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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Speaking Notes - John Paul II, Culture and Limerick - 2 April 2014 - Hunt Museum


Blessed John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome from 1978-2005, will be canonised on the April 27th this year, Divine Mercy Sunday. He visited Limerick on October 1st, 1979 and was conferred with the freedom of the city by the then mayor, the late Bobby Byrne, on October 1st, 1979. A simple plaque marks that event in the Board Room of Mary Immaculate College where the official meeting that conferred the freedom on the Pope took place. John Paul II is included as 47th in a roll that lists among others: Isaac Butt and Michael Davitt; Charles Stuart Parnell and William Gladstone; Eamonn de Valera and Maud Gonne McBride; Andrew Carnegie and Sean Keating; Bishop Edward Thomas O’Dwyer and President John F. Kennedy.

It is indeed a special moment in the history of our City that a Freeman of Limerick will be officially declared a saint so I am pleased to have this occasion to speak about the Polish Pope, culture and Limerick in this year when Limerick is the national City of Culture.

John Paul II and Culture

The word “culture” derives from the Latin word “coltivare”. Its original meaning comes from the agricultural work of “cultivating” or caring for the land and fields. And it was this link with land that prompted me to reflect on John Paul II, culture and Limerick because in his address to the 350.000 gathered in Greenpark he said: “Here in Limerick…many of you are people of the land…. Love the land; love the work of the fields for it keeps you close to God, the Creator, in a special way... Keep in contact with your roots in the soil of Ireland, with your families and your culture”.

From a biblical perspective, the notion of culture and cultivating can be found in God’s command at creation to be fruitful and to subdue the earth. It’s not just about physically cultivating the earth but also about giving a shape to human life. Circero spoke of culture in terms of “care of the spirit”.[1] Today culture is spoken of in various ways but in broad terms it can be understood as people’s way of thinking and judging that shape life, the values they have, their vision of the world, how they understand what it is to be human, how they view destiny, the way they approach work, and how they go about transforming nature through technology and the manner of expressing themselves in the arts and entertainment. In a sense culture is the collective or social psyche of a people or a region revealed in the way people go about life. It informs their choices and these choices, of course, inform the cultural heritage of an area or region. Munster rugby is part of Limerick’s culture!

Culture was one of the major themes in Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. In and through his own experience in Poland and reflecting on its history, he came to understand the vital role culture plays in the life of individuals, communities, nations and worldwide. Cardinal Avery Cardinal Dulles spoke of John Paul as a “theologian of culture”:[2]

From his early years Karol Wojtyła, as a poet, dramatist, and philosophy professor in a Communist country with a deeply rooted Catholic heritage, developed a keen interest in the relations between faith and culture. As a young man he wrote poems and plays, using literature and drama as ways of sustaining the national culture and faith traditions of his people under the brutalities of the Nazi occupation and the oppressive heel of Soviet Marxism.[3]


For John Paul, it is important to appreciate culture in a broad sense because it has to do with our very humanity expressing itself in a creative manner in the world.[4] He wrote that,

…It is not possible to understand the human person on the basis of economics alone, nor to define him or her simply on the basis of class membership. We are understood in a more complete way when we are situated within the sphere of culture through our language, history, and the position we take towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude we take to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.[5]

John Paul felt so strongly about culture that he went as far as to say “the future of humanity depends on culture”.[6] In other words, as human beings we need to keep our horizons open, never reducing humanity to simply a cog in a machine or a technical datum in an anonymous system.

John Paul believed Christianity has an important role to play in forming culture. In an address to UNESCO he said that “Christianity is a creator of culture in its very foundation”.[7] In the vision it presents of the dignity of the human person the Church goes to the root of culture and offers the Gospel as a leavening agent to bring fulfilment to our manner of thinking, behaving, working and enjoying ourselves.

