1 JANUARY, 2007

Every year the first of January is set aside by the Church as World Peace Day – a day for Christians to reflect on peace and reconciliation at local, national and international level. The first day of the New Year is an opportunity to look back on the previous twelve months but more importantly to look forward to the new year with confidence and hope. It is an opportunity to thank God for the year that has passed but also an opportunity to pray for peace and reconciliation in the year ahead and to commit ourselves to the new opportunities that hopefully will come our way. It is a time for commitment by individuals and society.

Here in Northern Ireland our thoughts and reflections focus immediately on the opportunities for peace in our land. These days the air is full of talk about new initiatives, new possibilities, new opportunities. Two thousand and six will hopefully go down in history as a watershed in the peace process. It has been a year of promise -initiatives undreamt of even a few years ago have begun to unroll. We have seen tentative steps taken by individuals and communities – the proffered handshake, the face to face meetings across the negotiating table, the promise of further progress built on the St. Andrew’s talks in Scotland and the promise of real dialogue by the political parties. It’s all very heartening but it’s also very tentative. My hope is that 2007 will be the year written large for generations to come as the year which put in place the opportunities for the communities in Northern Ireland to take that brave step forward into a new future. It would be foolish to think that permanent peace will come like a vision in the night. It will not happen that way. For generations we have been a divided people. We can argue forever about the past. That could prove fruitless. The important thing is that we begin to look at each other in a different way. We need to look at each other as partners in a new initiative, an initiative that will in time bring peace to all.

Years of division have left their own mark of suspicion and doubt. That does not disappear easily. For generations Northern Ireland has been a cauldron of division. Discrimination and sectarianism have bred an atmosphere of distrust and fear. Sectarianism has torn our community apart. Sectarianism is a disease that has affected all of us. It is now the new mountain to climb. You could define sectarianism as a complex of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and structures which threaten and infringe the rights of others and leads to unnecessary conflict. It is the words, the actions aimed at provocation. It is aimed to offend. We know it very well. We have breathed in the air of sectarianism for generations. Sectarianism is not the reserve of one part of the community. It has played a part in all of our communities.

Sectarianism has been part of the air we breathe. It will not dissipate overnight. It has led to distrust and doubt. It has diminished all of us. In the days and months that lie ahead we need to take stock. We need to be realistic about the promises for the future. We all have a part to play. That is the opportunity that lies ahead. We must also be fearless in our commitment to the future. That will come about when we begin to trust others. It works two ways. We all have a responsibility. We all have a role to play. The nervousness of recent discussions by political parties has been noticeable. We should scarcely wonder at that. Years of distrust cannot be swept away with promises of a new future. We need to learn how to trust. Hopefully 2007 will bring us well on that journey.

For several years now the Pope has issued a message for World Peace day. Every year he chooses a theme – a focus for reflection. This year the theme is ‘the human person, the heart of peace’. His message is a simple one. He quotes the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi known as ‘the Canticle of the Sun’ as a basis of our respect. He calls for respect for the rights of others, respect for the human person. He calls us to recognise the face of Christ in the other person. He talks of lack of respect for the person in war-torn countries. He highlights the situation in the Lebanon where new forms of violence have left people exposed to unnecessary attacks, no support system, no protection. He talks of the plight of Christians in other lands; people suffering because of the religion. Then he goes on to talk of the silent suffering of others – abortion, experimentation with embryonic stem cells, the threat to life at its very beginning, the threat to life in old age. He calls for respect for the stranger.

Here in Ireland one of the new phenomena of our time has been the number of migrants coming to our country. Some come to get away from oppressive regimes. Others come to make a bit of money for themselves and their families. Yet others come to make a new start in life. These are the people of the new Ireland. Like the wise men in the Gospel narrative of the Epiphany they come with their own gifts and skills – Polish, Filipino, Latvian, Lithuanian, African, Asian, Eastern Europeans. Over the past five years more than a million migrants have come to Ireland. That is one fifth of the total population of the island. Some 300.000 of them are Catholic. At present we have 100 religious services in place in Ireland for the various ethnic groups providing masses in the various languages. This is the new Ireland.

Hopefully all of the migrants will make their own contribution to our country, spiritually, culturally, financially. It presents a great challenge to all of us. To our migrants I thank you for the trust you have put in us and I hope that trust will be returned one-hundred-fold. Hopefully we will continue to be the Ireland of the welcomes.

At times that appears unlikely. We have seen the growing violence in our community We have seen the nightly television footage of theft, assault and aggression unleashed in our communities. – people robbed in their homes, people assaulted in the street, car hijackings, thuggery on a massive scale. It is indeed a long way from the Ireland of the welcomes. We blame drink or drugs. We ask why this is happening. We try to rationalise it all. I believe that for some reason we have lost our way. We have lost respect for ourselves, respect for others. We have lost our moral compass, that inner voice of respect. We have crossed the line of respect. Some have gone too far. I believe we have lost a sense of our dignity and of the dignity of others. Pope Benedict calls on us to see the other person as the heart of peace. That will come about when we begin to appreciate the dignity of the other.

I hope that 2007 will be the year to draw back from the brink – a time to hear again the voice of respect, tolerance. decency. We need decency restored. That’s a challenge for all of us, for families, schools, communities. In particular it is a challenge to us individually to say to those around us: ‘this is not the way, there is a better way. It is the only way’.

I pray that all of us may do our bit to ensure the message is delivered.