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Speech at a Reception for the Irish Community in Rome, at the Residence of the Ambassador to the Holy See


I am very happy to have this opportunity to meet with so many members of the Irish Community, both religious and lay, here in Rome this evening.

We gather at a particularly significant time in the history of the European Union.  Almost six months to the day, I had the honour, as President of the European Council, to welcome ten new Members States into our Union.

The first of May this year, the Day of Welcomes, was a momentous occasion for all involved. The remnants of post-war divisions were blown away. The door to the European Union was thrown open and our new members welcomed.

Today, alongside the other Heads of State or Government, I was in Rome to partake in yet another milestone in the development of the European Union. The signing of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe represents the maturing of the European process of integration.

Its significance lies in the fact that it replaces all previous treaties. It establishes the basic legal order of the enlarged European Union of 25 Member States for the foreseeable future.

As is clearly evident, these are times of historic development, not just for Europe, but also for Ireland itself. As a country, we have undergone unprecedented change in recent years. We have thrown off the shackles of under-development to become a confident nation, ready to take on the challenges of an increasingly globalised world. 

As we chart the pathway of the future, I believe it is important to reflect not just on our success, but also on the many individuals and groups within our society who contributed to that success. Without their input and determination, we would never have come as far as we have today. And one sector in particular to whom we in Ireland owe a debt of gratitude, are the religious communities of our country.

Here in Rome, of course, you need no reminding of the enormous contribution made over the centuries by Irish priests, Brothers and Sisters, right across Europe. Over the past year, I spent a great deal of time travelling around Europe to discuss the inclusion of references to God and Europes Christian heritage in the new Constitution. There is a certain irony in the fact that, in many cases, my travels retraced the footsteps of Irish monks. Nothing more clearly indicates just how important and lasting an influence their contribution to European civilisation has been.

When St. Isidores, the Irish College and San Clemente were founded, Rome was first and foremost, a sanctuary or safe haven. The penal laws of the eighteenth century and the absence of any suitable education in Ireland forced Catholics to flee our shores and travel to colleges in mainland Europe. Here, in Rome today, these colleges serve as a vivid reminder of the scholarship and great intellectual capacity of Irish minds during those times.

The legacy of those colleges here in Rome has lasted right into the 21st century. The Irish religious in this great city serve the wider church, making a contribution out of proportion to your numbers. Together with the lay community you act as much cherished and effective ambassadors for our country. Here, you acquire a unique perspective, a sense of the church as an international institution, transcending national borders and uniting people in a community of faith. You also gain a sense of Irelands position in that world order.

In recent years, when discussing the work of religious orders in Ireland, the prevailing mood has been one of despondency. There is no doubt that a genuine sense of disappointment and betrayal exists amongst many; to say nothing of the horrendous toll of hurt and anger experienced by individuals directly affected.

From that maelstrom however, has emerged another set of casualties. Those who have, simply by virtue of belonging to a religious community, found their good name taken away. In this climate of sustained criticism, it becomes all too easy to tar everyone with the same brush. In so doing, we overlook the enormous good work and contribution of so many religious across Ireland, and indeed the world.

From a nation that struggled on the fringes of Europe, Ireland has become a country to which many now turn in an attempt to discover the recipe for our success. But, let us not be fooled. Irelands economic prosperity did not occur by the mere wave of a wand. Instead, it was painstakingly nurtured over decades. It wasconceived on a solid foundation that was prepared by those who valued, amongst other things, the importance of education, equal opportunity and collective responsibility in our society. 

And those are values, which were - and still are promoted in no small measure by the religious communities in Ireland.  It is to many, visionary priests, nuns and brothers across the country, that we owe thanks for facilitating our education as a people. It is they who recognised the importance of an education for life.  That does not mean education simply in terms of the knowledge attained, but rather in terms of the values it instilled in us as members of a community.  

It is thanks to those men and women, that many gifted children from less privileged backgrounds were able to realise their full potential in life. At a time when the expectations and opportunities for young women in Ireland were extraordinarily limited, religious sisters were the loudest, and sometimes the only, champions of education for girls. Today, we see the fruits of that hard work in the self-confident young women of my daughters generation.  And would the tremendously vibrant Gaelic Games of which we are so proud today, have survived, or even been a starter, were it not for the unpaid work of priests and teachers, both lay and religious, in every parish across the country?

