FOR THE CLOSING MASS OF THE
NATIONAL RELIGIOUS EDUCATION CONGRESS
5 OCTOBER 2009
“Parents have a right to receive help from Church institutions … the greatest hope for the future of our troubled world is the formation of communities of love, kindness and compassion … Catechesis is not being detached from the work of the Good Samaritan” – Cardinal Brady
I hope that you have had a very fruitful Congress. I thought of you many times over the last few days and I prayed for the success of this Conference. I prayed quite simply to the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of each of you, and indeed of all of us, who have to teach or preach. I asked the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with love.
As I did so I thought back to my own time as a teacher – especially to my time as a teacher of Religion in a secondary school in the nineteen sixties and seventies. It was tough going then and I am sure it has not got any easier since. I always believed that what was done in class was only one element in the process. There were many others –
• One’s own personal prayer-life;
• The relationship I had with the class and the way I treated them. In other words the question always arose: whether I embodied, in my relationship with my pupils, the values we discussed in class?
There was also the question:
• Did I model those same values in my life outside the classroom?
I have found in later life that while past pupils might not remember much of what was actually said in class –they certainly remember how they were treated. Significantly today is a day named “Day for Life”. It is a day dedicated to celebrating the dignity of life from conception to natural death. Life obviously refers to human life. It refers to the life of children before and after birth. Life matters. It is a precious gift to be cherished.
The Day for Life this year focuses on suicide. That there are around 6,000 deaths by suicide each year in Ireland and in the UK should shock and challenge each one of us. This stark fact reminds us of those who are struggling to cope. This year’s Day for Life aims to raise awareness of the vital roles to be played by families and supportive parish communities in sustaining those people.
But I imagine that this Religious Education Congress may have already discussed the vital role which the family and the parish community can play at every stage – and not just in times of crisis – as children unfold their unimaginable gifts of body, mind and spirit.
The unfolding of these gifts takes place, in the first place, in the shared life of each family. It takes place under the guidance of the parents who have the loving task and responsibility of educating their children. But they need help to do so.
Given the complexity of present day society, parents can rarely carry out this task unaided. They need the help, first and foremost, of the extended family. The role of grandparents has recently been highlighted. In a prayer, composed specifically for grandparents, Pope Benedict prays that they may continue to be, for their families, strong pillars of Gospel faith, guardians of noble domestic ideals, living treasures of sound religious traditions.
The Pope goes on to pray that they may be teachers of wisdom and courage and pass on to future generations the fruits of their mature human spiritual experience.
Parents also have a right to receive help from Church institutions – namely from the parish and its personnel, the help which they need to ensure that their children may arrive at the fullness of Christian life. This is a big challenge but Jesus said: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’.
The Church, which continues the work of Christ – has to play its part. At the same time, parents have the right to avail themselves of help from state bodies, for example, schools, which they need to provide an appropriate education for their children.
I hope that whatever cutbacks have to be made – and I realise that many cutbacks will have be made; I would hope that other sections of society would have the generosity and willingness to self-sacrifice in order to ensure that the cutbacks are not made at the expense of children.
Today is also the feast of that amazing man – Francis of Assisi. In 1979 Pope John Paul proclaimed him Patron of Ecology. On that occasion the Pope had this to say of the poor man of Assisi: “Francis is rightly considered to be one of those saints who had a profound respect for nature, as a gift given by God, to humankind”. The first Christmas crib; the wolf of Gubbio the leper embraced; the sermon to the birds; are all of a piece.
The canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon is not a simple romantic admiration of the beauties of creatures and nature. It is also the fruit of the inner spiritual development of Francis. It is a song, born towards the end of his life, amidst physical and spiritual suffering. In it Francis tells us: “Creation is God’s gift to us. Creation is the place where God and the human person meet. Creation has a God given purpose. Our relationship with God, with each other, and with the created world, make up a unity. They are inter-connected”.
In the present vulnerable state of our planet, it is very important that we all share the conviction that all life – both animal and plant – is crucially linked with human life. For this conviction, this awareness, is fundamental to the survival of life in every form on this damaged planet.
Some were convinced that St Francis of Assisi was the person most like Jesus who ever lived. I agree. I once counted the number of religious congregations that contain the name ‘Francisca’ and therefore named after Francis and there are well over 100.
The theme of your Congress is “From Memory to Hope”. For many thoughtful people it appears that we are caught between memory and hope in many respects. There are many memories through the centuries of violence, often in the name of religion. Yesterday I was in Paris for a meeting of the European Conference of Bishops. The taxi driver who brought me to the airport was Peruvian – one of twelve children – baptised a Catholic but no longer practicing. He was bothered by the memory of the Inquisition and the Crusades.
On Saturday last in Germany they celebrated the “Day of German Unity” as a day of festivity and thanksgiving for the gift and life of freedom. At a Eucharist in the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in the Rue de Bac, Paris, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference recalled the Second World War and the invasion, by National Socialist Germany, 60 years ago. He also recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago.
