Who really is Pope Francis? The relevance of his message to Ireland as we celebrate and commemorate 1916

14 Mar, 2016 | News

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, has delivered an address at the Regina Mundi School in Cork this morning at the launch of the Society of Pope Francis. Archbishop Martin addressed the question ‘Who really is Pope Francis?’ as well as the relevance of his message to Ireland as we celebrate and commemorate 1916:

“I have chosen a difficult topic.  Perhaps I am trying to accomplish too much in one sweep.  I want to look at the person of Pope Francis and then to look, especially in this year when we celebrate and commemorate the events of 1916, and try to see how the figure of Pope Francis can pose questions regarding how successful we have been in realising the dreams for Ireland of those who died in 1916.

It is not enough in 2016 to commemorate and celebrate an historical event of one hundred years ago.  We have to ask how those who fought in 1916 for Irish Independence would judge us and our society today.

In the memoirs of a Capuchin priest who attended some of the prisoners before their execution in 1916, there is a striking encounter of the priest with Padraig Pearse in the days after his arrest. This priest was one of the very first people from outside the prison and military system who met Pearse.  He describes entering Pearce’s cell and find him alone sitting at a table with his head in his hands asking:  “So much bloodshed; hopefully all this will have achieved something of what we hoped for Ireland”.

The aim of those who proclaimed a Republic in 1916 was not just for an eventual Treaty, affirming the independence of Ireland.  It was much more.  It was about a dream for very different Ireland.  How successful that dream has been realised in Ireland today cannot be measured simply in parades and celebrations, or through dramas and books and television documentaries. The success will be measured in terms of what kind of society we have built.

It is interesting to remember that the dream of an Ireland which would cherish all its children equally sprang from a society where just a few hundred meters from Dublin’s GPO, there existed one of the worst slums in all of Europe.  One hundred years later, can we honestly say that all our children have equal opportunity in life?

The evaluation of the success of those dreams of 1916 is not something that can be left to the pundits and the columnists.   The evaluation of the success of the dreams of 1916 takes place within the lives and hopes of each of us.  We can judge the success or failure of the dreams of 1916 by the kind of dreams that each of us has for Ireland today and for tomorrow’s Ireland.

Sometimes you might ask the question: do we dream at all?  What does idealism mean for us today?  Here some of the ideas of Pope Francis are relevant. Pope Francis is the master of “one-liners”, short, pithy and striking phrases, ideal for twitter.  “One-liners” are like the parables -they have one message and if you get it, you get it.  But if you do not get it or try to hyper-analyse it, you have lost it totally.

Pope Francis talks about “a globalization of indifference”.  Indifference is the opposite of real dreams and hope.  He says that the spread of indifference is not something which affects only lack of opportunity for the poor.  When we become indifferent we are changed and hardened and we become ever more insensitive…  We end up being, as Pope Francis says,

“incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us”.

When God created humanity he created it as a family.  This is a simple affirmation. From this affirmation, however, flow the principles of common responsibility, of solidarity and of that familial relationship of love that should be the true trademark of relationships among people and between peoples. This is the fundamental principle that should guide the process of local politics and of globalization.  Both will be worthy of their name if they enhance the unity of the human family.  Any form of globalization that breeds exclusion, marginalization, instability, indifference and crass inequality does not have the right to call itself global.  Globalization has to be made the synonym of inclusive.

Inclusiveness is not just ensuring that we get what we want.  It involves reaching out to those who are on the margins, including those fail or fall by the wayside. There are so many ways today in which people can become marginalised and forgotten and overlooked in out societies.  We all fail.  The Christian life according to Pope Francis is not “a never falling down”, but “an always getting up”, thanks to this hand which catches us”.  Our society can be a harsh and unforgiving one.  Our society can be a lonely one if you are on the margins.  Our society can be a sad one if you are bullied.  Pope Francis from the very beginning of his Pontificate has spoken about going out to the peripheries of society.  We celebrate 1916 not just with lip service to equality, but through being personally in the forefront in identifying and reaching out to those who are marginalised. We celebrate 1916 not just by watching events on television, but getting our hands dirty in helping the marginalised to become fully part of our human family.

One of the great images of Pope Francis was when he was being driven around Saint Peter’s Square and he noticed a man whose face was completely covered with sores.  Pope Francis stopped and went over to the man.  He did not ask the man or those who were with him what disease he had.  He simply kissed him.  There are so many ways in which we can ask questions around a person, rather than actually encountering them.

Speaking about the Church, Pope Francis compared a Church which is not concerned about the marginalised with a Church which what he calls “auto-referential”, just closed in on its own concerns.  But what he says applies also to any society.  We live in a world in which the way people live in one part of the world effects all other parts of the world.  This is particularly evident with regard to the environment, but it applies also to “human ecology”, in which the style of life we espouse affects others and may lead to a style of life which is really not sustainable.

Pope Francis constantly stresses an image of the Church as a “field hospital on the scene of a battle”.  At the field hospital what matters is the first contact with one who is wounded.  It is not a place for diagnostics, but a place where people are taken up into the caring arms of someone, where their wounds are washed and cleaned and they receive a welcome of care and concern.  We need the progress of science and we thank God for it.  But science needs humanity and human care to achieve its aims.

