12/2/2011 ICA Centenary Reflection

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Ecumenical Prayer to Celebrate the end of the
Centenary Celebrations of

Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland

Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, 12th February 2011

Last night just about a mile from here I celebrated Mass to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, in one of the typical, inner city communities of Dublin.  It is a community which knew hard times, very hard times.  It experience generations of hash poverty.    Poor quality housing was allowed to degenerate. It was as if the authorities did not care.

Over the years unemployment was high and even the idea of employment would have to be qualified heavily by the degree of precariousness which existed around any job.  The schools were poor and overcrowded.   In more recent time substance abuse was exploited unscrupulously and the area was robbed of talented young lives and families were burdened with grief and often the loss of parents.

Last night’s celebration was extraordinary.  It was festive and joyful and full of that humour which is a special characteristic of the Dublin inner city.   Gathered together were local people: both elderly and the new generation of intelligent, bright and curious children.  There were community activists, volunteer carers, and family support workers. There was a great presence of the Daughters of Charity.  Priests who had worked in the parish forty or fifty years ago came back saying that their years there were not just the happiest they ever had but that they had learned so much from the people of that community which would have commonly been called “deprived”.

You might ask why I am beginning my reflections on the centenary of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association with a lecture on inner city communities.  The reason is simple.  The success which last night’s ceremony reflected was in great way attributable to two things: women and community.  The women of that parish were and are extraordinary: strong, hardworking, caring but above all courageous.  They ensured that the sense of community and solidarity which saved that community in hard times survived and flourishes still today.

The story of your organization is different, but the ingredients are the same.  The ICA sprang up from small groups of farseeing women who recognised the needs of rural women but who also realised that the best framework in which those needs would be fostered was community.  They saw that mobilising women into supporting community groups was essential in order to respond to the needs of women and was essential to fostering a vibrant society.

Community is essential at any time.  Community organizations are not something which provide services when times are hard and public funds limited.  The work and witness of the ICA was just as essential at the height of Ireland’s prosperity when the danger of individualism and believing that I can go along on my own and put myself first was a pervading temptation.

The culture of prosperity, power, celebrity and style tempted many to underestimate what caring and sharing mean to the fabric of society.  It is not just about what can be achieved through a culture of caring and sharing.  A culture of caring and sharing is about who are and who we want to be.  It is about the way God created humankind as a family, marked by interdependence and mutuality.  There is in each of us an innate and fundamental need to rise above myself as an individual, in order to encounter the other, to share, to live in relationships with others, to love.

You know well that the names that history will remember and honour in each of our communities are the names of those who in some way have done something for community, either in a well known way or simply through the way they lived their everyday lives.  The names of those who have destroyed and broken down community will only be remembered in some dark corner of our memories, without any affection or respect.

Just a few weeks ago I received the news of the death of an old French nun. She had an extraordinary effect on my life.  Way back in the early 1950’s she arrived at our door and asked to speak with my mother.  She said: “I want you to start a sewing class in Ballyfermot”.  Now my mother knew how to sew but she would never have considered herself a master tailor capable of teaching others the fine art of tailoring.

However, she rose to the challenge.  Indeed knowing this old French nun she was not given much alternative.   With my aunt they began their sewing class each Monday evening.  I can remember them on Sunday night gathering piles of newspapers on the floor cutting out patterns which would be used the next day.

Much more striking was that after a few weeks I remember my mother and my aunt chatting one evening saying they must do something more.  They were talking about inviting the local GP to come and to talk to the women about health and nutrition and child rearing. What actually was evolving was much more than a sewing class, but a place where women in a deprived area could come together themselves to talk about themselves and the challenges they had to meet and to improve not just their sewing skills but their skills as persons, as women, as parents.   I still meet in parishes elderly women who tell me that they were in my mother’s sewing class.

My mothers surprise was not over.  The old French nun started to bring her books which she was to read:  books about life, about spirituality, about community.  There was no stopping the energies that this nun had in wanting to see that every woman she worked with would be enabled to deepen their basic human capacities and come to a better understanding of themselves.

Then one day the nun arrived to say she was off to New Zealand to start again somewhere else.   About two years ago I had a letter from her in which she reminisced in extraordinary detail about my family, my friends and other neighbours – even though over fifty years had past since she left Dublin.  Last year, as I said, she died aged 106.

That is a true story but it is like a parable.  I imagine that it resonates with you as you reflect on how your organization sprang up and how it combined very simply community activities and reflection on what life is about and then blossomed into a movement which addressed the basic issues of rural society.

Yours was and is an organization which gets out and does things.  It identified what were the primary social issues which rural women had to face.  It pioneered campaigns on water and electricity.  But it was always more than just a campaigning organization.  It accompanied its campaigning with what we would today call “capacity building”, helping women to use every aspect of social improvement well.  A “Model Farm Kitchen” moved from town to town not as a sales pitch, but to enable women themselves to be the protagonists of progress.  Individuals were empowered to set in motion community-based industries and initiatives in weaving, marketing, tourism, credit unions and many other areas.

It would be very hard to overstate the effect that the ICA had on women’s lives and on the culture of our rural communities and small towns over these 100 years.  By its very nature the ICA culture of community was always outgoing, supporting others, and establishing networks of care and solidarity, thus placing it in a leading position in addressing the status of women in a changing Irish society.

Today we are entering into uncharted territory regarding many aspects of the future of our Irish economy and society.  In this moment of uncertainty the ICA is a sort of icon of what society we should be seeking.  The ICA is marked by an innovative mix of caring, of empowering, of supporting and of structuring in order to address society’s needs as they change and to change the way we address them.  It possess a flexible underlying vision which prevents it being trapped in its past or its present but can give it an openness to the future in which it will be as relevant if not more relevant that it is today.

Our Gospel reading spoke of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  Jesus is tired.  He is sitting alone and weary as the Samaritan woman comes to the well for water.  Jesus turns and asks her to give him some water to drink.  A dialogue emerges around the nature of salvation.  Two people who according to respectable wisdom of the day should not even be talking to each other begin one of the deepest discussions in the Gospel about life itself.  They talk of that new water which Jesus alone brings and which changes us in a definitive way.

Jesus talks to us today.   He turns to each of us – whatever our faith or denomination or position – and asks for our help to sustain him the tiredness and weariness of his Church.  If we enter in to dialogue with him and his message we can open up further new paths for our lives and for our society.

This afternoon we ask the Lord to bless and reward all those who worked to make the ICA what it is today.   We thank God for the immense good that the ICA has made in the lives of its members and its communities.  We ask the Lord to accompany each of you and your association, so that in the years to come it can carry its farseeing work for Irish women and for Irish society for many generations.