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Bishop William Crean’s Assembly Address to Cloyne Clergy, Nov 2016

Speaking notes of Bishop Wm. Crean
Address to the Assembly, Killarney, Tuesday 8th Nov 2016

“From what wells, do we drink now?”

This is my opening question by way of broadening our reflections beyond the immediate and familiar patterns of our thinking about faith issues to take something of a ‘helicopter view’ of the perspectives through which people shape and live their lives today.  That moves us to address the wider question.

From what wells, do the people drink from now?”

1. These are reflections on the cultural landscape we are now immersed in and with which we continually interact mostly unconsciously.  In offering these reflections I am assuming all the good things we enjoy as a society.  For all our faults, we’re greatly blessed especially with the gift of freedom – religious freedom.  For long periods of our history that was not the case.

2. For those of us who are older we struggle to keep pace with technological developments.  Parents even are stretched to oversee their children’s use of the Internet.

3. Take into the equation the economic, social and political uncertainties now being felt across the world.

4. The final assumption we must acknowledge is the reality that once people have the option of making their own choices we can expect them to do so.  We may not agree with their choices but we must respect them.

What I propose to address this evening is as follows:

1. Let me begin with a scripture text – Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well – John 4:5-26
2. Then I will offer some thoughts on the trends that are prevalent and are the basis of the cultural climate in Ireland today.
3. I will then draw on some reflections on ‘mission’ from Pope Francis.
4. I will conclude with identifying challenges to be faced along with opportunities to be grasped.

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

The first thing to note about this meeting is that it took place not at any old well but at Jacob’s well – an ancient place of meeting and sustenance. The encounter of Jesus with the Woman at the Well is a microcosm of Ministry of Jesus.  Like all gospel narratives it can speak to us at several levels.

It is an encounter that breaks all the rules and norms of its time
5. Man and woman – encounter
6. Jew and Samaritan – meeting
7 Jesus offers the “water” and she is searching …….
8. The spiritual depth of the exchanges and
9. The transformation that the encounter brought about.

This meeting represents many of the elements of the pastoral ministry. It is intensely personal in character.  It is one to one.  There is no pretence. It is real.

We engage people in this way often.  Many seem like chance meetings. In fact, they are providential, incarnational moments in which the divine/human is earthed and real.

I chose this text as a starting point for reflection.  The meeting is a personal encounter with Jesus.  Its substance is the reality of the woman’s life.  She is challenged by the conversation to face the reality.  However, it begun with Jesus’ request “Give me something to drink”.  The woman would in time ask “Give me some of that water, so that I may never be thirsty”.

The yearnings of the human heart are many and endless. The desire for food and drink are easily met.  Food for the soul is no less urgent but finding it, calls for discernment and perseverance.  This is our fundamental question.  The spiritual food of old no longer seems to satisfy – it is akin to the manna in the desert. The people are fed up with it, for many it no longer satisfies.

It begs the question WHY?  It raises question about liturgy/Eucharist/Mass.

Cultural Climate in Ireland

The commentators speak frequently of the diminishing role and place of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  There is no argument with that.  However, its continual engagement in education and healthcare is a source of great irritation for many, how many, it is difficult to know.  We haven’t gone away you know!

The debate around the ongoing church engagement in education is a kind of battleground where diverse philosophies of education are vying for control of schools and their Management and through them control of the curriculum.  It is interesting and encouraging that it is a teacher’s body who have taken such a strong stand against the plans of the mandarins in the Dept. of Ed. & Skills as they seek to impose a model of education that has been tried and failed in Scandinavian countries.

What do we bring to the dialogue ‘round education?
In this context, it is worth listening to St. Paul “We are planted in love and built on love.  With all the saints, we are given the power to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and depth of Christ’s love which is beyond all telling”. Contrast that vision with the perspective that views faith as delusion and superstition.  There is a logic of faith which has its coherence and which people of faith understand.

As we seek to uncover the various layers of the cultural and religious dynamic we are working through, a recent address by Francis Campbell – former British Ambassador to the Holy See – now Vice Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham – have some keen insights in his recent talk under the title “Catholic Health Care in a Pluralist Society”.  They are pertinent because while he is addressing the issue of health care his analysis applies equally to education and pastoral ministry.