A faith that would not become culture in that sense is in John Paul II’s view a truncated version of faith. The Polish Pope and Freeman of Limerick often said that “a faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived.”[8] Christian faith has to be flesh and bone, otherwise it’s not real.  Likewise, in view of this dynamic of faith becoming life, John Paul also underlined how much Church too gains from culture: “The Church has been greatly enriched by acquisitions from so many civilizations.”[9]


As we begin our journey in a new millennium, John Paul was convinced the Church needed a renewed commitment to culture as a contribution to building up what he called “the civilisation of love”. “In a word, we can say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices—at the personal, family, social and international level—on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things”,[10] and ultimately the primacy of love.


Limerick, the Church and Culture

With these introductory points about Pope John Paul II, I’d like now to reflect very briefly on the theme of the Church’s contribution to culture in Limerick. This city has a long history and it has many strands to its cultural heritage. It’s enough to look around us here in the Hunt Museum – in the distance we see John’s Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral and here in the Museum we are surrounded by reminders of culture.

I am also pleased that just recently the Diocese of Limerick has produced a beautiful publication by Prof. Liam Irwin entitled: The Diocese of Limerick: An Illustrated History. It reflects on some of the Church’s contribution to Limerick’s culture in the history of the Church’s presence and in the “products” that have emerged within the past 900 years (and further back): Monasteries and cathedrals, convents and confraternities, church buildings and umpteen social and educational initiatives promoted by the Church have coloured the cultural landscape of this city and diocese. How many stained glass windows, paintings, wooden sculptors, chalices pay tribute to the rich cultural inheritance we have received from many in the Church who have gone before us. I am pleased that the Diocese is beginning another to draw up a new inventory of those items.

We can also think of some special cultural items linked to the Church in Limerick – the Black Book of Limerick that dates to 1194 with three papal letters and three letters from King John. The O’Dea Crozier and Mitre are on display here in the Hunt Museum. The seventeenth century statue of Our Lady of Limerick is an object of devotion in St. Saviour’s. The Bishop Arthur chalice is said to have been used at a Mass celebrated by the papal legate, Rinuccini, in St. Mary’s cathedral in 1645 and was used by Pope John Paul II in 1979.

I often mention to priests my conviction that the Church is an agency of culture. All we do is culture. Think of how much we are engaged both in liturgy and schools in music and word, ritual and history, care and community-building. Tomorrow many of our young people across the diocese will be taking part in the concert hall of the University of Limerick in a celebration of liturgical music called “Seinn 2014”.

So there is a grand history of culture-making activity linked to the Church in Limerick. Above all, however, it is important to recall the profound sense in which the Church built up culture. It is the constant celebration of the Eucharist. Perhaps we don’t always consider it enough. The Eucharist is the “Christification” of human values. The Eucharist – and all the liturgy that flows from and towards it – is the forging of human values into love of neighbour and love of God and this is the culture of love and respect that the Church strives to promote.

At Mass we hear the “Word” that shapes us and our response. The water and wine, fruit of the earth to be cultivated and the works of our hands, are offered. The transforming action of the liturgy, in the power of the Holy Spirit, lifts up our story to make it share more deeply in the great story of God’s love for humankind, the God whose project for humanity is that we be united as one family, brothers and sisters in mutual love of one another.

In and through our participation in the Eucharist, we are active agents of cultural transformation in its deepest sense. The strong devotion to Mass throughout the centuries has been a source not just of personal consolation but also of inspiration to writers and poets. Even when some of them will be reacting against the church, it is still a landscape within which they plot their narrative or against whose background they depict their vision of life.

John Paul, Limerick, culture and the Church

More specifically, we can ask what did the visit of Pope John Paul II suggest to us about the Church’s contribution to culture in Limerick. It itself was a cultural event and had its impact on Limerick’s culture.

Firstly, let’s remember Pope John Paul’s address took place in the context of a Mass with people present from all walks of life. Many streams of Limerick’s cultural heritage flowed into the event.

Drawing on what he said in his talk, I would like to highlight some general points he made about culture. And then mention three specific pointers he indicated about the Church as it moves forward as an agent of culture in Limerick.

