Ireland and its people have much to be proud of.
Yet every land and its people have moments of shame.
Dealing with the failures of our past, as a country, as a Church, or as an individual is never easy. Our struggle to heal the wounds of decades of violence, injury and painful memory in Northern Ireland are more than ample evidence of this.
There is always tension between the possibilities we aspire to and our wounded memories and past mistakes.
Saint Patrick, our national Apostle, our patron Saint, knew this tension throughout his life. Even as he brought the joy and life of the Gospel to the Irish people, he was haunted by the sins of his past. We recall the famous opening words of his Confession: ‘I, Patrick, a sinner, and the least of all the faithful’.
In today’s Gospel, Saint Peter wrestled with his own sinfulness while still answering Jesus’ call to become a fisher of men. Jesus calls Peter to ‘put out into the deep’. Peter responds: ‘Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man.’
We all experience this tension between being called to follow Jesus – to live up to his values – and the reality of our sinful nature. There is true freedom in humbly acknowledging – like the wounded healers Peter and Patrick – the full truth of our sinfulness.
This week a painful episode from my own past has come before me. I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events thirty five years ago. I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologise to you with all my heart. I also apologise to all those who feel I have let them down. Looking back I am ashamed that I have not always upheld the values that I profess and believe in.
These are momentous times for the Church in Ireland.
I believe the two years leading up to the Fiftieth International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin will be among the most critical for us since the time of St. Patrick. I deeply believe that God is calling us to a new beginning, to a time of Patrician energy, reform and renewal. I look forward to the Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Faithful of Ireland as one important source for this renewal.
The Gospel we have just read, and the life of St. Patrick, also offers us some principles for this renewal.
Firstly, renewal begins with a sincere, prayerful listening to the Word of God. We have just heard how the crowds pressed around Jesus, hungry for his Word – the Word of life itself.
Secondly, we need to listen to the Spirit as the source of our renewal. St. Patrick heard the Spirit’s call in the ‘voice of the Irish’. As we search for the voice of the Spirit in our time, the Irish faithful must be involved more effectively within the Church.
Finally, we must humbly continue to deal with the enormity of the hurt caused by abuse of children by some clergy and religious and the hopelessly inadequate response to that abuse in the past.
I believe the period up to the Eucharistic Congress has to involve a sincere, wholehearted and truthful acknowledgement of our sinfulness. Like St. Patrick, like St. Peter, we as Bishops, successors of the Apostles in the Irish Church today must acknowledge our failings. The integrity of our witness to the Gospel challenges us to own up to and take responsibility for any mismanagement or cover-up of child abuse. For the sake of survivors, for the sake of all the Catholic faithful as well as the religious and priests of this country, we have to stop the drip, drip, drip of revelations of failure.
The Lord is calling us to a new beginning. None of us knows where that new beginning will lead. Does it allow for wounded healers, those who have made mistakes in their past to have a part in shaping the future? This is a time for deep prayer and much reflection. Be certain that I will be reflecting carefully as we enter into Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. I will use this time to pray, to reflect on the Word of God and to discern the will of the Holy Spirit. I will reflect on what I have heard from those who have been hurt by abuse. I will also talk to people, priests, religious and to those I know and love.
Pray for those who have been hurt. Pray for the Church. Pray for me.