Facing the challenges of meeting today’s needs ~ Bishop Paul Colton’s Sermon at Cork Civic Service

Sermon preached on Saint Patrick’s Day 2022

at the Choral and Civic Eucharist in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork by

The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

We live in a world and a time when it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  Only on Monday last I read an opinion piece in The Irish Examiner which counselled against, what it called, ‘Doom-scrolling’ the news.  I can identify with that.  I had to break myself out of the 24/7 news cycle, flicking from channel to channel and website to website, during the first lockdown for the sake of my mental health.  Ukraine news is now the same: we are transfixed with shock, disbelief, and increasing fury.

So overwhelming are these times, the picture is so big, the need so challenging and enormous, that all too easily some people, some opt out, some buzz around the proverbial fly with the blue posterior (I have to put things politely today in front of the City Council), and also some situations get forgotten.  

In 2016, I was invited to preach in St Paul’s Parish, Glenageary in Dublin.  A friend, a teacher and author, very involved throughout his life in Amnesty International, then advanced in suffering from Motor Neurone disease, was at church and was wheeled to the front by his wife, to within hearing distance of me.  In my sermon I listed places of conflict in the world where there had been more than 10,000 deaths in the previous year alone – ‘Darfur, Somalia, Sudan, LIbya, Turkey and Kurdistan, North-West Pakistan, and eastern Ukraine’, I said.  My friend wasn’t only within hearing distance; he was within heckling distance. ‘Yemen’ he said ‘you forgot Yemen.’  Yes, it is easy to forget, and it is easy to be so overwhelmed that we are stunned, either into inertia or frenetic over-activity.

The world of Saint Patrick was no less overwhelming – the Britain where he was born was occupied by the Romans.  The fourth century there was a time of invasions and battles – the Romans, the Saxons, the Picts, and we the Scoti or Irish were menacing from the west. He was captured and taken into slavery.  At the start of the fifth century there were major economic problems and social upheaval.  This was the world of Saint Patrick.

The Christianity he brought and preached as a missionary and as a bishop, had, as it still does, at its core, a message for every time  – a word and way of living based on faith, hope and love.  The need was nothing new either.   Jesus lived and preached and taught in and responded to a world in need.  He referred to it as the obvious in today’s Gospel:

‘Do you not say, ‘Four months more then comes the harvest?’ 

But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’ 

John 4.35-36

‘Do you not say…’ Jesus is quoting a well-known saying of the time  – they are not his own words – but a familiar proverb. In it  there is a note of urgency, of purposeful mission.  He is saying to the disciples that the need is obvious all around them and  that they must get on with it!   

What we all too frequently and sometimes conveniently overlook is that Jesus’ message was a radical one of care and of compassion to people who are complete strangers.   He saw the need and responded to it. Time and time again Jesus was breaking down taboos and crossing boundaries to those who were different or on the edge. There has never been a time in human history when the need hasn’t been great.  

This hospitality and welcome to strangers is part of the DNA of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to which we belong, and, indeed, to many other world faiths as well.  It is also a profoundly humanitarian response.

The Children of Israel were instructed

‘You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ Deuteronomy 10.19

When Jesus was speaking famously about the separation of the sheep and the goats, he himself said:

‘ … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  Matthew 25.35-36

The writer to the Hebrews picked up on this and wrote:

‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Hebrews 13.2

The needs of our time shut us out of this St Patrick’s Civic Service for the past two years.  In the meantime, the needs since we last met have been especially great.  Every year, except for the last two, we meet here on our national day for this Civic Service.  It gives us an opportunity to reflect and to recalibrate as a matter of first importance on this day of celebration and affirmation of our national identity.

This year, looking at all of the representatives here at this Civic Service, from so many walks of life and strands of Irish and Cork society.  I want to acknowledge the response that we made together, first to the Coronavirus pandemic, that we are still making, and that we are now beginning to make together to the war in Ukraine, and all the time, not losing sight of the many other causes and calls on our responses and compassion in the world and in our society. The great challenge in all of this is to ensure that no one is forgotten.

Throughout the last two years ordinary people did ordinary things as well as extraordinary things to help one another, to pool resources, and, in so far as has been humanly possible, to protect one another and to fend off the impact of the virus.   As a sign of light and hope, the lights in the churches of the diocese will be on from dusk tonight, our national day, when we celebrate the coming to our land of the Gospel of Jesus, the light of the world, which still inspires and motivates so many. 

Tomorrow, here, we will light more than 700 candles  – one for each day of the pandemic to date – in the shape of a cross will be lit by the young people from our Diocesan Youth Council, on the floor of this cathedral as our response to the day of remembrance and recognition called for by the Government.  The Cathedral bell will ring at 11 a.m. as will bells throughout our diocese.  Any of you who wish to drop in for a moment of remembrance and reflection are most welcome to do so between 10 a.m. and noon.  Prayers will be at 11.

As leaders and volunteers, as workers in many walks of life we were pulled in many directions ourselves, trying to respond and to give a lead – the tug o’war of obligations and emotions took its own toll.  But here today, in this civic context, I want to acknowledge the role played by the Covid-19 Community Response Forum – that in the City headed up by Ann Doherty, and that in the County, headed up by Tim Lucey.  These groups did something I have never seen before in my 23 years as bishop – soon starting my 24th year – they brought together, in common cause, people and organisations, who would not ordinarily, meet and collaborate, who would not necessarily have the opportunity to listen to each other’s views and to learn about each other’s work; and new partnerships and friendships were created.  In my view they were a potent and effective part of the local response to the pandemic and the human need.   In them, regardless of the participants’ religious outlook, I saw the grace and goodness of the light and compassion of Jesus Christ.

We do not know what lies ahead.  Yet again we know that what is happening now will again change the world, our global family is again being tilted on its access, we will never be the same again, but we have shown ourselves, in our own generation, that we can do it.  It’s not just something our parents and grandparents did; we have been doing it now too.  It is, tragically, our turn. It can’t be put off or forgotten

‘Do you not say, ‘Four months more then comes the harvest?’ But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’  John 4.35-36

Choral Eucharist and Civic Service of Saint Patrick’s Day in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork. Photo: Eoin Murphy
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