He begins from “the principles of Catholic Social Teaching which are principles applicable to all human beings” ……. In a world of competing voices Catholic Teaching speaks out prophetically for the voiceless and marginalized”

“According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI there is a distinctive quality in the Church’s action since love of neighbour is inscribed in our nature by God and it is the result of the presence of Christianity in the world.  Therefore, it can never be simply “social assistance” and it reaches out to all”.

He observes that in both healthcare and school/university chaplaincy traditional denominational models and models of ministry do not fit into contemporary spiritual pluralism.  But once this happens, once its distinctiveness is lost it becomes difficult to distinguish spiritual care giving from talking therapies or social work.

As a general assessment of the state of play he concludes that there is little appetite to ditch religion altogether primarily because of the need to recognise religious diversity and the commitment to equality and rights legislation.

Those who promote a syncretistic catch all, minimalist, ministry (lowest common denominator) operate out of three assumptions Francis Campbell suggests

1. The distinctive nature of religious tradition is detrimental to a pluralistic society.
2. One religious tradition cannot speak to other faith traditions and certainly not to a non-faith tradition.
3. A religious tradition has little contribution to make outside its own community.

This raises the question of our political culture and the vision of society that predominates in regard to the place of faith in the market square.  As we move into the second century of the Republic, which republican model will prevail?  The more secularist tone of the French model or the more pluralist tone of the North American model?  When it comes to faith the two are quite different.  For one, the French model was about freedom from faith while the North American model was freedom for faith.  What option have we chosen?

Questions of the role and inter-relationship of faith and reason in society have always been high on Pope Benedict’s agenda.  He warns “that [this] rationality can become devastating if it becomes detached from its roots and exalts technological feasibility as its criterion”.  Another insight from Pope Benedict is worth hearing “to totally separate public life from all valuing traditions, means to embark on a closed and dead-end path”.  A narrow secularism becomes autocratic a “healthy secularism” is pluralism in its most positive operation.

If we return to my opening question
From what wells, do we drink now?

In seeking to answer it, it is well to acknowledge that we are immersed in the contemporary reality that is characterised by a deep ANXIETY.
I was speaking recently to a public representative and he was reflecting on his experience of his clinics.  He ventured that he would need to be a psychotherapist to meet the need of so many who are living with huge levels of anxiety.  While technological change brings great benefits yet is filled with uncertainty as to what it is doing to society.  The levels of addictive behaviours is a strong indicator that all is not well.  There is a lot of evidence that the scaffolding of social cohesion is collapsing leaving a lot of distressed people in its wake – both young and old.  The singular most alarming statistic is surely the prevalence of suicide, particularly among young men.  What has fashioned this view of life that makes life so intolerable?

As a community of faith, we cannot walk away from this ‘cry of the heart’ from which so many are suffering.  Great work is being done to bring mental health to the top of the social agenda.  Is there a spiritual component that needs to be integrated into the mental health care process?

The wells we drink from are meant to nourish our lives.  If they don’t we are drinking from a polluted well.  The wells of addiction are very attractive to some but are insidious in their creeping hold on our spirit / soul.  The wells of self-preservation and self-preoccupation are no less insidious in their gradual corrosion of our sense of generosity and care for one another.

In trying to respond to this situation as a community of faith individually and collectively, we can succumb to an ‘upper roomfearfulness which can easily paralyse us.  We can easily put a block on a gift of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As we seek to nurture a sense of mission in the Church we might draw some inspiration from Pope Francis’ recent address to the members of Jesuits at their 36th General Congregation at which they elected their new Father General, Father Arturo Sosa.

He opened his remarks with a quote from Pope Paul VI to the 32nd General Congregation.

“Forward in the name of the Lord
Let us walk together, free, obedient, united
to each other in the Lord Jesus Christ
For the greater glory of God”.

As you would expect he focussed on the insights from the Exercises of St. Ignatius and in typical Jesuitical style his message is made in three succinct points that apply to all priests.  The greater good is accomplished “through Joy, the Cross and through the Church Our Mother”.

1. Joy. – To ask insistently for consolation.  Our task and mission is “to console the faithful people of God to help them through discernment so that the enemy of human nature do not rob us of our joy … neither by despair before the magnitude of the evils of the world and the misunderstandings between those who want to do good nor let him replace it with foolish joys that are always at hand in all human enterprises”.

“This service of joy and spiritual consolation roots us in prayer”.

