Common Word Conference Address

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Address of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin, 6th December 2013


“You are welcome to Dublin.  This is a unique and an important conference.  I welcome those who have come from abroad.  I welcome representatives of the Muslim and Jewish traditions.  I am happy that my colleague and friend Archbishop Michael Jackson is with us and is taking an active part in the work of these days.  I am also very happy to see another friend, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, here in Dublin for this occasion.

 Some may ask is: why hold a Conference on interfaith dialogue in Ireland?    Many are unaware of the fact that Ireland is today very much a multi-faith contry.  The religious demographics of Ireland are changing and will continue to change.

 Recent census figures indicate that the Islamic population in Ireland may still small by international standards, but it should also be noted that Ireland is a young country.  In the territory of the Archdiocese of Dublin, there are more children under four years of age than people over seventy.  These young people belong to many faiths and thus the population will be very different in the coming years.   Very soon they will be together in school and it is important that Irish society be prepared to make this a moment of opportunity and respect.

 The great thing is that Ireland, because of the fact that large scale immigration is a relatively new phenomenon, has the chance – right from the start – to get right and to learn early from the mistakes of others.

 Ireland faces the challenges of ensuring that people of different faiths and confessional backgrounds truly and effectively enjoy equal status in the eyes of the law but also that they feel that they belong fully and without conditions to Irish society.  It is important that they know that their gifts and traditions are as fully a part of what “Ireland” means today and in the future, as those of any other group in the population. Irish democracy must have no second class citizens.

 Thank God, I think I can say that the overwhelming majority of Irish people believe that the current change in the ethnic and religious demography of our people is a welcome one and one which will enrich Ireland.   Ireland has no wish to remain as a closed monolithic culture on an island isolated from what is happening around the world.

 Religious difference and diversity are spoken about in public opinion in Ireland, but not as a dominant theme.   That could simply mean – in the strange culture of those who write media headlines – that nothing disastrous has taken place and that there have been no serious or widespread incidents of intolerant behaviour or comment.

 But neither does that mean that there have not been some incidents of either religious or ethnic or xenophobic behaviour.  We cannot rest on our laurels and feel that everything is ideal. We must be alert to the very first warning signals.  We need to do more to ensure that we understand each other, that we respect each other and that we appreciate each other.  It is not enough that we live peacefully in our own parallel worlds and meet politely on some public occasions to show how well we get on with each other. Like it or not we all live with inherited prejudices and misunderstandings and stereotypes and these can subtly and rapidly raise their ugly heads if we are not attentive.

 Dialogue between faiths is not just for the world of scholars and theologians.   It is a public good.  It is a public good even in societies which proclaim themselves secular.   It deserves public attention and support.    It is part of the challenge of creating a healthy and participatory and truly democratic society.  The path from being a monolithic society to becoming a pluralist and multi-ethnic and multi-faith culture is not a simple one.  It can be painful.  It inevitably involves rejecting privilege on the part of what has been up until then “establishment” and it involves sensitiveness on the part of those who wish to protagonists in their new home.   

 One of the challenges of in fostering relationships between different faith traditions in pluralist societies is how minorities are treated.  Strangely Ireland may be a useful workshop for reflection on the way religious minorities are welcomed and come to feel themselves brothers and sisters through their common understanding of the unity of the human family in God.  All our faith traditions contain the notion of respect for those who are strangers and foreigners or live on the margins of society.   Our commonalities in faith can become the basis for common action and reflection. This conference might identify where those commonalities are to be found in our texts and traditions.  Our respect for religious minorities should not be based simply on political grounds – much less just on political correctness – but on the imperatives of our own faith traditions.

 We need to do more, as I said earlier, to ensure that we understand each other, that we respect each other and that we appreciate each other. People who grow in mutual respect and understanding, people who appreciate how much we have in common, will also be people who best know how to deal with difference, with the often deep differences that exist among us.   People who are strong in their understanding of their own faith will also be the strongest in drawing out from their faith the obligation – or better the real desire – to work alongside those whose faith is different.  The purer our understanding of the one God we worship, the greater will be our desire to love that God and love our neighbours.  When the activities of believers become contaminated with contingent political ideologies the farther we will drift from one another and the more our understanding of the fundamentals of our faith itself will become contaminated.

 This conference is remarkable in that it challenges us to develop out of our different faiths a common word in a world where there is division and at times bitter division.   I hope that in these days your work can bring greater precision into how we understand that common word and how our common word can result in common witness and common action.

 Our common action will different from that of others.  Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of how believers in common: “value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting” (n.3).   Our witness and action is not limited then to doing things, it must above all help people to interpret and understand.  It must reach out those who are searching for meaning in a consumerist world, where contemplation, generosity and moderation in life style – the prayer, almsgiving and fasting of Nostra Aetate – are  undermined as the true ways of human fulfilment.

 True spirituality is not something just to bolster up our own sense of wellness.  Our sense of spirituality must have the ability not just to adapt to the realities of the day but to challenge the realities and the thought-patterns of the day.  The believer must be one who stands out and has the courage to rise above conformity, even when that is not easy.

 I hope that this unique conference here in the Mater Dei Institute will bring a significant contribution to enabling us to find and speak that common word of witness about the meaning of life in a world where many seek meaning and seek God.