Your Excellency, Knights and Dames, esteemed spouses and guests,

The author of the first reading, from the book of Ecclesiasticus, calls on us to praise illustrious men. Without naming them, he lists the characteristics of those who are no longer present in this world but whose life and virtue are clearly well known and still celebrated in the memory of those who are listening.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Luke, the emphasis is reversed. Our Lord calls on those who are listening to take to heart the attitudes of those who, in the future, will be considered ‘Blessed’. He sets out the ‘Be – attitudes’, the attitudes which will characterise those who have made their own the values of the Kingdom of God – a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, peace and love.

A critical point of convergence between the two readings is their conclusion. Both Jesus Ben Sirach,  the nominal author of Ecclesiasticus, and Jesus the Son of the Father, the Word incarnate, speak of those called to hand on to present and future generations the ‘rich heritage’ which sustained the generations of the past.  Jesus Ben Sirach speaks of those who kept the covenants with God and handed them on to their children. Jesus, the Word, speaks of those who will seek to convince the world in His name that the humble and gentle are blessed. He warns that they will face rejection, misunderstanding and tribulation.
Today, we celebrate the memory of the women and men of this land who were immersed in the truth and love of Jesus Christ. We remember their heroic effort to convince others, at home and in far distant lands, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life – the pearl of great price, who, when discovered, is of such value that the Saints of Ireland were prepared to give up homeland and comfort to share its richness with others. We celebrate their courageous witness to the values and attitudes of the Gospel. We honour their generous service to the poor, the hungry, the sorrowing and the persecuted at home and across the world. We salute their perseverance in the midst of enormous trials, persecutions and set backs as they brought the Good News to cultures and environments which were often hostile and precarious.

Each of us here today is a beneficiary of the faith, the service, the generosity and the perseverance of all the Saints of Ireland. This places a great responsibility on every one of us – the followers of Christ in this generation. It is their voice which echoes down the centuries of our Christian history with the question – will you carry on the faith which brought us such life and hope? Will you continue our legacy of witness and generous service to the Kingdom? Will you continue to bear the light of the Gospel in Ireland and across the world in our present age?

Just recently, we celebrated those extraordinary days, thirty years ago, when Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, graced our land with a visit from the successor of Peter. He made reference many times during that visit to the immense spiritual legacy of this small island down through the centuries and across the world. He also sounded a prophetic note of caution. In the often quoted words of his final homily of the visit, during the Mass in Limerick, he said very starkly:

Ireland must choose. You the present generation of Irish people must decide; your choice must be clear and your decision firm. Let the voice of your forefathers, who suffered so much to maintain their faith in Christ and thus to preserve Ireland’s soul, resound today in your ears through the voice of the Pope when he repeats the words of Christ: ‘What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? (Mt 16:26). What would it profit Ireland to go the easy way of the world and suffer the loss of her own soul?

Each one of us must make that choice personally. The prevailing culture of our society is ultimately shaped by the witness and influence of individuals.

Tonight I want to salute each of you, the members of the Association of Papal Orders in Ireland. In you the Church has recognised a vital truth which has been given renewed emphasis in our time. All Christians, incorporated into Christ and his Church by baptism, are consecrated to God and called to work for his Kingdom. Every lay Christian is therefore an extraordinary work of God’s grace and is called to the heights of holiness. You are called to witness courageously and publicly to the faith which you have received. By the sacrament of confirmation, you have been further graced by the Holy Spirit with special strength to be witnesses of Christ and sharers in his mission of salvation.

Sometimes, lay men and women do not seem to appreciate the full the dignity and the vocation that is theirs as lay people. As Pope John Paul II said during his sermon in Limerick, ‘There is no such thing as an ‘ordinary layman’, for all of you have been called to conversion through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As God’s holy people you are called to fulfil your role in the evangelisation of the world. Yes, the laity are ‘a chosen race, a holy priesthood’, also called to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’.’

In your own Association of Papal Knights you have had many shining examples of such lay dedication and evangelical commitment. I think in particular today of Servant of God, Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary. In 1916, at only 27 years of age, he published his first pamphlet. It was entitled, “Can We Be Saints?”  In it he expressed one of the strongest convictions of his life, namely, that all without exception are called to be Saints, and that through our Catholic Faith we have available to us all the means necessary to attain this.

He was a man ahead of his time. Some 40 years later the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council would re-echo these words. ‘The laity,’ the Council would say, ‘by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.’ (GS n. 31)

It is your specific vocation and mission as lay faithful to insert the Gospel as a leaven into the reality of the world in you live and work. The great forces which shape the world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work – are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission. If these forces are guided by people who are true disciples of Christ, and who are, at the same time, fully competent in the relevant secular knowledge and skill, then the culture of our world can indeed be transformed from within by the redeeming power of Christ.

