Gerry O’Hanlon in Christchurch Cathedral

November 17, 2009 in General, News

christchurch_01Gerry O’Hanlon, from the Jesuit Centre of Faith and Justice, was guest preacher at the annual Christchurch Cathedral ecumenical citizenship service on November 15th. In his homily Gerry warned that the Government would more readily achieve its goals “if those who are primarily guilty are not seen to escape with impunity… Ireland’s poorest people are being asked to pay for the recklessness and corrupt activity of a number of extremely wealthy people and institutions.” He noted the grim times we are going through, the necessity of pulling together in an equitable way that does not penalize the most vulnerable, and the need to search for a more sustainable economic paradigm. He also noted the resources of humour, resilience and faith which will enable us to survive and prosper. It is a homily worth reading.


Gerard O’Hanlon SJ

‘If God is for us, who is against us’ – this great cry of hope and confidence from Paul invites us to count our blessings, to celebrate and give thanks for our city and our citizens. And, despite all the gloom, there is much to be thankful for: an improving architectural landscape, a rich cultural life, a more environmentally conscious citizenry, a city that, despite all its flaws, basically works. An occasion then to thank diligent officials, hard-working citizens, young people full of energy and life, and, above all, all those ordinary people who live quiet lives of honesty and decency and, in so doing, build up the social capital upon which we all depend.

We thank God for this, and we thank God that we as Christians can do this together today. I remember as a child, in the 50s, my mother, tired from pre-Christmas shopping, took my sister, brother and myself into a church, as much, I imagine, for a rest as for a time to pray. Quickly she realized she was in the “wrong” place (it was St Anne’s, on Dawson Street) and we were quickly shepherded back outside to the cold and wet pavements of the city. This same mother, from at least the 80s on, was heard to marvel how much we had in common as Christians, how wonderful it was to listen to the non-roman Catholic service on Sunday mornings on the radio.

Truly, that is a development that we have all benefited from, and my gratitude to Dean Dermot Dunne for the invitation to preach here today, an invitation that would have gratified my mother no end, as it does my surviving Uncle Rory, 86, on my father’s side, who remembers his mother defying the local parish priest in allowing his sister to attend a wedding of a Protestant friend of hers at St George’s, near Hardwick Street, in the 1940s and who is greatly supportive of the changes in a situation of stand-off which, instinctively, perhaps like many others, he always knew to be wrong and never accepted.

“When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed… There is no need to rehearse in detail the grim situation in which we, as a city and as a country, find ourselves. And, despite the proper distinction between Church and State, there is a long tradition in Christian theology of comment and action on public affairs (from the Jesus who overturned the stalls of the money-lenders in the Temple, through Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Catholic Social Teaching, The World Council of Churches, Liberation theology and the likes of the Christian Socialism of Maurice, Tawney and William Temple- and so on). This rich tradition of wisdom needs to continue today, as an important resource to citizens in facing up to the grave issues which confront us. It needs to do so despite the attempts, in a less institutionally-religious society, to banish religion from the public square, even despite the justifiably damaged credibility of the Roman Catholic Church in particular due to the scandals of child sexual abuse. The wise and courageous interventions in public life of Archbishops Neill and Martin are greatly appreciated in this context.

What, then, might this Christian tradition have to say to our current situation? Many things, of which I propose to outline two.

First, even if ‘anger is not a policy’, it is important for all, not least our politicians and this government in particular, to recognize that there is widespread and deep anger among our citizens at the incompetence, complacency and recklessness of their leaders – the politicians, bankers, developers, and associated groups who led the revels in the so-called Celtic Tiger era. It has been said that the destructive force of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 served as an X-ray of Central America: it stripped the roofs off an entire society and revealed the deep poverty hidden inside. The global recession has had a similar effect in Ireland, revealing deep fault-lines that we all perhaps suspected were there but were happy to ignore as long as the weather stayed fine. Of course to that extent we were all – or most of us- complicit, and this should caution us against a too populist hue and cry for a justice that smells a bit like vengeance. But – and this is so important – if, as is absolutely right in this moment of crisis, we are all being asked to come together for the common good, to make sacrifices, to take a lower standard of living, then this needs to be done in a way that is seen to be fair, and, above all, that protects the most vulnerable and asks the strongest to bear the heaviest weight.

Why, then, is there such an emphasis on cutting public expenditure and on the McCarthy Report (when services in health, education, prisons and so on are often so inadequate), and so little emphasis on the Report of the Commission on Taxation? Given the behavior of our banks, given NAMA, why are we talking about reducing social welfare rates, in effect suggesting that ‘Ireland’s poorest people are being forced to pay for the recklessness and corrupt activity of a number of extremely wealthy people and institutions’ (Social Justice Ireland, Budget 2010)? Why, according to recent reports (I. Times, Monday Nov 9th, 2009) is the number of people sent to prison for non-payment of fines (initially imposed as punishment for minor criminal offences) almost double the rate of last year ‘in stark contrast to the way some of the financial shenanigans in the banking sector have been handled’ (Jim O’Keeffe, T.D.)? And why does this same banking sector, forgiven debtors themselves, at least co-responsible for the property and housing bubble, not lobby for debt forgiveness and mitigation for its own customers experiencing difficulties with mortgage repayments, rather than imagining than an extension or rescheduling of loans might be sufficient? Truly all this is a social dis-grace, to use the language of Liberation Theology, truly this resonates with the Matthean parable – ‘when his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed’.