I have already referred to one of the central memorable lines from John Paul II’s homily said: “keep in contact with your roots in the soil of Ireland, with your families and your culture. Keep true to the faith, to the prayers and values you learned here; and pass on that heritage to your children, for it is rich and good”. He noted how there has been “a remarkable interpenetration” in Ireland of our culture, speech and way of life by the things of God. It was a typical invitation of Pope John Paul to appreciate our culture, highlight it, celebrate it and let it shape us.

It is important to be grateful for culture because it provides us with a “home”. It offers us social co-ordinates to locate ourselves. It gives us meaning and direction. It is a starting point for our growth and development and it is important to recognise that we are shaped by all the aspects of culture.

Drawing on the human sciences, in particular on sociologists such as Alfred Schutz, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann and Hansfriend Kellner, the late bishop of Limerick, Dr. Jeremiah Newman spoke of the “socio-pscyhological implications” of Pope John Paul’s underlining of the importance of “shared values and attitudes, intellectual convictions and deep rooted patterns of conduct”.[11]

He noted that the problem of the modern world is the need for a “home” that provides us with identity, life-principles that sustain us, decisive cornerstones for our everyday experience and behaviour. Otherwise we find ourselves adrift among bits and pieces that don’t add up; unsettled, without a collective story. Somewhat prophetically when you consider all of our experience in various communications media today, Bishop Newman commented that “the modern individual’s experience of a plurality of social worlds tends to relativise every one of them”. It is good for us to have points of stability. With his invitation to keep in contact with Limerick’s culture – in its many strands and aspects, John Paul was reminding us of a key element of identity and inspiration that gathers us as one in a common project to build up our city and land. In this year when Limerick is the National City of Culture it is good to recall the Pope’s invitation to appreciate and value culture that for him has many, many layers of significance.

John Paul didn’t just speak about culture as something of the past with a bearing on the present. For him culture is dynamic, constantly evolving, always with room for new steps to be taken by the collective body that embodies a culture. John Paul’s visit to Limerick showed us how Limerick’s culture is open – open to God and open to co-operation with one another if the conditions are right. Bishop Newman observed how the future saint “gave us back the feeling of being one, the feeling of sharing with him and with one another in something bigger than ourselves”.[12] In its editorial of September 29th, 1979 the Limerick Leader wrote that,

even before he sets foot in Limerick, the Pope has created a perhaps unprecedented sense of community harmony…Certainly there has been some controversy. That’s Limerick. But the fact remains that rarely if ever has Shannonside generally been blessed with such unity of purpose. The glee ignited by news of the Pontifff’s journey has in the intervening weeks fuelled co-operation on a scale hitherto undreamt of… But the most astonishing thing of all is that despite inevitable and proper attention to the material aspect of the occasion, Limerick has not lost sight of the spiritual. We want to see Karol Wojtyla, world figure; far more than that, however, we wish to communicate with John Paul II, successor of Peter. For he can help to change our lives. The true measure of the man is that he has already begun to do so.[13]

In short, the visit showed us that Limerick culture is also about having a good feeling about Limerick, seeing the positive side, working together, keeping sight of good values. Taking up John Paul’s invitation, the Leader, In its editorial of October 6th, 1979 commented, that a great gift Limerick could give the Pope ‘would be a pledge to attempt to end the divisiveness which all too often retards local progress and to “work and co-operate always for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland”.’[14]

Happiness and hope were also shown to be part of Limerick culture in the context of the Pope’s visit. Again, in its editorial of October 6th, 1979 the Leader affirmed, “In his sanctity and in his homilies he has re-directed us to the way of happiness”. For his part, Mayor Byrne pointed out

His gesture to us will remain part of the treasured history of the City. I have no doubt that the example of this great Pope, especially the hope and encouragement which he gave to the people of Cracow during their suffering and trials will console and inspire many of our own people in the course of any troubles which might occur in their lives.[15]

Above all, in his address in Limerick, Pope John Paul invited Catholics to rediscover and strengthen their commitment to culture. It could be said that his address in this city was perhaps the most substantial of the talks he gave in terms of the future direction of the Church in Ireland.