2. The Cross – Letting ourselves be moved by Our Lord placed on the Cross.

Mercy is not an abstract word but a lifestyle that places concrete gestures before the word.

The Lord who looks at us with mercy and chooses us, sends us out to bring with all its effectiveness, that same mercy to the poorest, to sinners, to those discarded people, and those crucified in the present world, who suffer injustice and violence.  Only if we experience this healing power first-hand in our own wounds, as people and as a body, will we lose the fear of allowing ourselves be moved by the immense suffering of our brothers and sisters, and will we hasten to walk patiently with our people, learning from them the best way of helping and serving them. (cf. GC 32, d.4 n.50)

3. The Church – Doing good led by the good spirit, thinking with the Church (Sentire cum Ecclesia)

Service of the good spirit and of discernment makes us men of the Church – not clericalists, but ecclesiastics – men “for others”, with nothing of our own which cuts us off from others, but rather everything that is ours placed in common and for service.

We neither walk alone nor comfortably, but we walk with a “heart that does not rest, that does not close in on itself but beats to the rhythm of a journey undertaken together with all the people faithful to God”.

We walk becoming all things to all people, with the goal of helping others.


Probably the most devastating put down one can be in receipt of these days is “You just don’t get it”!  You are dismissed by the declaration that you simply don’t understand.  It may not be true at all but the statement “You just don’t get it” is a message ‘round the disconnect that has taken place.  We may think we are communicating but we are speaking of different realities.  We even use the same words but understand them differently.
Take the word ‘Spirituality’ – it has taken on a whole new life – quite different from its original understanding.  Its origin as a concept was certainly Christian in its understanding of the divine which was that articulated in the early Christian professions of faith.
What are people saying when they speak of being ‘spiritual’ but not religious? Is it a personal God they speak of? If not what is it? A vague mystical mass?  In this context does traditional language like Salvation and Redemption speak to that person?
In relation to the church and many other institutions it’s the shift from the experience of authority to the authority of experience.  It is an expression of the ‘post truth’ syndrome of which we have heard so much in 2016.  It is a self-referenced rationalism that crowns opinion as king to the detriment of ‘Truth’ as we would have traditionally understood it (objective).  This makes it very difficult to embrace the heretofore shared Christian narratives.  For some this is a conscious rejection but for many it is part of a cultural drift.  In this context apportioning blame is not helpful.  It is much better but more demanding to seek to engage in a respectful dialogue.  That is a powerful witness in its own right.

Over the Christmas it was most interesting to read an opinion piece in the English Times under the title “Religion still matters, whatever your beliefs”.  The point being made is that a great number in political and media leadership are illiterate when it comes to religion and the meaning of faith in the lives of believers.  This reveals itself frequently in the naivity of political decisions and the pathetic ignorance and prejudice of some column writers.

Still, a respectful dialogue is the best way forward.

(Tim Montgomerie – 22 Dec 2016)

From what wells do the people drink now?

Mindfulness is big for all kinds of reasons.  To what end – to ease stress and anxiety. Mind you the poor and those on the edges usually cannot afford the luxury of being mindful.
• Yoga – for the same reasons but with a religious appendage
• Exercise for men on Sunday morning is a mobile men’s shed
• For many theatre, the arts, dance and music were always an alternative
• The Premier League is fast becoming the shrine at whose altars people from all over the world now worship.
• Technological innovation knows no bounds. (Netflix)
• The role of women is a critical issue – credibility?

This is the reality / context in which people continue to seek and search.  This was brought home to me very strongly recently listening to interviews with and about Leonard Cohen – the singer/song writer/poet who died recently.  One DJ declared he was more inspired by him than by all the religious education he was exposed to in school – about which he was none too complementary.  He went on to explain why – it was his relentless personal search and his capacity to give expression to the nature of the quest.  We know that Leonard Cohen was himself much inspired by the Scriptures.

This dynamic is replicated across the arts world, in literature, poetry and music of all hues.  What they share is that they speak to the heart more than the head.  They connect with experience.  They open it up.  They put words on stuff people are going through and so help to make sense of it.

We know people desire more than to tread the waters of life.  They desire to live with awareness, authenticity and a depth of understanding.

