Eve of the Feast of Saint Laurence O’Toole 2016
SERMON AT THE ECUMENICAL FESTAL CHORAL EVENSONG
Sermon notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Christ Church, Dublin, 13th November 2016
“In an increasingly secularised Ireland, how can faith contribute today to the process of the grounding the values which should inspire our modern society?”
Laurence O’Toole was the first Irish Archbishop of Dublin. His predecessors were Norsemen, with few links with the rest of the Church in Ireland. Laurence was also to be the last Irish Archbishop of Dublin for many generations. Dublin was to become a Norman settlement and Laurence’s immediate successors were to be Norman.
Those years in the middle of the eleven hundreds were turbulent times. It was a period of great political upheaval among the Irish princes which concluded with Norman rule and new difficulties for Laurence’s people. On numerous occasions he attempted to intervene on behalf of his people but his efforts were rejected and he was even held prisoner by Henry II, who just years beforehand, had the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas a Becket, murdered.
Those years were difficult years politically, but also socially. Dublin was prosperous city; it was also a city marked by appalling poverty. Laurence reached out to care for the poor and the neglected. He set up centres for the children who had been abandoned by their parents or who were orphaned in the city. At the same time, the city was marked by high levels of violence and corruption. Sadly Dublin had even become a centre of trafficking in slaves.
Those were difficult years politically and socially, but also religiously. Morale and discipline among the clergy had diminished. The new Archbishop was called at only thirty two years of age from the seclusion of the Monastery of Glendalough to guide a troubled Church. He began his renewal of the Church by calling for renewal in the spiritual formation of the priests and people of the Diocese. He rebuilt this Cathedral, Christ Church, making it even then a Cathedral worthy of any major European city and he invited Augustinian monks to take charge of the Cathedral Chapter in order to make it a powerful centre of prayer and renewal.
Laurence travelled across a war-torn Europe to attend the Third Lateran Council in Rome in 1179. He tried to negotiate a peace between the different Irish political groupings. Henry II refused to meet him as he was angry with Laurence for having damaged his reputation with the Pope and because of Laurence’s popularity with the Irish people. Prevented from returning to Ireland, Laurence went to the Augustinian Monastery of St. Victor at Eu in Normandy and died there on 14th November, 1180. Only forty-five years after his death he was canonised by Pope Honorius III at the instigation of the people of Eu who were so struck by his piety in the final few days of his life.
Laurence carried out his reform of the Church in Dublin addressing up front the corrupt and violent culture and behaviour of the Dublin of his time. Today in Dublin there is new violence and disregard for human dignity. Human life has become cheap for criminal gangs who wish to impose their power on others. We know that violence if not the answer. It never has been. Violence and gestures of disrespect for individuals are not the signs of democracy; they are not the signs of respect for human dignity.
Laurence O’Toole had a great influence on the political situation of his time. He was not however a political figure. He was a Churchman and a man of God. It was his integrity as a man of God rather than any political agenda which permitted him to have influence in society. He was a true spiritual leader who tried to witness to the care of Christ for his people and for the society in which they lived.
In an increasingly secularised Ireland, how can faith contribute today to the process of the grounding the values which should inspire our modern society? I have often mentioned the question which Pope Benedict posed to me ten years ago on my first official visit as Archbishop to him: “Where are the points of contact today between the Church in Ireland and those places where the future of Irish culture is being formed”. I know that Archbishop Michael and I share a common concern around this challenge and share a realization that this is a challenge for the Churches not just individually but ecumenically.
The debate between faith and culture and social values is not something esoteric for the experts. It is vital for the healthy growth of a pluralist society. It constitutes an essential contribution to the search for a common language which can communicate with and captivate all the components of a pluralist society.
I am not advocating a return to a theocracy. I am challenging believers to find a language from our own rich faith tradition which can be understood and welcomed in a pluralist world.
I was very struck by a book review I read over last weekend which reflected precisely on the contribution of faith to a more secularised world. People have, in many ways, lost that historical understanding of the contribution of Christian belief to the development of Western Culture. This is often the fault of the way we live as Churches. The reviewer noted: “Too often the sins of the Church blind people to the communal, psychological, educational and creative benefits that have flowed from Christian beliefs.”
Historically speaking the author noted that the contribution of the Christianization of Europe was that of “a new idea of a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through love and will rather than blood and shared material objectives”
This is precisely the point of contact which we as believers should be seeking to address in our pluralist society: how do we as Christians contribute to the formation of new ideas for a vision of human association in which people will join together in a spirit of love, solidarity and compassion, rather than relentlessly seeking narrow personal interests or simply material or economic objectives.
My author speaks about faith being a “prophet crying in a postmodern wilderness” and he notes that “Shorn of its establishment baggage, Christianity still has much to say to an amnesiac world about human dignity, political freedom and economic inequality”.
Disenchantment with religious faith is not nearly as widespread as some who forecast the end of religion might prophecy. Many indeed look to the Church to offer its contribution to the challenge of how we root our values in today’s society. The Churches urgently need to find new language for such engagement and the Churches must build bridges of new and perhaps surprising partnerships. The message of Jesus is ever new. If we do not realise that, then we run the risk of smothering the newness of the Gospel with our own small mindedness and fear. The Gospel does not belong just within our Church walls; the social Gospel does not belong in our libraries and archives.
There are so many examples, even in these days, of how failing to see disenchantment with establishment values can lead to unexpected and damaging outcomes and to a loss of social cohesion. We have to find language and ways of living which clearly indicate how the Gospel can inspire new ideas for a vision of human association.
My reviewer finally quotes William Wilberforce who said that: “Christian values are inseparable from Christianity itself”. Christian values will flourish in a secular society only when lived Christianity flourishes. Where Christianity is not lived with authenticity and integrity it will end up killing its own values.
In a world, to quote Pope Benedict, “where the men and women of our time do not know where to find God”, our witness to a Christianity lived fully in our own lives can sow the seeds of the Christian message in the varied soils and environments in which we live.
Laurence O’Toole was a true shepherd and pastor of his Church. But when we talk about shepherds and pastors we always have to remember that there is only one Good Shepherd and that is Jesus himself. And that Good Shepherd is one who leads by giving himself, even laying down his life for his sheep.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls on us to allow the power of his self-giving love to be our guide in serving others and in rooting out of our hearts all traces of self-centredness and arrogance. It is when we go out cleansed and renewed and live the Good News in our hearts and in our lives with integrity that the men and women of our time will come to realise just how much the message of Jesus Christ is truly Good News, badly needed Good News even in a secularised society. ENDS