I believe God is calling lay people in Ireland today to a strong renewal of their Christian commitment in the public square, to permeate society with the leaven of the Gospel. For Ireland as Pope John Paul II said when he came to us as universal Pastor and Vicar of Christ thirty years ago, we are living in a decisive moment in the history of the Christian faith in Ireland. The future shape and presence of that Christian faith will depend on how each and every one of us responds to the challenges that lie ahead.

It is not enough to rely on past achievements, or to confine our profession of faith to comfortable places and private gatherings of like-minded people. This was not how the Saints of Ireland responded to the vast challenges which confronted them in the popular culture and political climate of their day. Each of us must ask, frankly and before God, what more can I do to bring the leaven of the Gospel to our society, in the particular circumstances of my life? Perhaps some of us can do more in terms of prayer. Perhaps some can do more in terms of charitable activity. Perhaps some of us could do more in terms of promoting and defending the truth of the Gospel in the public and political square.

One area which looms large in this regard in Ireland today is the growing challenge to the belief that the exclusive, mutual and faithful love between a woman and man is the only true basis of marriage and the family.

I realise that as soon as I say this there are some who will feel uneasy. I realise that there are some who believe that this is an area in which the Church is being insensitive or where it is simply out of touch with popular feeling and culture. I have met many committed Catholics who do not understand or who are not comfortable with what the natural law and the Gospel clearly teach about the unique and permanent characteristics of marriage and the family.

However, I have also met many people, of different religious faiths and none, who accept the logic of the complimentarity of man and woman as the only authentic basis for marriage and the bringing up of children. Only marriage can give a child a mother and a father who have made a formal, public commitment to one another. This creates a unique relationship between marriage and society which deserves special recognition and support. The Irish Constitution ‘pledges to guard’ the institution of Marriage with ‘special care’ and to ‘protect it against attack’ (Article 41.3.1). We have duty as Christians and as citizens to defend the cherished institution of marriage, based on the complimentarity of woman and man, as the ideal environment for the upbringing of children.

Yet too often we are afraid to stand up against the tide of what is assumed to be popular opinion on this and so many other issues.

I simply ask you today to inform your conscience on this important matter. I ask you if you think it is acceptable that someone in a same sex relationship is referred to in the same terms as a husband and wife in marriage? I ask you to consider the implications of the Civil Partnership Bill which is about to be introduced into the Dáil for debate and possible amendment. I ask you if it is acceptable that the Irish Government is about to introduce laws, reminiscent of penal times, which will see people fined or put in prison for their deeply held religious beliefs? Under this Bill, a registrar of marriages who declines, as a matter of religious conscience, to register a same-sex partnership or take part in a ‘marriage like’ ceremony same sex partnerships will be subject to a fine and up to six months in prison. The circumstances in which Christians, Jews and Muslims who chose not to make Church Halls and other services available to same-sex partnerships will be amplified and they too will be open to prosecution and fines.

This makes the Civil Partnership Bill an extraordinary and far-reaching attack on freedom of conscience and religion. Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are ‘guaranteed to every citizen’ in the Irish Constitution (Article 44.2.1). Respect for freedom of conscience and the practice of religion is the mark of mature and diverse society.
There is still time to change this legislation. Fundamental and important issues are at stake. The values of freedom and respect for the dignity of marriage cherished by generations of Irish Christians are being radically challenged. Your action in defence of marriage and freedom of conscience is vital. Each of us has a right to have our concerns about this Bill addressed by our elected representatives. I encourage you to contact your local TD or member of the Seanad and make them aware of your concerns about the Bill. Write to, text or phone your local media expressing your concerns. Participate in public debate on this issue. This is part of the particular vocation of the lay faithful.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that, ‘To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6).’ (n.1)

He goes on to note that, ‘In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.’ (n.3)

In celebrating the heroic courage and faith of all the Saints of Ireland, in remembering their devotion to the Mother of God and Mother of the Church in all their endeavours, in conclusion let us recall the prayer spoken by Pope John Paul II as he left our shores thirty years ago:

We entrust to your motherly care the land of Ireland,
where you have been and are so much loved. Help this land to
stay true to you and your Son always. May prosperity never
cause Irish men and women to forget God or abandon their
faith. Keep them faithful in prosperity to the faith they would
not surrender in poverty and persecution. Save them from
greed, from envy, from seeking selfish or sectional interest.
Help them to work together with a sense of Christian purpose
and a common Christian goal, to build a just and peaceful and
loving society where the poor are never neglected and the
rights of all, especially the weak, are respected. Queen of
ireland, Mary Mother of the heavenly and earthly Church,
Máthair Dé, keep Ireland true to her spiritual tradition and her
Christian heritage. Help her to respond to her historic mission
of bringing the light of Christ to the nations, and so making the
glory of God be the honour of Ireland.

Ireland, Semper Fidelis – Ireland, ALWAYS FAITHFUL!