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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Address at the Church in the 21st Century Center, Gasson Hall, Boston College, October 23, 2018

Address at the Church in the 21st Century Center, Gasson Hall, Boston College, October 23, 2018

‘Light in Darkness -

Showing the way of renewal in Ireland’

The words of the prophet Isaiah resonate in a particular way in Ireland: ‘Sentinel, what of the night? Sentinel, what of the night?’ (Is 21:11). The Church in the island of saints and scholars has been going through a ‘dark night’ of epochal and collective proportions: after the traumatic years of the conflict in Northern Ireland with its challenges to the Church, we have experienced the horrible revelations of clerical sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience in the Church.

We’ve had grim facts presented in a number of official government sponsored reports (the Dublin Report, the Ferns Report, the Cloyne Report, the Ryan Report). Literature, films and art works, from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, now take up the lament theme of the harshness of the Irish church experience of the past. The decline in the number of those attending church is bewildering for clergy and laity of a certain age, especially when faced with the phenomenon of children of very devout parents suddenly turning away completely from the Church.

We have the collapse of vocations to priesthood and religious life (40 seminarians for the whole of Ireland) coupled with the ageing profile of clergy (within a few short years the majority of clergy in my diocese will be over 75 years of age). The aggressive criticism of church life at times seems relentless. And, increasingly, we are faced with increasing financial challenges.

And to crown all this, we’ve seen major socio-cultural changes and challenges. Many have been shaken by serious setbacks during the financial crisis. There’s been a dramatic rise in mental ill-health issues, and an upsurge in social issues such as homelessness, addiction and disparity between poor and rich. We’ve also witnessed major changes in socially accepted norms such as the recent removal of the protection of unborn life from the Constitution.

Beneath this list of negatives, the substantial issue that characterises our epochal dark night is the wavering of faith and hope among many, clergy and lay. There’s a hidden lament in the heart of many: Will this night ever end? The Cross is heavy. A sentiment perhaps felt even more keenly after what was in many ways a wonderful Papal visit where we witnessed Pope Francis apologise continuously for the sins and crimes of the past culminating in an act of seeking forgiveness from victims/survivors of abuse at the concluding Mass, but a visit that was also preceded by an incredible crescendo of negative press about the Church, added to by the McCarrick revelations and the publication of the Pennsylvania Report.

So, yes, as the Catholic Church moves its way through the 21st century, we are going through a darkness, an experience of night. The prophet Isaiah’s words are indeed ours: ‘Sentinel, what of the night? Sentinel, what of the night?’ And in the words of psalm 85: “Lord, will you be angry with us for ever?... Will you not revive us again?” (Ps 85)

In the final day of his visit to Ireland, Pope Francis met with the Bishops of Ireland. He said, “Whenever you and your people feel that you are a ’little flock’ facing challenges and difficulties, do not grow discouraged. As Saint John of the Cross teaches us, it is in the dark night that the light of faith shines purest in our hearts. And that light will show the way to the renewal of the Christian life in Ireland in the years ahead.”[1]

So, perhaps in view of these words, we can hear the prophet Isaiah’s words in another way. They express an invitation. The question, “What of the night?” is a call to look again and to see in the night the light of faith shining purest. Paradoxically there are lights shining in the night that point the way towards renewal. Perhaps it has taken the darkness for us to see these lights. In Leonard Cohan’s words, there’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in! So we can ask: what are the “lights” shining in the darkness indicating pathways of renewal?

A first light is the importance of acknowledging reality. Calling things as they are and not hiding or concealing. I recall a wise priest psychologist friend saying to me years ago: sometimes we run away from shadow and find the more we run, the longer the shadow. It is good to turn around and face the shadow. A few weeks before the Pope came I organised a small pilgrimage in our diocese to a Mass rock, a place where in past centuries Mass was celebrated clandestinely because at the time it was forbidden. Our diocesan pilgrimage in spiritual preparation for the Pope’s visit was a chance to recognise and acknowledge our past, good and bad. The event gained national coverage and indicated a desire on the part of many in Ireland to name the past in a balanced but real way. Yes, there was much that was positive in the Irish church experience for which we can be grateful, but there was much for which we must seek forgiveness and take action on. So that is one light in the darkness. Name reality.

During the World Meeting of Families held in Dublin, a friend was excitedly travelling to the gathering with the Pope. On the bus, she met a woman who was travelling to a protest gathering against the Pope! The other woman’s mother had been abused. And even though the woman herself had had a good initial experience of Church, her mother had been so damaged by her abuse that it ruined the life of the Family. She told my friend: “the worst part of it is that it robbed me of the Church”. My friend listened, without judging, not defending. As they parted the woman said: you go where you have to go and I where I am going…but we’ve met and understood each other”. Naming the reality, listening, not rushing to judge or ignore.

