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Fr Billy Swan

In his Easter Vigil homily broadcast live on RTE, Bishop of Ossory Niall Coll said:

"Easter resonates in the Irish mind for both religious and political reasons.  The Easter Rising in 1916 was originally timed for Easter Sunday itself.  One day later the revolutionaries struck in the hope of both ending the long centuries of colonial rule and initiating the new life of an independent republic.  They believed that their blood sacrifice would usher in a new, more desirable political dispensation....Many today wince at the association of this violent political act with the most central Christian belief about Christ’s passage from death to new life.  Nonetheless, it still gives us a perspective, however incomplete, into the power and scope of the Easter message".

The timing of the Rising to coincide with the celebration of Easter reminds us that although the separatists used emotive religious language to convey their political message, the political changes they tried to force were given a spiritual and religious interpretation - one where future generations stood to inherit multiple blessings from present sacrifices, including nationhood and freedom. We think here of the words of Padraig Pearse:

‘O wise men riddle me this, what if the dream come true? What if the dream come true and if millions unborn shall dwell in the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?’ (P.H. Pearse. Cited in D. Kiberd, ‘Patrick Pearse: Irish Modernist’, in R. Higgins-R. Uí Chollatáin, eds., The Life and After-Life of P.H. Pearse, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2009, 65-80, 65).

This alerts us to the truth that in any society, the political and spiritual spheres are perhaps not as far part apart as we have thought. It supports the theory that political events do not occur in a vacuum but are preceded by spiritual undercurrents that influence cultural and social developments. From a Christian point of view, we have the responsibility to discern these movements of the Spirit and how they may or may not lead us closer to the kingdom of God. In the words of Pope Paul VI, discerning Christians must have a ‘spiritual sensitivity for reading God’s message in events' (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 43).

Maude Gonne, the English woman and convert to both Catholicism and Nationalism, wrote in 1938:

‘I believe every political movement on earth has its counterpart in the spirit world and the battles we fight here have perhaps been already fought out on another plane and great leaders often draw their unexplained power from this. I cannot conceive a material movement that has not a spiritual basis. It was this that drew me so powerfully towards the Catholic Church’ (Cited in A.N. Jeffares – A. MacBride White, eds., A Servant of the Queen: Maud Gonne McBride, Colin Smythe, Buckinghamshire, 1994, 336).

The idea of spiritual undercurrents to political movements goes back much earlier in history. In Scripture, nations were communities constituted by divine election that were distinct from each other but were destined to become part of a larger family of nations as history moved towards its final goal. Nationhood had an essential spiritual quality that transcended distinctions and led to a unity of peoples in faith and worship. In the famous words of Leo the Great (c. 400-461), the unity of peoples ‘held wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government' (Leo the Great, Sermon, LXXXII, 1).

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas repeated that civil unity comes about through the common attachment to God but also to one’s parents and one’s country. For Thomas, this was a reciprocal love connected to generativity: God, our parents and fatherland have loved us into being and sustain us in being. We respond by loving them in return:

‘God holds first place; he is both absolutely supreme and the first source of our existence and progress through life. Next, on the basis of birth and upbringing, parents and country are the closest sources of our existence and development; as a consequence everyone is indebted first of all under God to his parents and his fatherland’ (T. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a 2ae, q.101.1. Plato, quoted by Cicero in De Officiis, Book One, wrote that: ‘We are not born of ourselves alone but our country claims a share of our being’).

Here in Ireland, one of the main features of Patrick’s mission in the fifth century was not just to convert the Irish to Christianity but in so doing, to constitute us as a nation, joining us to the universal family of nations who would come to experience salvation at the end of time. For Patrick, the Christianisation of Ireland was the fulfilment of St Paul’s mission to include all nations in the saving embrace of the gospel of Christ. For Patrick therefore, the Irish were a spiritual nation born from God, equal to and united with the collective family of nations included in the divine embrace.

These divine attributes of what it means to be a nation are central in the writings of Pádraig Pearse, arguably the most spiritually attuned of the 1916 Rising leaders. For Pearse, the concept of nationhood was inseparable from the concepts of spirit and soul. He argued: ‘I believe that there is a spiritual tradition which is the soul of Ireland, the thing which makes Ireland a living nation’ (P. Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1918, 326). He continues: ‘they have conceived of nationality as a material thing, whereas it is a spiritual thing’ (P. Pearse, ‘Ghosts’ in The Coming Revolution, 178). Pearse insisted that ‘a nation is knit together by natural ties, ties mystical and spiritual, ties human and kindly…the nation is the family in large…the nation is of God’ (P. Pearse, ‘The Sovereign People’ in The Coming Revolution, 269).

Pearse was repeating in the twentieth century what Thomas Davis (1814-1845), a Protestant, had argued back in the nineteenth century, namely that true nationality has an essential spiritual dimension, a power alive in the land to which all those who lived in that land could become connected.  Davis protested vigorously against what he described as ‘mechanical civilization’ and the erosion of a distinctively Irish culture. For Davis, every generation of Irish people lived in a spiritual communion with previous ancestors. He maintained that a unique Irish nationality stretching back into antiquity had been forged over the centuries by Ireland’s ‘piety, its valour and its sufferings’ creating a legacy that formed a common spiritual bond among generations of Irish people' (T. Davis, ‘The Library of Ireland’ in Literary and Historical Essays by Thomas Davis, 355).

For Pearse and Davis, true nationhood contained within itself something of the Spirit, the seeds of divinity. From our perspective in the twenty-first century, their insight appears prophetic and compares favourably to what Solzhenitsyn said in 1970 as he received the Nobel Prize for literature: ‘nations are part of the wealth of humankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colours and bears within itself a special aspect of divine intention’.

To conclude. As we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and mark the 108th anniversary of the Easter Rising, what this article has tried to emphasise is that being Irish means more than holding an Irish passport. As we pay close attention to our history, the Church and State will both benefit from a greater respect for the spiritual undercurrents of political developments that we have tried to trace. For the Church, it will be in a better position to teach more effectively once it better discerns and understands the spiritual dynamics at work in her people. This exhortation to a greater closeness to people is a pastoral one but also a spiritual one. The Church, as the late Jeremiah Newman once put it must hold on to its ideal ‘whilst leaning attentively over humankind, listening to the pulse of humanity’ (J. Newman, Conscience versus Law: Reflections on the Evolution of Natural Law, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1971, 279).

For the State, acknowledgement of the human and spiritual realities that constitute nation building will connect it closer to the vision of its founders and their dream to proclaim a ‘spiritual nation’. A greater acknowledgement of the spiritual realities of our nation and our people calls for political leadership that embodies this spiritual tradition and represents it. Remaining faithful to our spiritual origins, may all the citizens of Ireland help build a new civilization at home and abroad where authentic human values are upheld and selfless aspirations are realised. May the gospel message of unity in God through Christ in the Spirit lead to a new patriotism inspired by a love for our country and all peoples who live here.


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