Bishop’s Letter – March 2018
It is a truism to say that we live amid the challenges, opportunities and sometimes confusions of a rapidly changing Ireland. While I can get my mind round some of the more obvious and dramatic changes, it is the little things that occasionally pull one up. I have to confess I felt a little twinge of regret when the small piece of legislation allowing for the opening of licensed premises on Good Friday passed rapidly through both Dáil and Seanad.
Thus ended a symbol of public homage to the atmosphere of Good Friday which had been upheld by law since the 1920s. In a changing and more pluralist society this moment no doubt was bound to come. Yet both parliamentary speeches and media coverage seemed almost to delight in pouring scorn on a tradition deemed to be senseless, antediluvian, and an inhibition to spending by tourists.
The Christian religion cannot any longer prescribe how people out in the public square behave on its own days of special holiness; that indeed is clear. But, as the ‘secular’ Good Friday becomes just like the opening day of any other holiday weekend, there are one or two babies that are being thrown out with the proverbial bath water. It was good to have a day when the nation was reminded of its inseparable and dependent relationship with alcohol – in this land we apparently cannot celebrate, commiserate or even relax without it. I say this as someone who is certainly not a Puritan in these matters, and who is constantly aware that when we make Eucharist we drink from a common celebratory cup of wine. Secondly, there was something precious about the silence of the streets on a Good Friday evening – no shouting and mirth at closing time, no raucous singing drifting over the garden wall. It is good for people to experience an atmosphere of corporate silence sometimes, to be challenged to reflect, to eschew the escapism often associated with unending noise.
But this year it will be changed utterly. Or will it? Christian people will still day by day observe the Week of weeks, knowing that the way in which Holy Week is kept is a kind of barometer of the spiritual state of our individual and parochial lives. Perhaps, as the rest of the world seems to be fleeing from any sense that Holy Week is special, we are challenged all the more to witness to the uniqueness and the profound relevance of these saving events. Holy Week, Good Friday included, offers marvellous possibilities to take faith out of the confines of the church building, to witness on the streets, to say to a busy world which has forgotten how to be hushed – ‘is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?’ All round this diocese there are processions along streets with large crosses, ecumenical pilgrimages and stations of the cross, gatherings of praying people in the public haunts of men and women. And so it should be … some years ago I was astonished at the positive and substantial public interest in my own ‘Stations in the (railway) stations’ on a Good Friday.
I was reading with interest the other day a leaflet, I think from an English source, about various ways to make the wider community aware that the message of Good Friday matters. Its contents seemed very pertinent in our own present situation. One of the suggestions,ironically, was that after church on Good Friday evening worshippers should go to the local pub, order a soft drink, and without annoying people nevertheless make clear in casual conversation that they had just come from church, and they had observed a pivotal and poignant moment in their life of faith. Perhaps part of our duty on Good Friday is to create a conversation in which we can explain to another person why we believe the cross so vastly matters. In a completely different context, the leaflet emphasised that children should not be denied the opportunity to experience the importance of this day – often there is an assumption that Good Friday liturgy has to be solemn and silent and not very child-friendly. But, as again we know in many parts of this diocese, children can come to value the message of the day using their own brand of creative conviviality. ‘Messy church ‘ can often be at its best on Good Friday, and the message of the cross reverberates equally in places of traditional restrained whispering and in settings which are rather more demonstrative.
Perhaps, therefore, the little piece of legislation with which I began might actually stimulate our thinking regarding how we ‘do’ witness and evangelism concerning the cross in the world in which we find ourselves. Next month, I plan to reflect on the legislative matter which is gaining far more publicity than anything I have mentioned here – namely the plans for a referendum concerning the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The archbishops of the Church of Ireland have already made a considered joint contribution to the debate, but much more will be inevitably be said before the day we vote. And I know the Editor plans to facilitate the articulation of a variety of perspectives on this highly sensitive issue arising out of our own diocesan life.
Interestingly, most readers will probably encounter that material on Easter Day … April 1. After the demands and the disciplines of Holy Week, Easter must be a day of boundless and infectious hope and joy. Many that morning like to come to the Eucharist at first light, often in the open air, replicating the experience of those who came at dawn to the sepulchre … Amongst the various dawn Eucharists across the diocese I always am delighted to invite all people of all ages to join me, the members of the Laois Youth Council and the parishioners of Stradbally and beyond by the lake in the grounds of Stradbally Hall. We do this by kind invitation of Mr Thomas Cosby on the site famed not least for the Electric Picnic! … and if you are coming please enter via the main gate in Stradbally. This service is a glorious experience with great numbers of people, the renewal of baptismal vows by the water, and a moving sense of the triumph of the Light of Christ. If you have not come before, try it this year…..and an excellent open air breakfast follows. The important thing is the starting time … This year at 6.15am.
One final thing. For quite some years we have been enriched by a diocesan link with the Isle of Man and with the diocese of Sodor and Man. Their new bishop, Bishop Peter Eagles, will be paying his first visit to us from March 22 to 24. In those days we will try to give him some sense of our diocesan life and its context, and we will reflect on how our well – established relationship might continue to unfold to the benefit of all involved. Have a truly blessed and transformative journey towards and beyond the cross
Cashel Ferns and Ossory