A second light in the darkness is the realisation we need to accept where we are and start again from scratch, making and offering a new discovery of God as Love.

Secularisation is on the increase in Ireland. The latest Census data published in 2017 revealed the number of people in the Republic of Ireland with no religion increased by 73% to over 480,000 between 2011 and 2016; that represents 10% of the population. A total of 2,050 people listed their religion as Jedi Knight! But the God who is rejected is often a caricature of God because in Ireland discourse about God is mediated through the Church.  People and institutions failed, not the message. If terrible things have happened in the Church resulting in people rejecting God, then the Church must learn to re-present God in a new way, through people and institutions renewed through a new discovery and immersion in God-Love.

It is significant that if in the nineteenth century the Church did a lot of work in establishing schools, hospitals and institutions of many types, in the twentieth century, the growth industry in the Church was new communities and movements. What’s significant is that the narrative of how these communities began nearly always begins with a rediscovery of God, his love and mercy. I’m thinking of the communities of charismatic Renewal, Focolare, Alpha groups, Neo-Catechumenal Way, Youth 2000. That indicates a pathway of renewal for us too today. Any story of renewal must begin with a new discovery of God as Love.

And that Love isn’t simply sentiment. It is a whole way of seeing, interpreting and deciding in life. Pope Francis reminds us we shouldn’t say the past was easier. No. it was different. Indeed, if we believe God is love, then he doesn’t simply love us as individuals. He loves our time, our era and our history. And he doesn’t love it less than other eras of history. Indeed, as we move towards the end of time, we could say God loves ours even more. Our dark night is a prelude to a new experience of God-Love. 

A third light has to do with the lens through which we view life. As a Church we are rediscovering the Christian vocation to have Easter eyes that know how to look at reality through the lens of suffering, failure and the experience of victims, the marginalised, and those crying out for compassion. The negative contains the resurrection. CS Lewis talked about the importance of the “glance”, the ‘how we see things’. And here I would like to refer again to Pope Francis in his words to the Bishops of Ireland. He went on to say, “Humiliation is painful, but we have been saved by the humiliation of the Son of God and this gives us courage.” We could say we are learning to look at the world through the Eyes of the One Humiliated on the Cross. To see God not simply when the Church experiences successes, glories and results. But to see and recognise God and his Church in hiddenness and marginalisation, failures, vulnerability and the poverty that Jesus embraced. To see God in situations like the perseverance and courage of a young, homeless mother as she tries to find food for her children; the alcoholic coping with addiction; the elderly living alone who are a cry for support.

If in the past we didn’t see things through the eyes of injured children and young people, not least those abused by the representatives of the Church, today we undoubtedly have moved a long way in that direction. And this is good because hopefully today, now that our eyes have been opened, we can recognise and help others recognise the cry from young people around issues such as mental health issues. At our Limerick Diocesan Synod mental health was the Number 1 issue young people mentioned. Time and again it is mentioned how this is a major concern for young people. A professional said to me recently that a tsunami in the area of mental health is coming down the tracks. And yet, somehow we simply let it rumble on as an issue without really addressing it.  We all need to come on board, raising the flag on this issue and tackling it together.  Recognition of this is another light.

A fourth light: we can’t go it alone isolated from one another. We are more humble and inter-dependent as a Church both within our own church life – among parishes, groups and dioceses – and in terms of the Church relating to other bodies. The language of communion, synodality and relationships are taking root in a new way in Ireland. They are keys to renewal. In my own diocese and in other dioceses, we are moving, for instance, towards “team ministry”, clusters of priests ministering together to look after a number of parishes. And lay people with them. It is a new venture that isn’t simply because we are short of clergy. The ‘team‘ dimension resonates with communion and collegiality. They express the “mysticism of encounter” that Pope Francis often speaks about.

Likewise, the World Meeting of Families was a providential light lit for us at this time in our Church journey. It has helped us recognise in a new way the significant contribution of family life precisely because it is a place of communion. Families are not simply the object of pastoral care but active agents of the Church’s evangelising mission. While no family is perfect, nevertheless we can be grateful that for many, families provide a community lens of love that warms the Church.

Yes, there is a greater sense of togetherness in mission emerging in this night time of the Church in Ireland. A few days ago a woman at a gathering of several parishes coming together into a pastoral unit commented: “we have reached rock bottom but now we starting again, together, building up the Church again together”.

A fifth light in the darkness: the central of the New Commandment in the Christian faith. In the past the Church did many wonderful projects. Our Prime Minister (the Taoiseach) explained this to Pope Francis: “People of profound Christian faith provided education to our children when the State did not, in the open air next to hedgerows and in the schools and educational institutions they built.  They founded our oldest hospitals, staffed them, and provided welfare for so many of our people… It is easy to forget that the Irish State, founded in 1922, did not set up a Department of Health or a Department of Social Welfare until 1947.”

