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Fr Billy Swan

Dear friends. As we know, lent is a time of alms-giving when we focus on our Christian calling to care for and help the most vulnerable and needy in our world today. But this call to charity and mercy is more than giving money or material goods. It is not just about helping the poor but about asking why they are poor in the first place. It is also a time to develop a social conscience and to consider the part that justice plays in our world today. So how can we ‘act justly’ as the prophet Micah asks us? (Micah 6:8). Here are a few thoughts on the cardinal virtue of justice.

When we were kids, we used to play games and sports when one person or one team would end up winners and the other losers. From as early as I can remember, if someone cheated in any way, there was a howl of protest: “That’s not fair!”. In other words, even as young children, there was a strong awareness in our human conscience of what is right and what is just. To have a sense of what is just is deeply innate in every human being. C.S. Lewis observed the human sense of justice as “an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way”. He also pointed out that we find ourselves “under a moral law which we did not make and cannot quite forget even when we try and which we know we ought to obey” (Mere Christianity, 23-24).

But where does this natural sense of justice come from? Our faith tells us that because we are made in the image and likeness of God and because God is just, our just instinct is written into our nature from our conception. It is in our DNA. Therefore, justice begins with the God who is just.

In the Bible, our first duty of justice is to give thanks and praise to God. St Thomas Aquinas defined justice as “giving to another what is their due, including God” (STh II-II, q. 58, a. 1). Therefore, to worship a false god is not just idolatry but injustice because glory is given to another instead of the living God to whom it is due. That is why in the preface of Mass, we pray: “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise”. Justice is always linked to faith and right praise.

There is another principle of justice in the Scriptures which is that of right order. There is an order which God created the world that is visible in the garden of Eden before the Fall. Everything is as it should be. But then sin happened and this order was thrown off kilter. The effects of sin caused an imbalance and introduced injustice into God’s creation. The prophet Amos talks about “tampering the scales” (8:5) which is the perfect image for the rupture of justice where one group goes up, having too much and another group goes down, having too little. That is why the symbol of scales is still a symbol for justice and is found outside the Special Criminal Court in Dublin to this day.

Prophets like Amos and Micah protest when injustice takes a hold. For these prophets, injustice is always the fruit of weak faith in God and forgetting what God did for his people. “Do not ill-treat foreigners who are living in your land…Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). The prophet Amos cries out: “Let justice flow like water and uprightness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). Isaiah condemns the people in these words: “You who make unjust laws that oppress my people…prevent the poor for having their rights” (Is. 10:1-2). The prophet then urges: “Seek justice and keep in line the abusers; give the fatherless their rights and defend the widow” (Is. 1:17). ‘Because a man is poor, do not cheat him, nor at the gate oppress anybody in affliction; for the Lord takes up their cause and extorts the life of their extortioners’ (Proverbs 22:22-23).

Therefore, according to Scripture, to believe in God is to believe in the God who values justice far more than stability for if justice is lacking then real communion among people is impossible. Another key point is that God is on the side of victims of injustice and will not rest until justice is done and right order is restored.

Central to the concept of justice in the Old Testament is the Ten Commandments. They were given by God through Moses to maintain the right order in society that God always intended. Notice how the first four of the ten have to do with giving God his due. The remaining six focus on the right order in social relations. Here is another example how justice is always linked to faith in God and right praise. For as Pope Benedict XVI once put it: “Only where God rules, only where God is acknowledged in the world…only there can the world be set right” (‘On the Way to Jesus Christ’, 99).

In the New Testament, Mary and Zachariah are the early prophets of justice that would be the hallmark of Christ’s kingdom. For Mary, God’s power acts to “pull the mighty from their thrones and raise up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). In the words of Zechariah, Jesus’ coming would raise up an army of his disciples who “would serve him in holiness and in justice all the days of our lives in his presence” (Luke 1: 75).

