen Christ who has promised to be with his disciples until the end of time. That Spirit comes with power – the power to remember Jesus, to become more like him, to continue his saving and his unifying work. The Spirit comes with the enthusiasm of love symbolized by tongues of fire, to set our minds, our hearts and our imagination on fire. The Spirit enlivens us with a creative power, to enable us to bear witness by word and deed. The Spirit comes with different languages to undo the confusion of Babel and to unite what had been divided and separated.
The effects of that coming of the Spirit are seen at once in the address of Peter in Acts. It is one of the greatest addresses of all time. He is filled with utter conviction about the identity of Jesus and the mission of the Church. Jesus is the one and only Saviour of the world and ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’.

It is this confidence which is the mark of the Spirit and for which we pray – not a Spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-control – the Spirit of unity and peace, which brings balance and beauty to the world.

From this beautiful Church of the Holy Family on Military Hill, we are well placed to appreciate the geographical balance and beauty which distinguishes the historical city of Cork. Cork is a city of symmetry and convergence. Its skyline is silhouetted by the steeples of a vast array of Churches, representing one of the widest ranges of denominations in any city in Ireland. Its outline is marked by the circle of its ancient Norman walls. The sixth century monastic site, to which the city’s origins are traced, now the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St. Fin Barre, still watches over the south gate of the city. The Catholic North Chapel and the landmark Shandon Steeple watch over the city and its people on the north side. In between, almost every bend of the twin channels of the beloved River Lee is marked with a place of prayer or pilgrimage.

And over the years, within all of this physical symmetry, a wide range of cultural and religious influences have converged to make Cork a worthy holder of the title of European City of Culture 2005, a responsibility which it has lived up to with justifiable pride. I congratulate all of those involved in organising this year of celebration. I would also like to express my particular thanks to the members of the Cork Ecumenical Standing Committee for encouraging the Irish Inter-Church Meeting to hold this reflection on ‘Spirituality and Culture’ in this European City of Culture. It reminds us that our discussion takes place in the context of Europe, with all its diversity of culture and its rich history of Christian faith. But we are also mindful that we meet in the context of what Pope John Paul II described as the ‘loss of Europe’s Christian memory… a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots.’

Certainly Europe, like Cork, like Ireland, is not lacking in prestigious symbols of the Christian presence. Yet, with the slow and steady advance of secularism, these symbols risk becoming a mere vestige of the past. Many people are no longer able to integrate the Gospel message into their daily experience; living one’s faith in Jesus has become increasingly difficult in a social and cultural setting in which that faith is constantly challenged. In Ireland today, as in much of Europe, it is sometimes easier to be identified as an agnostic than as a believer. At times the impression is given that unbelief, or hostility to faith, is self-explanatory, whereas belief needs a sort of legitimisation which is neither obvious nor taken for granted.

Hence the importance of our task of reflecting on the series of excellent papers which have been produced by the Working Party on Spirituality. Taking up Gerard Manley Hopkin’s theme of giving new freshness to ‘deep down things’, each contributor has drawn deeply on the richness of her or his own tradition. They have offered us reasons for living; reasons for believing and reasons for hope. They have asked us challenging questions to which we must respond. They have invited us, like the readings of our Ascension Service, to fix our gaze on the things of heaven – to be people of prayer, people of the Scriptures, people of wisdom and theological reflection. They call us to read and interpret the signs of the times – and at the same time to hear the voice of the two men in white robes, drawing us back into active, creative engagement with our surrounding culture.

It is interesting to note that the Scriptures we have just read reveal an early Christian community bewildered and preoccupied with the restoration of the earthly kingdom of Israel. It was a very human preoccupation. Their own place in that kingdom was in doubt. Yet Jesus called them to trust and to hope, to wait in prayerful expectation for the Spirit to empower them with the spiritual gifts, graces and talents to get on with the job. That Spirit would, in time, broaden their horizons and would eventually drive them out with humble confidence to the very ends of the earth. Yet it would also hold them in balance. They were to be in the world, but not of the world, people who understood their surrounding culture but also sought, under the Spirit, to transform it. The kingdom would be both present and becoming.

