Introduction. I am pleased to be here to celebrate the World Day of Peace. 2016 will be a year when in Ireland we will be commemorating the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme. Here in Bruree where Éamon De Valera grew up, attended school and served Mass, we are reminded that commemoration involves making the links that connect people and place, context and formation. Limerick, of course, has many other links to the 1916 Rising. The Daly family - Edward Daly and his sister Kathleen Clarke who married Thomas Clarke - lived in O’Curry Street within the confines of St Michael’s parish. Seán Heuston lived on O’Connell Ave for a number of years from the age of 15; also within St Michael’s parish, while Con Colbert was born in Castlemahon with the family moving later to Athea.
This year’s World Day of Peace marks the beginning of a year that in Ireland will see many moments of commemoration of both the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. It is good to reflect for a moment on this fact in the light of this year’s message for the World Day of Peace from Pope Francis that invites us to move from indifference to mercy. [He writes, “Mercy is the heart of God. It must also be the heart of the members of the one great family of his children: a heart which beats all the more strongly wherever human dignity – as a reflection of the face of God in his creatures – is in play. Jesus tells us that love for others – foreigners, the sick, prisoners, the homeless, even our enemies – is the yardstick by which God will judge our actions. Our eternal destiny depends on this.”]
I was struck by something the Methodist commentator, Johnston McMaster, said a few months ago when he pointed out that it is very important to ask what is the motive that drives our remembering, memory and commemoration? It cannot simply be a bland celebratory or recriminatory recall of the past. Scholarly analysis of historical facts on its own can become sterile. Selective memory to strengthen one’s own support for a particular evaluation of facts is a limited exercise. Indifference, however, would be the worst of attitudes.
What best motivates our remembering, memory and commemoration must be the hope that we can take some step forward that will mark the history lessons of the future. The context for such a step is the search across our island on several levels for how to face our past in a way that heals and releases us from situations of inner imprisonment
After 35 years of “the Troubles” as well as recent years of painful revelations of corruption, abuse and lack of integrity, we search for how to reconcile our memories; we know we need to find a way to be inclusive in our remembering; deep down we want to be able to draw close to one another in acknowledging the trauma that either we or others have lived through. In short, the context of the 1916 centenaries is one of learning to walk through our political, social and ecclesial history together. The theme of connection and encounter is one that Pope Francis often emphasises.
Having come through this terribly turbulent period, when great sins have been inflicted, it would be great if this year might be a year to explore how best to face that past in a way that heals, how to move from being indifferent to one another’s pain to being able to journey together positively. [Again, Pope Francis reminds us, “We too, then, are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another” and again he says, “solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all”, because compassion flows from fraternity.”]
It will always be necessary to name the pain of the past but it is not always easy to hear or recognise sufficiently that pain in one another. As we all know, when we review the motives, actions and policies of personalities or organisations who have, in some way, inflicted pain on us, it is easy to, and so understandable that we would, end up harbouring resentment. Or if we have been the ones who inflicted pain, we often find we end up justifying ourselves or overly defending our actions.
While we can always draw lessons from our past, we have to be careful not to let ourselves be trapped in it or in our interpretation of it.
It was interesting to hear Arlene Foster, the newly appointed chief of the Democratic Unionist Party, speak of her desire to create a “more harmonious” society in the North. She was almost killed at the age of 16 when the IRA tried to bomb her school bus to murder its driver, a part-time member of the security forces. There was also an attempt by the IRA to kill her police officer father. Yet, on her appointment as DUP leader she said that while the “Troubles have scarred Northern Ireland’s history we must not let them shape our future”.
In the light of this year’s message for the world day of peace, as we move towards commemorations of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme, perhaps we can take this opportunity to explore what steps we can take to create a more harmonious society, a more harmonious community, a more harmonious family life. We, too, as a nation have many scars but we too must not let them shape our future. It is time, in this Year of Mercy, for us to bring mercy to bear on our judgements and evaluations of situations both past and present to build a better future.
In recent years, indeed, there is a new appreciation of the value and role of mercy in public life. It would be a significant step forward this year if we could bring mercy more into our public discourse and actions.
Ultimately, mercy comes from God. We know that the last word of one of the 1916 leaders, Seán Heuston, was a prayer: “My Jesus, mercy”. But mercy is also a virtue to be practiced in everyday relations in the sense of compassionate clemency, deep listening, heartfelt goodness and open disposition towards another. The movement from indifference among one another to having mercy on one another can be “practiced” when we encounter others who are different or when we meet as sisters and brothers who have either inflicted wounds or been wounded .
It’s true that the big gestures of mercy are possible for those who are exceptional people. We can think of Gordon Wilson. But what about us in our everyday working out of painful situations together? Perhaps there is a way we can all enter into a logic of mercy that will guide our remembering, memory and commemorating. I am thinking of our tradition of making covenants (The 1912 “Ulster Covenant”) and oaths (The Fenian “oath”). Might we not this year decide to make a new covenant together – a pact of mercy, promising to enter a daily contract, as it were, in our re-reading of history and painful situations that have scarred our lives.
It’s not easy to have mercy. But might we not develop the practice of agreeing that at least one day at a time, we promise, at least for that day, to see one another as ‘new’, as if the negative aspects that we know from before never existed, hearing other other’s story as if for the first time. Perhaps by the evening, our effort will have waned and we’ll need to ask for the strength to be able to live out the pact of mercy again the following day. But then tomorrow does come. It’s a new day when we can start again to live for that day the pact of mercy – mercy towards ourselves and our limits, towards others and their failures, towards one another in a constant conversion of the heart. The Bible invites us to practice this pact when it reminds us not to notice the speck in the eyes of others while forgetting the plank in our own! If we put mercy where there is no mercy we will find mercy.
To motivate our commemorations this year by stipulating a communal pact of mercy would be a valuable history lesson for the future.
In doing so, we would be moving from indifference to mercy as this year’s World Day of Peace message from Pope Francis invites us to do. And we could take inspiration from Mary, the Mother of God, who knew how to ponder in her heart while proclaiming the mercy that extends from age to age.