Saint Patrick’s Day Sermon – the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

Sermon preached by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

The Right Reverend Paul Colton at the Festival and Civic Eucharist in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral on

Saint Patrick’s Day 2013

Luke 14.34:

‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?’

I first attended one of these early-morning St Patrick’s Day Eucharists in 1971.  I was aged eleven and in the scouts.  We helped with the washing up afterwards as the scouts still do, and explored the bishop’s kitchen and basement across the road. This event was substantially the same.  Cork was blazing a trail in terms of ecumenism.  In significant ways, both Ireland and St Patrick’s Day, though, were very different then.

Religious outlook and practice was very different. St Patrick’s Day, the national day, was a religious festival but it had more of the character of a welcome day off.  It wasn’t the three-day festival of events that it is trying to become today.

And what of religious outlook now?  Well, according to the most recent Census, 94% of our people say that they have a religion.  But we know that honestly, the picture is more complex than that.  Patterns of religious affiliation, practice and adherence have radically changed.  There is an immensely greater diversity of religious groups. The group of people saying they have no religion, is the second largest single grouping in the State – albeit at 6%.

Why do I say all this?  Well, St Patrick’s Day – at one and the same time our national day and a religious solemnity – confronts us all, annually, I believe, with questions and reminders about the place of religion in our society; as well as about the relationship between religion and State or, as we popularly put it Church and State. On the face of it our Irish Constitution sets out clear boundaries of separation between Church and State and, of a secular society, yet we all know truthfully that religious influence – texts even – permeate that same Constitution, and that in practice the relationship between religion and State domestically is far more complex.

These questions are more real than ever for us as a society, for me as a church leader, for all of us who call ourselves religious, for all who are engaged in leadership in the State, not least our legislators, and, at a personal level, for legislators and politicians who are religious, they are especially complicated, because personal faith and public duty meet in the inner core of heart and mind.

Ours is a relatively young democracy.   I cannot help but feeling – especially as I witness, and am personally engaged, in Church-State dialogue, in the field of education especially, in the care of the elderly, and in the voluntary charitable sector; and as we all take part in on-going vigorous debate about all sorts of issues, including the proposed abortion legislation, marriage equality rights, and the affording of protection to Lesbian and Gay people in a religious workplace, to name some examples – I cannot help but feeling that we have some major Church-State growing-up and disentangling to do.

The State has the challenge of accommodating, in a secular way, in its legislation, within the Rule of Law, outlooks which take account of the new diversity, religious and non-religious.  Religious groups, churches, particularly churches that have been used to exerting major influence (including, in spite of its size, the Church of Ireland) have to get used to what it means to be religious, and to work out our faith, in a secular society.

So, what about those of us who are religious in a secular society?  Well, for Christians, who follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, we are to be salt.  ‘Salt is good.’  But only salt that has not lost its taste.

This is topical. No sooner had we welcome news of Pope Francis’ election earlier this week than the journalistic diggers set to work to see what his relationship with the Argentinian authorities had been in an earlier time.  I am reminded of a dialogue I had on twitter with someone.  I defended a Roman Catholic priest who was being accused of daring to express a political view.  The attack on him suggested that he should shut up and just get on with being religious.  His accuser turned on me then and said that the sole function of religious leaders was to get people to adhere to their faith.

There’s the crux though.  A secular State does not mean that there is no place for religion or dialogue with a religious viewpoint.  Separation of Church and State does not mean that religious people have nothing to say or should say nothing.  What if that faith is salty and has the impact salt has?  What if that salt is infused with the radical and challenging teachings of Jesus Christ?

Reconciling our positions of leadership with the challenges of the teaching of Jesus puts us firmly in an uncomfortable place.

Didn’t Jesus say: ‘I was … hungry and you gave me food; … thirsty and you gave me to drink; … a stranger and you welcomed me; … naked and you gave me clothing … sick and you took care of me … in prison and you visited me.’  Isn’t that profoundly challenging, social and political?

Did Jesus not have plenty to say about religious leaders, teachers of the law and the ruling classes generally?  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…” Why?  You tax mint, dill and cumin – herbs – but at the same time you have ‘neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.’ (Matthew 23.23) or as Saint Luke puts it, you tax the herbs ‘but you neglect justice and the love of God.’ (Luke 11.42)

Doesn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan have something to say, not only about neighbourliness, but also about crime, racial discrimination, hatred, bigotry, and exploitation. Is it not an indictment of religious leaders who turn their faces and cross the road from such problems? Jesus crossed many boundaries of race, culture and gender when he met the Samaritan woman at the well?  By putting children at the centre, as a model of how to enter the kingdom of God, he turned societal values on their head.

He chased the moneychangers out of the temple – not because they were doing something commercial and conducting business in a religious place – that was quite normal – but because they were extorting ridiculous exchange rates out of the ordinary people.

Didn’t Jesus end up in the ultimate conflict with the authorities of his day: on trial and executed?

And so we could go on.  Religious people should have nothing to say or should say nothing?  I don’t think so, if we follow the way of Jesus Christ.  The litany could be a long one:  but where would we be if many Christians had not got involved over the years?  Martin Luther King (non violence and racism); Desmond Tutu (apartheid); Oscar Romero (the poor); but more, important, the countless Christians who through the ages have made a difference by their unsung involvement in society and their voluntary engagement, following the example of Christ.

Christians are called to announce and live by the radical teaching of Jesus Christ – the faith that St Patrick and others brought to this island – Patrick, who himself challenged the authorities of his day by lighting his Paschal fire near Slane.

Yes, we are to be salt.  ‘Salt is good;’ Jesus told us.  More directly, he told us and gave us a stark warning that should be our charter and caution:

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?

It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

Matthew 5.13

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