Furthermore, it is impossible to quantify the debt we owe to successive generations of religious who nursed our sick and reached out to our poor. As numbers diminish today, and religious communities withdraw from many traditional activities, we are acutely aware of the loss. They contributed so much that it is only now that the full measure of their contribution is apparent.

Against a background of increasing affluence and individualism, vocations have plummeted; convents and seminaries have closed quietly. The aged faces become increasingly prevalent amongst gatherings of religious. Many men and women, who sincerely and tirelessly, dedicated their lives to the service of others, find todays Ireland a bewildering, even hostile place to be. Yet, despite our economic and technological success, society will only progress if we continue to respect the values that enable us to grow as asociety.

Embracing those values does not mean turning back the clock. For too many of our people, the good old days were marred by destitution, powerlessness and despair. Each generation creates itsown heroes, defines its own values.  But it is worth retaining and recognising what is good from the past, not as a memorial, but because it can enrich our lives today. We celebrate the progress that Ireland has made. But when change occurs, it should reflect genuine human progress progress for society as a whole.

Here we witness the key role that the religious have to play in the development of modern society. The religious in Ireland are well positioned to lead the way in terms of underpinning a new spirit of solidarity and voluntarism in our communities today. They have, in fact, a long history of doing so. In a recent paper on Religion and the Celtic Tiger, Lionel Pilkington, observes, that - much of the history of rural collective action and of community politics in Ireland, is partly indebted to a philosophy of Catholic social action and vocationalism.

Groups such as Muintir na Tíre and the Save the West campaign, held a shared concern with evolving a more participative form of democracy.

In more recent times, that quest for social justice and participative democracy has seen the establishment of agencies such as Trócaire; the Justice Commission of the Conference of Religious in Ireland; the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, the Vincentian Partnership, and many more such outstanding bodies. In working at the very heart of the community, these groups are leading the way, charting the development of a more just and equitable society for all to share.

Any blanket portrayal of the Church as a negative force in our society therefore, is not only misleading, but also inherently dangerous.Genuine pluralism means enabling various points of view to be heard and respected, religious and secular alike.  If we fail to give a hearing to the religious perspective, we risk losing sight of the values that underpin Christian teaching, and indeed, that of all the great religious movements. Those values are inspired by a belief in thedignity and equality of every individual in our society.

I firmly believe, that there is still a huge fund of goodwill and respect for the religious in Ireland today. I see it on a daily basis in the course of my work. It is clearly visible amongst the community groups looking after young people at risk, in the respite centres and hospices, the sports clubs, those working with people with disabilities and the homeless, the homework clubs, the arts groups. There are people in every city, town and village seeking to add to the communities around them.

In working for social justice alongside these groups, the religious in Ireland have a vital role to play. They have a prophetic role to challenge the modern individualism that threatens to undermine our society. It is they who can contribute to signposting our future development. In the words of Bishop Donal Murray, in a recent homily marking the 25th anniversary of the visit of Pope John Paul to Limerick, the challenge is to humanise the world we live in. The fact is that, despite the new found wealth and prosperity in Ireland today, people still revere that which is closest to the human heart: the love of family and friends around us; the respect of others; peace and stability.

That very quest for the ordinary in life brings to mind the words of Patrick Kavanagh, as we approach this Advent season. In the opening verse of his poem, Advent, Kavanagh declares that:  

" We have tested and tasted too much, lover,

Through a chink too wide there comes no wonder

Following the reflection and fasting of Advent, however, he proclaims that he can now witness beauty and simplicity:

wherever life pours ordinary plenty"..

We Irish today are a privileged generation. Life, in fact, has poured us far more than ordinary plenty. The challenge for us now is not to become blinded to the richness of human life and human possibility by our material wealth. It is not the strength of the individual, but rather the strength of a just and equitable society- to whose development we must all contribute - that will enable us to move forward as a nation.  

29October 2004