For Jesus himself, his ministry of mercy was always linked to justice. His encounters of mercy with sinners always led to the conversion and change in the person. We see this with the call of Matthew, the woman caught in adultery and Zacchaeus whose conversion translated into his restoring what he had stolen. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the owner is just but also generous and merciful, paying the last worker according to his need and not according to what he deserved. In the Beatitudes, Jesus called ‘Blessed’ those who “hunger and thirst for the cause of right” for they will be satisfied. On the cross we see God’s judgment on the world and the greatest injustice ever committed on full display when the just and sinless one was unjustly condemned and killed. As we gaze on his cross, we see the horror of both sin and injustice.

With his resurrection, God’s plan of restoration and justice burst into life again with Christ. With the resurrection, everything that Jesus stood for and the truth he told, came back to life with him. So too did the momentum to serve the cause of justice and to finish the saving work he came to accomplish. This he continues to do through us, his body of the Church. And this, friends, is where we come in, not just to act justly but to be just people. Together we are meant to be an instrument of God’s justice in Ireland today, to be the leaven in our society that serves him in holiness and justice all the days of our life.

This call to be just challenges us. Many people outside the Church criticise us who are in the Church because of our lack of passion for justice. With some justification, they ask why we are not more fired up about homelessness, poverty, world hunger and climate justice.

In this light, our vocation is to develop a sharper social conscience and to enter into dialogue with others on how to make our world more just and humane. To be just is to know how society is organised, how wealth, power, privileges, rights and responsibilities are distributed at every level – locally, nationally and globally. For us, it must never be a question of getting by and settling for the status quo if that status quo is causing some people to live miserably. Our faith leads us not just to be faithful to Christ but to be faithful to his work of correcting injustices, not just in an ad hoc way but in a manner that is steady and constant.

For us, this means seeing things through the lens of justice. If we are committed to the Pro-Life cause, it is because the taking of innocent life is unjust. We ought to be committed to climate justice because it’s not right that the poorest nations have to pay most for the climate change that they have contributed to least.

Friends, this is who we are called to become – shapers of a new world order marked by justice and creators of a civilization of love. To act justly is to become just and the more just we become, the more Godlike we become. None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice. What the Church and the world needs now is new saints who have a deep love for the poor and who don’t just help the poor but ask why they are poor in the first place.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Trocaire. The establishment of Trocaire came out of a new consciousness of the division across the world between rich and poor, between nations and within nations. On the day it was founded on 2nd February 1973, the Bishops’ statement read:

“We pray the all-merciful God to grant us all a share in his mercy. We pray him to keep our hearts always open to those in hunger and in need. We pray above all that he will never let us grow accustomed to the injustice and inequality that exists in this world or grow weary in the work of setting it right”.

Friends, as we make our way through Lent, may we recommit ourselves again to the cause of justice. May God raise up from among us people like St Brigid, Nano Nagle, Catherine McCauley, Blessed Edmund Rice, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Peter McVerry and many more. What all of these have in common is their love for God and his kingdom; their work for the “new heaven and the new earth” and their longing and praying for it even more. These were the people who changed the world by their commitment to justice and their prayer that all things be ordered ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. These are the Christians who shaped history because they acted justly. Let us not shrink from the same challenge in our day to courageously stand for justice, freedom of conscience, truth and the moral integrity, so badly needed for our time. May God raise up an army of Christian citizens – laity, religious and clergy - to be a leaven for the healing and renewal of our society in Ireland today.

‘Merciful Father, we believe that you are love itself. In the life of your Son, your infinite love revealed itself as justice and mercy for all humankind. May we be just as you are just. May we never fail to give you the praise that is your due and keep your commandments that honour the right order you intend for your creation. Give us a new sensitivity to imbalances in the world where both extreme poverty and extreme wealth de-humanise us. Never allow us to grow indifferent to the poor and dispossessed. May our thirst for justice be stronger than our fear or indifference. Disturb our conscience when we are tempted to look the other way. Raise up O Lord an army of new Irish saints as your instruments to bring a new civilization of love’.


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