Whenever I go home to Ireland I have nothing but sympathy for the hard working, committed faithful who are members of a somewhat bruised and battered Church. It must be quite a challenge to keep the faith where affirmation and encouragement for such a stance is notable for its absence. Listening to people speak about how the winds of change seem to be very much blowing in their faces leaves me with two questions: “How did it come to this?” and “Where do we go from here?”
When one considers that Christianity has been a presence in the island of Ireland for nigh on 1,500 years and was an integral part of my generation’s identity, its fall from grace in such a short time is something of a head-scratcher. The rapidity of the descent leaves me to wonder what kind of faith it was we had in the first place. When I think back to the Ireland of my youth, I remember a time of great Christian festivals, processions and blessings. My personal favorite was St. Blaise’s feast day when the priest blessed our throats with crossed candles.
Indeed when I remember my life as a student with the Columbans it was a time of great vigor and activity with so many of my peers interested in the priestly life. Also a year spent in the parish of Tullamore, Co. Offaly, before departing Ireland left me with the deeply felt impression of so many good-hearted people doing great things; they were truly wonderful times.
On my missionary travels I first went to Pakistan and now find myself in “the land of the morning calm,” i.e. Korea. In both situations I found the Catholic Church to be a minority group in their respective societies. And in both cases I found it gave me a new perspective as both Churches had a freedom and fearlessness in their critiques of the society of which they were an essential part. Being more on the margins of society than in the center of decision making seemed to have a liberating effect on both the Pakistani and Korean Churches.
This became clear to me recently with demonstrations taking place on the beautiful island of Jeju. A volcanic island off the southwest coast of Korea, its rugged natural beauty at times reminds me of the west of Ireland. The current government has decided Jeju is ripe for building a military naval base from scratch; the justifications offered are straight from the rhetoric of yesteryear when both North and South Korea regularly squared up to each other. All this flies in the face of the previous administration’s designation of Jeju as an “Island of Peace!”
The Catholic Church in Korea has been at the forefront of demonstrations at this development. Columban Frs. Thomas Nam and Pat Cunningham have been regular attendees at rallies and meetings trying to get the government to see sense on this issue. The Church’s vocal opposition to the building of the base has not been greatly appreciated by those in higher authority. At one rally eighteen Korean Sisters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct! I thought this was surely something worth calling “headline news,” but the media coverage on this issue has been strangely muted.
It is one of life’s quandaries:
why does coming together and rallying in the name of peace so often provoke a violent response? All of this adds to my conviction that the Church is doing the right thing, that this is a case of putting our faith into action. The early Christian communities would have been quite familiar with the scenario of preaching the virtues of love and peace whilst receiving only scorn and abuse for their troubles. And yet by planting their roots in the margins of the societies they found themselves in, they continued to grow and flourish. This I believe is our lesson for today, that the Church (we the believers in and disciples of Jesus) finds its natural home on the margins of society. There is always hope.