 I believe we can read his text today as a clear message to re-engage with issues of culture in the broad sense. And this should come as no surprise because, as I have already mentioned, he firmly believed that the Church, in her own mission and life is directed towards promoting and advancing human and civic culture. He saw the split between the Gospel and culture is as the drama of our time.[16] This gap needs to be attended to if we want to contribute solidly to culture today. In terms of a focus for the Church he indicated three avenues.

Firstly, he set our compass in the direction of rediscovering the encounter with the person of Christ as the “unifying principle which gives meaning and coherence to our lives”. This requires a decision on our part because we cannot simply live off the heritage of others. We need always to be in touch with the originating experience that gave rise to the cultural symbols and expressions that surround us. As someone has put it, God has no grandchildren – meaning that each of us is called to a direct relationship with event of Christ. Otherwise, there’s always a risk that we are living within the warmth of a fire that has actually died out. We need always to be kindling the fire of faith, hope and love!

Secondly, John Paul spoke amazingly strongly about the need to appreciate the dignity of the lay vocation. Nowhere more than in Limerick did the Pope emphasise this point. As he put it, ‘there is no such thing as an “ordinary’ lay person”.’ In underlining the lay vocation he was emphasising how the vocation of Christians is to be active agents of cultural transformation.

He said that “it is their specific vocation and mission to express the Gospel in their lives and thereby to insert the Gospel as a leaven into the reality of the world in which they live and work. The great forces which shape the world – politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work – are precisely the areas where lay people are especially competent to exercise their mission”. He went on, “If these forces are guided by people who are true disciples of Christ, and who are, at the same time, fully competent in the relevant secular knowledge and skill, then indeed will the world be transformed from within [this is the culture!] by Christ’s redeeming power”.

Here I cannot but recall a teaching from the Second Vatican Council that highlighted the lay vocation: “Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of humankind, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to people but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercises their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders”.[17]

I think we can say that for John Paul, if in the cultural heritage of Limerick we see how there has been an interpenetration of culture and faith – with all the limits we know about –, the contribution today of Catholics to culture is to know how “to transform the more complex world of modern industry and urban life by the same Gospel spirit.” And that means the culture of our commercial dealings, our trade union or our employers’ or professional meetings. It means outreach to the poor mindful Christ’s words, “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

The third point that John Paul highlighted was the Family. He said that “the future of the Church, the future of humanity depend in great part on parents and on the family life that they build in their homes”. He continued, “revere and protect your family and your family life, for the family is the primary field of action for the Irish laity, the place where your ‘royal priesthood’ is chiefly exercised”. John Paul proposes that as we move forward, it is important to promote a culture of life that places the dignity of the human person at its centre. The family is the supreme agent where the basic cultural formation – in its many aspects – of young people takes place. It is in the family we learn how to be open to others, open to the Transcendent. In the family we come to discern true values. In the family we see how no one can be reduced to a function but rather is an open mystery to be treated with a culture of care and respect.




In my talk today I have attempted to reflect some aspects to do with Limerick and culture prompted by the upcoming canonisation of Pope John Paul II who has visited us and has been conferred by us with the freedom of the City. He was a man with a huge appreciation of culture with a love especially of the arts. I believe he would be happy that his canonisation is occurring during a year when Limerick is the national city of culture. I thank you for your kind attention and I hope my remarks have been of benefit because, as the late Mayor Byrne put it, John Paul II’s visit is “part of the treasured history of the City”.










[1] Tusculanae Disputationes, II, 5.

[2] Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Co., 2003), 153.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Speaking to UNESCO, John Paul articulates the necessity of culture for human life: “The essential meaning of culture consists, according to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the fact that it is a characteristic of human life as such. We live a really human life thanks to culture. Human life is culture in this sense too that, through it, the human being is distinguished and differentiated from everything that exists elsewhere in the visible world: we cannot do without culture” (n. 6).

[5] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centessimus annus, n. 24

[6] Pope John Paul II, “Address to UNESCO: Man’s Entire Humanity is Expressed

in Culture,” (June 2, 1980), n. 23

[7] UNESCO, n. 10

[8] “Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural

Commitment” (January 16, 1982).