For those with faith we believe that awareness, authenticity and depth of understanding is to be found in faith in the Lord Jesus, and the peace that He alone can give.  We believe too that these spiritual riches are mediated through the Church, the earthen vessel that it is.  For many the Church is a stumbling block and a scandal.  It hinders rather than helps.  Mind you some who make this declaration are frequently doing so out of laziness rather that conviction.  Nevertheless, we must take seriously those who reject the Church as an agent of spiritual nourishment.

Pope Francis

We believe in the Holy Spirit at work in and through the Church.  The choice of Pope Francis was a great surprise and he has not disappointed.  He surprises people all the time.  Little wonder then that some are disconcerted by him.  He disturbs us and inspires us at the same time.  His appeal is universal.  People of all faiths and none listen to him.  He puts them in touch with the teaching and ministry of Jesus in a way that is accessible because of the untechnical language he speaks always helping people to reflect on the Gospel stories.  The themes are connected to their experience.  He has a very strong focus on relationships.  Our indispensable personal relationship with Jesus, expressed in prayer, our personal and family relationship, and our relationship with the global family with whom we share our Common Home. (Laudato Si).

Again, it was interesting to read a review of 2016 in the Guardian Newspaper which commended Pope Francis for his humane and intelligent conservatism which it sees as a sign of hope in 2017.  He quotes a line from his New Year homily.

“The lack of physical (and not virtual) contact is cauterising our hearts and making us lose the capacity for tenderness and wonder, for pity and compassion …. we are not interchangeable items of merchandise or information processors. We are children, we are family, we are God’s People”.

Lumen Gentium – Light of the People: Gaudium et Spes – Joy and Hope

When the Vatican II was called by Blessed John XXIII its task was to  re-evaluate how the Church understood its mission in the world today. The titles  of the key documents to emerge were Gaudium et Spes – The gospel as the well of joy and hope for our time and Lumen Gentium – the Church as the light of the peoples.  These two documents remain the bedrock for the universal church as it pursues its mission today.  Together they comprise a dynamic vision of the nature and purpose of the church in the world.  That means that whatever the circumstances in which it finds itself it is characterised by courage and hope, rooted as we are in faith in Jesus, the Lord, ever strengthened by his assurance “Be brave, I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).

Crisis or Opportunity?

Crisis in our experience is truly ominous even catastrophic.  That the Church in Ireland is in a difficult place is undeniable.  However, the perspective we bring to it is so important because that is what will form the basis of our response.  For instance, if we view the decline in vocations in isolation from all else that has emerged in the Irish Church in recent years then we can only draw negative conclusions.  The reality is that so much that is positive and inspiring has emerged, both within and without the Church.  The reign of God continues to flourish despite the many dark and evil forces in our midst.  Grace abounds and is at work in the lives of the so called ordinary people.

Pastorally there are many good things happening – be it small prayer groups, the well organised readers rota, the Ministers of the Eucharist and their contact with the housebound, support for those who are bereaved, childcare supports and so much else.  Consider too the extraordinary concern and generosity expressed by so many people ‘round Christmas.  Equally, the concern and perseverance of volunteers in so many organisations.  All of these positive things we must acknowledge – before we start complaining!

Still, we know that our homes and families are suffering the absence of prayers and the faith to which it gives expression.  Our primary schools are especially supportive of the work of religious education but the necessary affirmation from parents is frequently absent.  This reality we must address.  The integrity of the celebrations of the sacraments is at stake.  We must become guardians of the liturgy and our sacred spaces lest they be trampled underfoot by apathy and ignorance.

Since the election of Francis as Pope he has invited the church to focus on family and on the experience of family life today.  It is unprecedented that he should devote two synods to reflection on family.  Amoris Laetitiae (The Joy of Love) is the fruit of that reflection and discernment.  It is not without its critics.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  It means the issues being raised are important and worth spending time and effort on them.
Fortunately, we in Ireland have the privilege of hosting the World Meeting of Families in 2018.  It gives the Irish Church the opportunity to focus on what’s happening in our families, good and bad, try to value them more.
Because there is less support for people of faith and families of faith.  Could this be the greatest service we can provide at this time?
Over these next two years we will be preparing for the World Meeting of Families 2018.  We have a wonderful opportunity for the Church in Ireland.  It affords us the opportunity to address a fundamental need in the Church and society.  Through our efforts, we can be catalysts for renewal in family life in many parts of the world.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.


“If you know what God is offering
And who it is that is saying to you
Give me something to drink
You would have been the one to ask
And he would have given you living water” (Jn. 4:10)

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