None of this is meant to suggest that anger on its own can be sufficient, or that it can serve as a substitute for the sacrifices that we will have to make. Nor does it oppose the almost universally agreed much-needed reform of our public sector, the fact that we have been paying ourselves too much in both public and private sectors. But from the Christian focus on the common good and, in particular, the preferential option for the poor, it does strongly recommend to government that the desirable goal of replacing conflict and blame with cooperation and sacrifice will be achieved more readily if those who are primarily guilty are not seen to escape with impunity, and if the burden of recovery is more equitably shared. Why, again, as Garret Fitzgerald and others have frequently asked, is the government focus almost exclusively on cutting expenditure and not also on addressing the scale of under-taxation that has been allowed to creep into our economy?

Let me come to my second point. Romans talks about the ‘principalities and powers’ which have to be reckoned with but which, in the end, are also subject to the love of Jesus Christ. Some recent commentators have identified these ‘powers’ with the hydra-like existence of evil which spreads out and atrophies into social structures and cultures which seem so strong and so much part of the prevailing common sense that even good people are tempted to be complicit. How, for example, did we as human beings live so long with the formal toleration of slavery, with the subordination of women?

What I want to suggest in our present context of global and national recession is that, again like Hurricane Mitch, something true, that up to now was hidden, has been revealed. And that this crisis can become a kairos, an opportunity to imagine a new paradigm for the future. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Derek Scally (I. Times, Monday, Nov 9th, 2009) spoke with a couple Katja (from the West) and Hendrik (from the East). They agreed that for them and many others ‘the fixation about reaching a “West German” standard of living has softened, on both sides. As Katja says: ‘That West standard was only ever calculated in financial terms, salary and GDP, a big car and a home you never saw because you worked too much…What I’ve learned from Hendrick’s eastern friends is that health, personal happiness and perhaps working a little less are all just as important’.

Can we begin to imagine, and to implement, a less consumer driven, debt-fuelled economic model, with less inequality within and between nations? Can we do this in a sustainable way that will protect our environment? Why must a vision like this, so redolent of Christian values, a focus on the ‘richness of sufficiency’ (Asian Ecumenical Conference, 1999) rather than on an infinite-growth model, be dubbed a pipe-dream? It is the kind of vision being hinted at by Gordon Brown and others when they speak of a tax on financial transactions (the so-called Tobin tax), on the social responsibility of banks, of the need for an agreement at the upcoming talks on climate change in Copenhagen.

Where is the evidence for this kind of vision in Dublin, in Ireland today? Too often, it seems to me, we hear about the need ‘to return to growth’, as if a simple return to ‘business as usual’ were the solution. Recently the Taoiseach (at the anniversary celebration of Morning Ireland) spoke about the need for a deeper intellectual engagement with the issues, instancing the progressive developments in re-imagining nationalism from the New Ireland Forum in the 1980s. And President McAleese has pointed to the whole peace process as an indication of the wonderful things Irish people can do, against seemingly impossible odds.

God wants the ‘principalities and powers’ to be overcome, God is with us in this struggle, why not be more ambitious in seeking to use this crisis to move towards that New Jerusalem, that Kingdom of God, which all Christians believe will only appear in final form at the end of times, but anticipations of which we are always right to struggle and hope for?

Conclusion: One of my happiest memories of life in Dublin was a street party in Cherry Orchard, where I live, on the occasion of the Dublin Millennium Celebrations in 1988. Of course, you will recall, that was another grim time, unemployment rampant – and yet the wit, the craic, was mighty. This city, this country is resilient, not least in its kind of mordant, black but life-giving humour, which I also experienced living in Belfast in the 1980s at the height of the Troubles. So we will survive, and thrive.

We will do so not least because, as Christians believe, God is on our side and all obstacles can be overcome.  My uncle Rory, to go back to that great man, told me recently how he danced with the Protestant girls in the Hall in Molesworth Street back in the 1940s, and when asked if he was really an ‘RC’, said yes, but he had only come to have a good time. Knowing Rory, a good time was certainly a bit of fun on that night, but, more deeply, was the attempt to live a good life. All Religions – and ecumenism in this city has now branched out, as we know, to Islam and many other faiths- at their best try to imagine and live this good life. And as Christians, at this time of crisis, it is our privilege to join with fellow-citizens, unbelievers and believers alike, in our search for a way forward, knowing that we have no blue-print, but that we do have a body of wisdom to contribute, and, above all, that we have hope to contribute, that sure hope based on God’s promise – ‘if God is for us, who is against us?…’, for nothing ‘can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.