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Shining through

30 November, 1999

We have no Baroque churches in the English speaking world. They are very much a feature of Catholic Europe with their lavishly painted ceilings with angels and saints sitting among the clouds. They are undeniably eye-catching but I will have to admit that I never found them particularly inspiring until something happened which made me see them in a new light.

Dark situation
To understand those ceilings you have to have some experience of what it is like to escape from a dark situation. A number of years ago I was working in a parish in Dublin’s inner city and one neighbourhood in particular was plagued with drug dealing. Young children were not allowed out to play because their parents knew – from grim experience – that there was a real danger of them picking up used needles and having to be brought to hospital for a HIV test.

People came to this neighbourhood from all parts of the city to buy drugs and those who sold them were in control of everything. Nobody dared say a word to them and, although many people were very angry, they were afraid. They had good reason. Then something happened which had transforming – and lasting – effect on many people in Dublin and throughout Ireland. A journalist by the name of Veronica Guerin, who was investigating organized crime, was shot dead.

Clouds parting 
That was the moment when many people throughout Dublin’s inner city lost their fear. I remember one of my neighbours saying to me, ‘I’m joining a committee!’ and within days she and a few others asked to join a group of people who wanted to do something.

There were sixteen of them packed into someone’s living room and they decided that they were going to have a public meeting at which they would name the dealers and demand that they leave the neighbourhood.

The meeting was held in a small ordinary community hall and, as people came up to read out the names of those local drug dealers, I really did have a sense of the clouds parting and the light shining through and the heavenly choirs singing. No other image is better suited to describing the power of that moment.

Why was it so powerful? Firstly, there was the courage of ordinary people speaking the plain truth in the face of something evil and frightening. Secondly, we were caught up in something above and beyond us all. It was a moment of joy.

We knew, not just in our heads but in our hearts that, in spite of all life’s grief, good was on our side. Thirdly, it was also a moment of friendship. People were happy to find that they were no longer alone – no longer isolated.

Without these three realities of courage, joy and friendship, any talk about people ‘participating actively in the life and management of their communities’ makes little sense. It takes courage to stand up in public and to draw attention to ourselves. There is always the danger that the attention might be unfavourable or, perhaps worse, that we might be ignored. Even the most experienced entertainers will tell you that they feel nervous before getting up on stage.

It is easy to dismiss someone who does stand up as being a notice box – especially if we disagree with them. Furthermore, just because someone annoys us, we don’t have to like them or agree with their views, to respect their courage. Besides, they could be right and we might have something to learn! It is good to pray that everyone have the courage to stand up and be noticed and to carry out tasks that need to be done in the interest of the community.

Public happiness
Participation, however, calls for something more than courage. People who participate ‘actively’ in the life of their community don’t simply act out of ‘duty’ or ‘service’. They may be dutiful. They may have a deep sense of service but if they are not also joyful, then their contribution will be of little worth.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that just as human society cannot live without justice, so it cannot live without joy. The founders of the United States understood that joy was a part of the democratic process itself. They spoke of ‘the public happiness’ by which they meant the joy which people got from participating in the life of their neighbourhoods.

John Adams, who succeeded George Washington as President, described this ‘public happiness’ in the following terms: whenever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.

This desire for recognition is easily confused with the vice of ambition, but there is a difference. Ambition seeks to dominate and it lacks that inspiring joyful quality which accompanies true leadership and truly human achievement. When the Lord spoke about not hiding our light under a bushel, he was talking about this deeply human quality of public happiness. It is a grace and, as such, needs to be prayed for because, without it we would retreat bashfully into our own personal caves. What would our world be like then?

Finally, there can be no enduring participation without friendship. Recently I stayed overnight with a friend in another part of the country and he told me that he had to go to a committee meeting, but that I was welcome to come along. It was a meeting of the junior section of the local branch of the GAA and, with due respect to that great organization, I saw no clouds opening, no rays of sunlight breaking through and I heard no heavenly choirs singing.

Instead, I listened in on discussions about how to organize training for the under-eights and how to distribute the brochures and what to do about the flooded pitch. Yet as I sat there, trying not to look too bored I began to realize that I was among people who were bringing great enjoyment to hundreds of children. That passion for what they were about gave them the energy to deal with the dreary tasks of running committees and keeping accounts. It also gave them something else. It made them part of a network of friendship.

This element of friendship is by no means confined to `fun’ things such as sports clubs or other leisure activities. On one occasion I asked someone whose working life was bound up with helping community groups in deprived areas what kept him going. He stopped for a moment and thought. ‘It about friendship: all my friends are involved in this kind of activity and I enjoy their company.’

Friendship is a blessing and participation in the life of a community opens up the possibility of this blessing. It can be exclusive, and cliques are an ongoing problem with any kind of organization. Indeed the ‘blessing’ of friendship becomes a curse if it is not accompanied by a welcoming attitude through which a wider network of friendship can grow.

His Holiness asks us to pray that ‘all citizens’ be enabled to participate. The word ‘all’ is important. In praying for this intention it is important to pray for these blessings of courage, joy and friendship among those communities who most need it.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.