OPENING ADDRESS AT 'FAITH ON FIRE' CONFERENCE ON SATURDAY 24TH NOVEMBER BY BISHOP DENIS BREN

On Saturday, 24th November, a conference on Christian faith was held at the Riverside Park Hotel in Enniscorthy. Over 100 people took part in a lively and engaging exploration of the gift faith for our times. The conference was opened by Bishop Denis. He is pictured below with the four speakers at the Conference: Sean O'Leary, Sr. Holy Family, Bunclody, Colette O'Doherty and Fr Billy Swan. Also pictured are 'the Mustard Seeds' who provided music for the occasion and a section of the crowd in attendance.

Here is the script of Bishop Denis' opening words at the Conference:

'Many people today struggle with the idea of faith. They also struggle with its expression in public rituals and are often critical and dismissive of organised religion.

We sometimes think that this questioning of faith and its place in society is of recent origin. It may be more intense and obvious in recent times but the question itself has been around for a long time.

One hundred years ago the German sociologist Max Weber posed it very succinctly when he asked in a lecture ‘’ how does religion fit into a disenchanted world? ‘’

Weber used the word ‘’ disenchanted ‘’ to describe the character of modern secular society where scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, where processes are oriented towards rational goals, as opposed to traditional society where for Weber ‘’ the world remains a great enchanted garden.’’

He goes on to say ‘’ the fate of our times is characterised by rationalization and intellectualization, and above all by disenchantment.’’ He says ‘’ the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life......either into the mystical realm or into personal human relations.’’

An American Episcopalian priest Theodore Dalrymple looks at this phenomenon in the context of Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘’ Dover Beach.’’

The poem ‘’ Dover Beach ‘’ is often used to describe an increasingly secular world, a world where religion exists, if it exists at all, on the margins of life. He quotes a few lines from the poem;

‘’ The sea of faith,

Was, once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.’’

As a comment on the shrinking place of religion in modern life ‘’ Dover Beach ‘’ is striking and poignant.

Bear in mind that Arnold wrote ‘’ Dover Beach ‘’ in 1851 so it’s not today or yesterday that the place of religion in society has been critically looked at and commented upon.

Dalrymple in highlighting the decline of religious practice in Europe and the increasing pace of secularisation picks out Ireland for special mention, and I quote;

‘’ perhaps it is Ireland that offers the most startling example of secularisation because it was a late starter. Late starters however are often apt pupils, they catch up fast and even surpass their mentors.

When I first went to Ireland the priest was a God among men, people stood aside to let him pass. No respectable family did not count a nun among its members.

As for the Archbishop of Dublin, his word was law, the politicians might propose, but he disposed.

In the historical bat of an eyelid, all that has gone, beyond any hope of restoration. It would be hardly too much to say that the Church is now reviled in Ireland.’’

It is not easy for us to hear an assessment like that of our country today and its relationship with the Church. It’s obviously one man’s view and you could say it’s a dark view and that there are other ways of looking at our present situation.

That said, and while it may not be the full picture, I suspect we may find ourselves indentifying with the substance of it.

After he left office Tony Blair came into the Catholic Church. While he was Prime Minister he said he feared being categorized as a ‘’ nutter ‘’ if he talked about his religious values.

His Press Secretary Alastair Campbell memorably summed it up on one occasion when he said ‘’ we don’t do God.’’ After leaving politics Blair set up The Faith Foundation, now known as the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Its aim, and it’s an ambitious one, is to promote idealism in public life and combat extremism in world religions. While he was Prime Minister Blair often talked about ‘’ the weather.’’

He didn’t mean the meteorological weather----is it going to rain tomorrow?

He meant the political weather, the forces at work in the public square, the media, fashions and trends, the forces that shape public opinion---‘’ if these were in your favour,’’ he said, ‘’ it was much easier to push through policies and get things done.’’

We don’t fly above the weather either. We are subject to the prevailing weather conditions, which at the moment in Ireland and in the West generally, are challenging to faith and belief.

This is the background music to our gathering today. On the human level things are not encouraging but as Jonathan Sacks the former Chief Rabbi of Britain said ‘’ religion is always dying......but it never dies.’’

Back in 1851 it must have seemed like Matthew Arnold was writing the obituary of faith and belief but 167 years later religion is still a potent force in the world.

I finish with a quotation from Jonathon Sacks book ‘’ The Persistence of Faith.’’ Speaking of religions, primarily Judaism and Christianity, he says;

‘’ Their influence lies not only in the force of their example, the cogency of their teachings and the spiritual beauty of the lives they inspire.

They must maintain a critical distance from the values of the age, speaking if necessary against even those social trends which seem inevitable, knowing as they do that there is no inevitability in human affairs, and that the choice between good and evil is always before us.

But that distance must not be so great as to condemn in advance the changes that are a necessary part of the development of civilisation, for God asks us to live in our time, not in any other, neither an imagined past nor a utopian future.’’

More on the Faith Conference next week

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