Seeking the common good in a divided society
Division in our society goes beyond the sectarian and into the social and economic areas of life. The Churches have a duty to help those on the margins, says Bishop Brendan Leahy, as he reflects on the 2018 Irish Inter-Church Meeting
EACH year the Irish Inter-Church Meeting brings together representatives from our 15 member Churches for reflection and dialogue on a specific theme to support our work and help set an agenda for the coming year.
This year's theme was: 'Realities are greater than ideas? Reflecting on the common good in divided communities.'
The opening question is inspired by Pope Francis's reflection in Evangelii Gaudium where he considers the tension that can exist between realities and ideas, and the need for constant dialogue between the two so that ideas do not become disconnected, truth is not distorted and the work of evangelisation is grounded in works of justice and charity that bear witness to the values of the Gospel (EG 231-233).
The timing of this particular meeting was significant as we were prompted to look back by the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as looking to future challenges arising from Brexit.
The reference to "divided communities" brings to mind immediately of the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict, and the unfinished work of reconciliation, and these issues undoubtedly featured prominently in our discussions.
We were reminded, however, that division arising from socio-economic inequality is damaging the life chances of individuals, families and communities across the island of Ireland.
This is most evident in the increasing numbers of families becoming homeless and living with long term homelessness or housing insecurity in the Republic.
What these cases have in common is the suffering experienced by those who feel left behind and forgotten by the rest of the society.
The Church has a responsibility to journey alongside those who find themselves at the margins and give prophetic leadership in pointing to the failings in our past that have brought us to this point, while advocating for the changes required to protect those who are vulnerable.
Participants at the meeting shared their experiences of seeking to give leadership and promote the common good in divided communities.
Often this requires us to be present with people when the prospect of healing seems remote, such as those bereaved through violence who live with daily reminders of that injustice in the form of an empty seat at the family table.
There can be a temptation to seek to do something, to try to fix the situation, to avoid our own feelings of insecurity and helplessness.
In those situations where no words can ever suffice sometimes the most supportive thing we can do is just listen and show people that we are there for them, that we care for and respect them.
There can also be a need to respectfully challenge those who are at risk of becoming imprisoned by their inability to let go of suffering.
Participants discussed times when they faced criticism for their engagement in peace and reconciliation work because engagement with the perpetrators of violence was perceived as a betrayal of the victims.
Sometimes clergy in particular can become the targets for people's anger at God for their suffering and loss and are called to be understanding and forgiving in those painful situations.
The responsibility of providing pastoral care in divided communities can take its toll and the importance of church leaders practising self-compassion and seeking help for their own experiences of trauma was emphasised.
An important contribution to the meeting was made by a panel of young adults from Youthlink's Apprentice Peace Programme.
They shared about the challenges and pressures they and their friends have faced growing up in a divided society.
We were struck by the significant pressures young people are dealing with today, where they continue to face problems of sectarianism and lack of opportunity, but the challenges are magnified under the relentless spotlight of social media.
In these circumstances, coupled with the increasing availability of prescription and non-prescription drugs, it is unsurprising that struggles with self-esteem and mental health are at the top of the list of their concerns, as more and more young lives continue to be lost to suicide.
In spite of this, however, our youth participants inspired us with great hope.
The honesty and resilience they displayed challenged and encouraged all of us as they made an impassioned plea for young people who have made bad choices in the past to be given another chance.
There is a lesson in that for us all as we reflect on our hopes, and our failings, as we seek to give leadership and provide pastoral care in divided communities.
:: The Irish Inter-Church Meeting took place last month in Dromantine Conference Centre near Newry.
The current co-chairs are Dr Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick, and Rev Brian Anderson, president of the Irish Council of Churches.