In her paper on ‘The Way Forward’, I think Frances Bach captures this balance very aptly. She suggests that, ‘Perhaps doing is not the place to start. Perhaps being comes first.’ This was the careful balance between the transcendent and the immanent, between contemplation and action which marked the lives of the early monastic founders of Ireland. It was because they were rooted in contemplation, touched daily by the life and energy of the Blessed Trinity, that they were also intrepid missionaries and exponents of the highest achievements of Irish culture. We have something to learn from these early witnesses to the power of being and doing. Without a careful balance between body and soul, spirit and matter, transcendence and immanence, culture loses it capacity to see beyond the visible and to imagine beyond the material.

In this sense, I think may be more accurate correct to say that Ireland, indeed Europe at the beginning of the third millennium, is facing a crisis of culture rather than of faith. Most people still believe. There are very few considered atheists in Ireland, indeed in the world. Yet there is increasing evidence of a loss of culture, evidence of a loss of sensitivity to the things of the spirit and the soul. You see it on our roads, you hear it in our language, and you read it in our papers. People are not so much rejecting as disconnecting from those things which give life to the soul. Just observe the level of preoccupation in the lives of those around you, perhaps even in our own lives. We are in real danger of losing our balance. Apart from the occasional upward glance at a Church spire or the jolt from a personal or global catastrophe, we are less inclined to ask eternal questions, to ponder the human, to contemplate the beautiful. And when we lose this capacity, we begin to measure the value of things by their usefulness and expediency rather than by their beauty or their being. Impatience, aggression and isolation begin to displace the culture of civility, courtesy and community. There is ample evidence that this displacement is already underway in Ireland. Yet few of our social commentators, apart from the faith communities, appear to be concerned about analysing the underlying causes of this shift or acknowledging its potentially destructive consequences. Hence the importance of our current task.

Our task is to help those around us to see in the many prestigious symbols of Christianity which surround us in this city of culture, the symbols of new hope. That hope is expressed in our being here together, in the ecumenical journey we have made, in our continued commitment to the search for that unity for which Christ prayed. We are renewed in that hope by Pope Benedict’s identification of the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of the followers of Christ as the ‘primary commitment’ of his Pontificate. “Manifestations of good sentiments are not enough,” he said. “There must be concrete gestures that penetrate spirits and move consciences, leading each one to that interior conversion that is the assumption of all progress on the path of ecumenism.” Our gathering here is precisely such a gesture. May it penetrate our spirits and move our consciences as we seek, in the words of John Wesley, to ‘strengthen each other’s hands in God’.

Like Elijah, The Lord Jesus was taken up, and, like Elijah, he cast the cloak-of responsibility onto his followers. This responsibility is to be-His dynamic presence in the world. It is a responsibility that lies upon all of His disciples, in their various ministries, and in the various sister Churches. Jesus gives the power to become His presence to those who ask it. That power is called in the Gospels by different names: The Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, The Finger of God.

Jesus himself, in his life and death, embraced the Spirit of the Father totally and without-reserve. The Father was the Source of his life’s mission. I think that he would applaud the declaration of St. Theresa of Avila:

Let nothing ever disturb you! Nothing affright you!
All things are passing, God never changes!
Patient endurance attains all things!
Who God possesses, in nothing is wanting!
Alone God suffices!

His intimate union with the Father enabled him to see, judge and act with authority and wisdom. The struggle to do likewise in response to the inspirations of his Holy Spirit is the legacy he has left to each one of his disciples. As we begin this third millennium it is, without doubt, a moment of truth for all Christian disciples: a call to discern together.

What is entailed for discipleship of the Lord, and not just for Church allegiance in a contemporary Irish society?

What inherited obstacles to better co-operation is the Master encouraging us all to address and root out?
What are the signs of the times to which we must be much more alert and responsive?
What are the concrete gestures which are required of us?

And finally, are the differences between Christians condoned by the Holy Spirit, or left there to challenge our love of one another or has the voice of the Spirit at times been drowned out by other voices – incredible as that sounds.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will help all of us to begin to hear the answers to some of those questions in our reflections, prayers and discussions over the next twenty-four hours.

In the words of Pope John Paul II, in one of his last exhortations: ‘Do not be afraid… Be confident… Be certain. The Gospel of hope does not disappoint! It is the prophecy of a new world. It is the sign of a new beginning. It is the invitation to everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to blaze new trials leading to a ‘Europe of the Spirit… Europe [Ireland], rediscover your origins. Open wide the doors to Christ!’