17 March 2017
By Elaine Murphy
In his sermon at the annual Civic Service and Festival Eucharist for St Patrick’s Day in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, the Bishop, the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, spoke about the place of religion in Irish society in the wake of the harrowing accounts about Mother and Babies Homes. He referred again to his call in 2015 for the terms of the Commission of Enquiry to be broadened to include Protestant-run Mother and Baby Homes.
Here is the full text of the Bishop’s sermon:
Sermon at the Civic Service of St Patrick’s Day, 2017 by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
I never listen back to Liveline on RTE One Radio on RTEPlayer; I did twice last week – to the car-stopping, heart-rending testimony of women and children who were speaking about their recollection of mother and baby homes. I wasn’t surprised, in the wake of those harrowing personal accounts, to read later the outbursts of anger against institutional religion , and indeed the State, on Twitter, including one or two calling for a boycott of St Patrick’s Day this year.
Naturally I would not agree with such a hyperbolic response but, if I’m honest, there’s something curiously unsettling and profoundly challenging, against this background, about being here today celebrating our national saint on our national day, to be here cherishing the place of religion in Ireland and its contribution to who and what we are, when we know full well that all was not well, and unless we acknowledge too the mistakes of the past. There is much in our religious legacy to be worked through, and not only in institutional religion in Ireland, but also its relationship with the State, to come to understand, and to be reconciled about, even within ourselves perhaps. Many people, including many people who are religious, find themselves in an emotional heap – a heap that has tilted their world on its axis. We live in times when the relationship of many Irish people with religion is, at best, complicated.
And so a new week – this week – started last Sunday. On Sunday night I tuned in to the season finale of the BBC period drama – Call the Midwife.
Set in the early 1960s, this episode opened at the tea table at the Community of St John the Divine – an Anglican religious order (a phenomenon not much known on this side of the Irish Sea) – and Sister Julienne, the nun in charge announced to the other sisters and the midwives: ‘I was told today that the family contraceptive pill is to be launched in district clinics in an attempt to cut down waiting lists.’ They were to take place on ‘Tuesday afternoons’, she said, ‘in the small room at the back.’ ‘It has been suggested that patients use the side door’, she announced.
One of the younger nuns protested: ‘But the unmarried mothers use the side door!’
Then Nurse Barbara Gilbert, the one engaged to the local clergyman, piped up stridently ‘Why can’t everyone come in the front? They’re just women, not criminals.’ She wasn’t at all content about a separate entrance for either the unmarried mothers or the contraceptive clinic.
It was a coincidental and challenging reminder of how, sadly, things were in those days, and of how few in number were the challenging and prophetic voices, it seems, and of how religious views, nurtured by religious teaching of the day, fostered outlooks and approaches that now attract our anger and shame at this remove.
It is clear that far too many articulations of and manifestations of Christianity over the years have themselves been, to use the words of today’s opening prayer, ‘darkness and error.’ I’m not saying anything that many of you have not heard me say before. Long before I was elected bishop I preached, in 1995, in my parish in Dublin about the Church’s attitude to single mothers and their children.
When I was preaching to you here in 2015 I used the phrase that, when we engage in the issues and debates of life, ‘we are walking on the holy ground of other people’s lives.’ I feel this again now. The current times have opened up many questions for many people we all know, perhaps even for ourselves, and for some of you here today. I specifically mentioned single mothers here that year too. Repeatedly over the years I have included the Church of the day’s attitudes to unmarried mothers and their babies as part of the litany of people who have been wounded by things done in the name of the Church and even more shamefully, of injustices committed in the name of Christ. Later that year I wrote to Judge Yvonne Murphy asking that, in the interim report of her Commission of Investigation, she recommend to Government that the terms of reference of her enquiry be expanded to include Protestant Mothers and Babies homes also. Such an appeal is not to prejudge any place, people or issues, nor is it to impute wrong-going on anyone’s part, but it is important the whole story is openly looked at.
When I received the honour of being invited as guest of honour to launch Cork LGBT Awareness Week, the year before, in 2014, I acknowledged that from the outset of institutional religion the:
… story has been one of prejudice, injustice, labelling as ‘the other’ and failing to show Christ’s love, being overcome step by step: slaves, Jews, science, single mothers, children born outside marriage, people in interchurch marriages, victims of suicide, the downfall of apartheid, divorcees, women (first in decision-making in the Church and then in the ordained ministry); standing up to racism. Think in our own lifetime of how, arising from our sense of the love of Christ, our attitudes have changed in the Church to many of these people, issues and situations.
As we gather all these years on, on this St Patrick’s Day, not so far away in time from these events, which are still very vivid in the hearts, memories and emotions of many people, including, no doubt, some, as I say, here today, we have an opportunity to recall fundamental principles of our faith. The call in our first reading from Tobit to us was ‘to turn to him with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul … to turn back and to what is right before him.’ This desire to be instruments of what is right is not the monopoly of one religion or, indeed, of religion at all. It is something that, whatever our background, we share as a matter of the common good.
‘Look around’ says Jesus in today’s Gospel, ‘and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’ There’s work to be done. There are needs to be met and good news to be both proclaimed and put into practice. That is why, as we reflect on the current love/hate relationship many in Ireland seem to have with religion that we truly need
- to know the truth of what happened in the name of religion in the past and to acknowledge it;
- to look around and to ensure that the needs of our own time are truly being addressed and met, and that we do so in a way that is just, generous, wholehearted and compassionate;
- to ensure that we are not unwittingly or unthinkingly complicit in new atrocities in our own time.
What it all comes down to is how Christians understand God and how they reflect that understanding and translate that view of God into their own lives and work. And so in these times of great turmoil, it is worth, I believe underscoring on this St Patrick’s Day (and every day for that matter), as I say, a fundamental.
This New Testament – the New English Bible – is the one that was handed to me that day in 1984 when I was ordained. When I look at the First Epistle of Saint John, I see that it is is given the heading ‘Recall to Fundamentals’. John reminds us in no uncertain terms that faith must have a proper understanding of the person of Jesus as Son of God. Faith must be based on truth and it cannot be separated from love. The absence of love is proof of the absence of faith, he says:
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4.7 and 8)
Belief and love go together. Faith without love is not faith. And, indeed for the Christian, love is rooted in the love that God has sown to us.
No one has ever seen God; says St John, ‘but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’(1 John 4.12)
A person who does not love does not know God.