Fortunately there are other memories and crucially, for all Christians, there are the memories contained in the Gospel narratives. These memories represent what the first disciples took with them from their experience of being with the Master and learning from Him. They would have remembered, especially His works of compassionate love, His miracles of healing deliverance from evil. As we recall those memories now in our prayers and in our liturgies, it is essential that we do so not just casually and out of mere routine, for it is important that we never forget that those memories contain a vital and dynamic presence, namely the presence of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ as the manifestation of divine love and source of new hope.
The source of the greatest hope for the future of our troubled world is, in my opinion, the formation of communities of love, kindness and compassion. I am thinking of the kind of communities where the healing of old hurts and division can take place and real reconciliation can result. In a special way, this refers to the building up of families that are rooted and grounded in love, the kind of families that cultivate the Holy Spirit through constant prayer, families where both parents and children are enabled to recognise and withstand the seductions of the destructive powers – powers that are bent on destroying the work of Jesus.
This work must also include the support of engaged couples as they prepare for marriage. Here I want to salute the excellent work being done by ACCORD – the Catholic Marriage Support Service – and, in particular, the excellent ACCORD branch that is here in Dundalk. They do wonderful work in preparing couples for marriage and in helping married couple to enrich their marriage relationship. I know they would do much more of that work if they had more volunteers to offer their assistance.
Life matters. Life is the greatest, most precious gift of all. It is therefore also the greatest responsibility. On this day, dedicated to raising awareness about the meaning and value of human life at every stage and in very condition, the Catholic Church in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, has issued a short pastoral letter entitled: You are precious in my sight (Isaiah 43:3). It contains a reflection on why some people think about suicide.
It is the great privilege of every teacher to have been entrusted, by parents, with a share in the responsibility of preparing children for life. It is the particular privilege of the Catechist to explain to young people, on the threshold of life, the meaning and value and dignity of life that lies before them. That includes, in my opinion, reminding them that because life is a precious gift, it is to be taken care of and kept safe and healthy and well. The first person who has that responsibility is each one of us. I have the main responsibility of looking after and taking care of my own life. No-one else can do that for me. Nobody else should have to do it for me.
The second commandment is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. This presupposes that we do, in fact, love ourselves, and appreciate the good that our life is, namely, that we love ourselves and care for that life appropriately.
I will end by sharing a couple of memories which may be a source of hope to you. They certainly are for me.
I recently celebrated the opening of the school year Mass in a post-primary school in this diocese. It was organised by the Religious Education Department and organised splendidly. The music, liturgy, readings, liturgical dance, were all prepared meticulously and celebrated reverently and prayerfully. There was a special emphasis, in the Mass, on the Mission Outreach of the school – an Outreach to Zambia in conjunction with the SMA Fathers. Right around the walls of the Assembly Hall was lovely, inspirational, artwork which represented life and family and hope. The memory of that certainly inspires me
With the memory of that school celebration still vivid – I went to Paris. There I heard someone from Africa say: ‘Evangelisation is the principal work of the command received from the Divine Master. But evangelisation, and catechesis also, cannot be separated from the commitment of the Church to become a good Samaritan to so many brothers and sisters who ask for help and compassion. It cannot be detached from helping so many poor and destitute who are in need of the warmth of human love – in order to bear witness to the love of God.
By means of the announcing of the Gospel, and education at all levels, and charitable institutions, the Church becomes ever more active in the promotion of the dialogue of peace and of justice and in the renewal of African society. That society progresses as a result, powerfully towards the development of the African people and their taking their rightful place in the international community’.
The many initiatives in your schools to help less well off communities in the developing world are playing their part in helping their brothers and sisters in in other lands take their rightful place on the world stage.
Towards the end of our meeting in Paris, a man from Moldova gave me this card. It reads:
Together with the friends of Moldova from Ireland –
We greet you and remember you in our prayers.
It bears the signature of five good Samaritans from Mayo, Leitrim, Cavan and of two Moldovans. Examples like these tell me that Catechesis is not being detached from the work of the Good Samaritan. The challenge, of course, is to ensure that the same effort goes into building up strong communities of love and compassion in our homes and in our parishes. Francis of Assisi had this fierce desire to go to the missions all his life – he never got far. It seems as if God was telling him that his place was back at home around Assisi. The glory of St Francis was to give praise to God.
Many years ago I attended a great prayer vigil for peace in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It concluded with a magnificent rendering in music and song of the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon by a wonderful choir. I will quote the final lines:
Blessed are those who endure in peace!
By you, the most high, they will be crowned!
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whom no-one living can escape!
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they she finds doing Your Will!
No second death can do them harm!
Praise and bless My Lord, and give Him thanks!
And serve Him with great humility.