The biggest form of indifference to human suffering is that of looking the other way, as we read in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is so easy to look the other way and pass on.  It is also interesting to see how Jesus carves out that Gospel story of the Good Samaritan in such a way as to attribute indifference and lack of care precisely to a priest and a Levite, two prominent figures in religious life and in the respectable establishment in society.  The one who showed mercy was an outsider.  As we remember 1916 we need to re-examine all our ideas about “respectability”.  Many of our economic woes may well be attributable to people and ideas which were accepted as “respectable”.   We need to reflect again on a new social ethic, which includes integrity, honesty and a focus on the weakest.

Pope Francis challenges those who believe to “go out of ourselves” because “our faith is revolutionary through an impulse that comes from the Holy Spirit” and he describes the work of the Spirit as “a powerful – and thus at times restless – breath”. The power of the spirit generates not conformity but restlessness.   Each of us has to ask ourselves if we have genuinely kept the restlessness in our hearts alive – as did the leaders in 1916 – or have we often fallen into a life style of conformity and comfort.

The restlessness which the Spirit creates in our hearts should make us ever more sensitive to what is wrong in society: whether this is economic or social in its roots.  We live in a world where there is much inequality, where children do not have the same opportunities not just in different parts of the world, but even in different parts of this nation.  We live in a world where there is still corruption and violence and lack of respect for life.   People are exploited in many ways and are trafficked and treated as slaves.   We live in a world where, alongside great and demonstrative wealth, many have difficulties in making ends meet.  We live in a world where we throw away tons of food each week and where we have children coming to school hungry.

Let me look at the Church.  The Church has difficulty in reaching out to young people.  There are also signs within the Catholic Church that some – even young people – are seeking refuge from the challenges of life by adopting ways of the past and are retreating from dialogue with the present into the false security of imaginary better times.

The statistics show that the future of the Church will be a very different future.  Certainly there are great things happening.  Despite all the criticism of the Church, I think that there is very little doubt that among the most respected categories of people in Irish society today “our local priest” must be in the top five and for good reason.  I am afraid that “the bishops” as a group may be farther down on the popularity gauge.

The Irish Church needs a new generation of strong and articulate lay men and women. It needs a strong laity which is not inward looking or caught up simply in Church structures and activities, much less in Church politics.  Pope Francis is certainly clear about one thing:  to renew itself the Church must reach out and must discern that renewal also within the economic and existential peripheries of our world.  Conformist Catholicism is not the answer; simply repeating doctrinal formulas is not the answer; an inward-looking Catholicism – liberal or conservative – is not the answer.  We need a new generation of Catholic lay men and women who are articulate in understanding their faith and feel called to bring the unique vison which springs from their faith into dialogue with the realities of the world.

This does not mean a Church which goes on its own.  The history of Irish Nationalism over the years is a history of pluralism and different religious and social views.  Being true to the dream of 1916 means fostering in Ireland a new pluralism, not one of confrontation, but one where people of different backgrounds and faiths and political views learn to work together for the common good.  People of belief and people with a secular inspiration must learn again to how speak with one another constructively and respect one another.  The men and women of 1916 were men and women with ideals and a deep personal spiritual inspiration.

When I call for a new generation of lay Catholics, I am not calling for constant social commentary and criticism.  What is required is a generation of young men and women who take up their faith as a leaven within every aspect of society.  It is people who dream and then act courageously who change the world.  It is not people who sit sniping from the side-lines, even if they may be correct in their criticism.  What is more important is a generation of young women and men who reject indifference and who try to change dreams into reality whatever their calling or profession in life.

I worked for many years in international life and the world on international organizations.  I remember a number of distinguished Christians who worked in such organization and their colleagues, Christians,  Muslims or Jews would all recognise that these were woman and men of faith not in the sense that the tried to convert others, but were people from whose life-style it emerged that their faith gave their everyday work an added quality.

I hope that amid the 2016 celebrations historians will take a closer look at the religious roots of the thought of the main protagonists of the Easter Rising.  They were men and women, not always supported by Church leaders, but who were nonetheless able to develop a remarkable social manifesto in a Republican Proclamation which emerged from leaders who were unapologetically proud of the fact their ideas were inspired “in the name of God”

We need a new ethics of civil society.  Today the questions “what is ethics” and “whose ethics” have become a little like Pilate’s question “what is truth”:  a rhetorical question with a subjective answer.   Ethics must have an independent foundation.  Ethics is not ideology or just a pragmatic programme of ideas.  Ethics is not about finding answers which help you to feel good.

The very nature of ethics is that personal responsibility must at its centre.  We are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our acts. Independent personal responsibility is always at the heart of ethical behaviour.  Ethics is not an ideology which we trot out, or a handbook of does and don’ts that we turn to for ready answers.  Ethics is always about the way we responsibly and authentically structure our own personal behaviour.  In the long term a just society is attained not just by rules and norms, but by people who live justly and with integrity.

At the beginning of the first interview which Pope Francis gave shortly after his election, he was asked by the interviewer, fellow Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro: “who exactly is Jorge Mario Bergoglio”.  The Pope’s instant answer was: “I am a sinner”.  Then he paused and said: “Let me reflect on that”.  “No”, he said, “that is correct, I am a sinner”.

In many ways this is one of the most fundamental insights we have into who this Pope is.  It is the key to understanding many of his phrases.  One who considers himself in the first place a sinner cannot be arrogant and harsh in his judgement of other sinners.

The opposite of integrity is arrogance.  Pope Francis shows us that a rejection of arrogance can be extraordinarily capable of changing hearts.  Remember that we learn integrity and how to reject arrogance not in some future world, but today wherever we are.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is Archbishop of Dublin.





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