So yes, much admirable initiatives. But perhaps we over-reached without ensuring we were guaranteeing the core of our identity, the flame of mutual love. What we now recognise, however, is that it’s not enough simply to “do” projects. We need to ensure the New Commandment is at the heart of them. Unfortunately, there are too many stories of harshness in the treatment of those who needed care in institutions managed by the Church. In his lament-genre work, Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood, Frank McCourt describes in tragic-comic vein a scene from school and religion class:

The master… tells us we have to know the catechism backwards, forwards and sideways. We have to know the Ten Commandments, the Seven Virtues, Divine and Moral, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Deadly Sins. We have to know by heart all the prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Confiteor, the Apostles' Creed, the Act of Contrition, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary… He tells us we're hopeless, the worst class he ever had for First Communion but as sure as God made little apples he'll make Catholics of us, he'll beat the idler out of us and the Sanctifying Grace into us.

While the scene brings a smile, and while we will always have to recognise the contribution of many wonderful teachers in Ireland, the scene depicted reminds us of a danger that’s always lurking: to impose instead of proposing faith. We need to propose and put into practice our faith vision with charity in our hearts and words. In the darkness of the night we’ve rediscovered how love for one another should always be the hallmark of our initiatives and projects. It’s not enough to do works of charity.  We need to be charity/love as we do them. I think this is a particular light we are seeing in the darkness and a pointer to us in moving forward in renewal. For instance, I’ve heard of parish council where they always begin with a nurturing/nourishing moment. They don’t rush into the business to be done. Rather they take time to share, go into depth in their faith and in their relationship with one another.

A sixth light: we need to remember the future! There is a future. We know there’s no quick fix in this era of transition we are going through. We are learning that we need to take the long view. If I might quote a line from a reflection sometimes attributed to the recently canonised Oscar Romero, “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us….We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

We are seeing more clearly that certain ways of doing things and practices will have to die. We’ve been used to a very regular provision of religious services. The running of parishes was primarily in the hands of the priests. Church life revolved somewhat passively around the priest. But as we look to the future we now see that in the future, for instance, it will be lay people assisting in funeral liturgies, lay people taking over the running of parishes, lay people exercising pastoral co-ordinating roles. It’s already in view. Child safeguarding has brought an army of very committed lay people into action in our parishes and dioceses at many levels. Religious orders have set up trusts involving lay people in governance.  Movements such as the pro-life movement, initiatives to do with the environment and family projects are clearly showing us a new level of lay engagement in the Church’s mission. Compared to some years ago, lay people are more involved in the decision-making, discerning moments of parish and Church life.  That’s clearly indicating a way forward that we need to explore much more.

So, we are learning not to let ourselves be robbed of hope. God is at work “re-generating” us as a Church that is more lay in its profile. That’s not to say we won’t always need priests. Nor is to say we have loads of lay volunteers. But we can say the Spirit is prompting us to underline the lay face, the lay profile of the Church.


I could go on. But these few points outlined indicate some of the “lights” that we are beginning to see in the night. They are pointing the way for renewal in the Church in Ireland.

The past in the Church’s experience contained much that was good. But all that happened in the darkness, all that we now know about, clearly proves it was not all good; far from it, there was much that was bad and much room for improvement. Today we are a Church that has travelled a distance, had its own Road to Damascus. But now it is turned towards the future, striving to be better, more tender, more loving.  A place where people will be properly cherished.

That means a new docility to the work of the Spirit who makes all things new. We can be grateful that the Spirit is drawing young people – despite what might be a very ambiguous relationship with the Church – to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, to walk the Camino, to take part in the World Youth Days. The Spirit, as we saw in the recent World Meeting of Families, is prompting young families to come to Church. The Spirit has raised up migrants with a vibrant faith experience as a witness among us in Ireland.

The Russian writer, Sergius Bulgakov, once wrote that often our problems in life can be “the shadows cast by the One who comes”.[2]  Ultimately, we can hope that what’s being carved out in the ancient Catholic story is a new experience of the God who wants to dwell among us, not simply the God in the skies, the God in nature, the God in the hierarchy, the God in the sacraments, but the God among us, Jesus who is the Way become the Wayfarer journeying with us and among us as we love one another in our daily lives. Since we began this talk with words from the prophet Isaiah “Sentinel, what of the night?”, we can conclude with other words from the same prophet. He relays Our Lord’s words that respond to the question posed to the Sentinel: “Look”, Our Lord says, “I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43).


[1] For Pope Francis’ speeches in Ireland, see Pope Francis in Ireland (Dublin: Veritas, 2018)

[2] Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, Eerdmans, p. xxxviii