at CORI’s 50th Anniversary Conference on 17th April 2010 ….
Dia dhíbh a chairde, I am delighted to have been asked to open this Golden Jubilee conference. My thanks to Sr. Marianne O’Connor for inviting me.
Such a significant anniversary always invites a certain amount of retrospection.
When I look back to the Spring of 1960 I see an unsuspecting Ireland that was six months away from the transcendent power of Paddy Doherty’s boot when he kicked the penalty that sealed the defeat of the Kingdom of Kerry at the hands of the Kingdom of Mourne. How many Irelands have come and gone since those early days; a welter of change that has impacted on every nook and cranny of life including the world of religious institutes and congregations. The Irish landscape was then dotted with enormous monasteries and convents, full of life and people, young people. Within a couple of years the flood of lively debate and discussion that was Vatican II would distill into hopes and expectations for a “novus habitus mentis” and a new future for what the Council had termed “the People of God”, a society or communio of equals whether lay, religious, clerical, in sharp contrast to the pre-conciliar “society of unequals”.
It was an era when sharp shifts and changes of gear were expected but other less obvious intimations of change would shortly reveal themselves. They are best summarized in the story of what is now the Emmaus retreat centre near Swords, built if I remember rightly around that time by the Christian Brothers to house the many new entrants who were expected but who did not materialize. The building never served the purpose for which it was built but like so many others in a similar predicament found a new life, recycled as a conference and retreat centre. The religious congregations have been right at the heart of the post-conciliar Church, driving forward the agenda of Vatican II within each congregation at a pace well ahead of other sectors. At the same time you have been deeply implicated, through your work and your advocacy, in the growth and development of modern Ireland.
These fifty years have been a process of adaptation sometimes to welcome changes but often to unwelcome change. The world metamorphosed from an era of deference to an era of declamation. CORI has been an active part of the process of catharsis and no mere passive spectator as events rang the hanges.
This Conference has the title “Walking the Way” and while the way forward holds great uncertainty and unpredictability, the way already travelled has much to tell us. You represent almost 140 religious congregations and some 9,000 religious in Ireland. Between them they represent an unequalled and unrivalled investment in Ireland, her education, health and social welfare and the physical, pastoral and spiritual enrichment of her people. The story has many good even great chapters, for you and your predecessors created and sustained, and on a not-for-profit-basis, much of the founding infrastructure of today’s education and health care systems and outreaches to the poor and marginalised.
The story as the Ryan and Murphy reports reveal also has some dreadful chapters as the rigid hierarchicalism and powerful clericalism which characterized the pre-conciliar era created vacuums of vulnerability and unaccountability where children in particular suffered outrageously. The Way that will be walked tomorrow will be a different walk. Already we see the green shoots that you have nurtured begin to alter the landscape around us.
Today there are exciting new trusts and broad-based partnerships involving individual and collectives of congregations along with the laity and civic society spelling a collaborative and inclusive future which would have been unthinkable fifty years ago but which honours both the letter and spirit of the Vatican Council, as well as being a pragmatic common-sense response to the decline in vocations. CORI’s members are entitled to be proud of the positive transformations that they have helped to effect over recent decades. The change management process in all the areas in which you work, has been and remains immensely sensitive and challenging. The old Irish sean-fhocal says “Giorrian beirt bóthar” and CORI has been a place where religious could journey in solidarity with one another, across the congregational boundaries and the subtle differences in charism, and forge a deep experience of a journey in common.
CORI’s existence has been a key enabling condition for the transformation that has been achieved. The work of CORI’s members is also today, as it has been over generations, a key enabler of the life chances of so many individuals who depend on the roles that you are carrying out each day on the ground in communities across Ireland. Through the important impact you have on each individual, they are changed, families are changed, our communities and our country are changed. CORI is also of course probably best known for its championing of a fair and just society and for its advocacy on behalf of people whose lives are blighted by poverty and social exclusion.
Prior to the current economic downturn, Ireland had succeeded in halving the rate of consistent poverty between 2003 and 2008, with particularly noteworthy improvements for older people. Achievements like this do not happen by accident or by one stakeholder working in isolation; rather they are in part thanks to the work of CORI as a member of the Community and Voluntary Pillar of social partnership.
The new fiscal climate is about as difficult as it can get but tough though it is, we still have not altered our Republic’s basic founding ambition to work for the achievement of a country which cherishes all its children, all its citizens equally. Our citizens need the reassurance that comes from having credible advocates who stand in solidarity with them in the pursuit of that fairness and equality to walk the way and talk the way through engagement in policy-making towards a fully inclusive, fair and ethically prosperous society. This society has a lot of work to do to set our country on the right way.
After the publication of the Ryan Report, CORI said “All of us accept with humility that massive mistakes were made and grave injustices were inflicted on very vulnerable children. No excuse can be offered for what has happened.” The millstone of the Ryan and Murphy reports will be carried for a long time on the way ahead, just as the millstone of the massive fiscal mistakes will similarly have to be carried for some time to come into the future. There is a long road ahead to redemption on both accounts but you meet here to prepare for the journey, as volunteers who are not paralysed by the scale of the difficulties but who have a profound belief that there can be healing, there can be renewal, there can be change for the better. You are here because you have or want to have hope. Hope, says Vaclav Havel, “Hope is not the same thing as optimism …. It is what gives strength to live and continually try new things / even in conditions that seem hopeless.”
Those who gave their lives in good faith to religious congregations, who lived good lives and who invested generously and unselfishly in the lives of others – in other words – the vast majority of CORI’s members, have been heart-scalded by the now clearly documented depravity of those who dishonoured their vocation by abusing children and the denial and inaction which allowed that depravity to continue with virtual impunity. They are also heart-scalded by the righteous rage of those who were abused. They have pledged through CORI and elsewhere to do their best to put as much right as can be put right and I am glad to see that there is serious engagement on the level of reparations to be made. They are heart-scalded too by the worries and anger carried by those they meet with in the course of their work each day – those coping with worries over money and jobs and raging disappointment at the reckless and irresponsible business practices which have brought about such economic problems. Now that grief has to be distilled into wiser, humbler action.
This is the moment when we need people of faith to have faith in themselves and in our country’s ability to dig deep, heal its wounded and with their help, walk the way ahead together, to a better time and a better Ireland. It may look like an unlit path but in fact you know and believe there is a guide. Be not afraid ……
I congratulate CORI on everything that has been achieved over the last 50 years.
I wish you well as you face up with hope to the challenges in the immediate years ahead.