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Fostering Unity and Diversity

Fostering Unity

Peace and Reconciliation

By Fr. Patrick Raleigh

Our Columban History

As Columban missionaries celebrating our centennial, we look back with gratitude to God and to you, our benefactors, who have so generously supported us and our work for the past one hundred years. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our cofounders, Bishop Edward Galvin and Fr. John Blowick for their foresight in founding the Society, initially to work in China. From the very beginning this new venture captured the imagination of the people of Ireland, the U.S. and elsewhere. We give thanks for the faithfulness of so many Columbans who down through the years worked tirelessly and for many in difficult conditions, to share the Joy of the Gospel. Many met violent deaths.

Since Vatican II, our understanding of mission has broadened and developed to include Ireland as a locus for mission. Our most recent Society document, Called to Communion, invites us as missionary disciples of Jesus to be healers, reconcilers and to build bridges through prophetic dialogue. Our priorities are to continue to work with marginalized people, to care for the earth and to promote inter-faith dialogue. We do this in the context of an Ireland which is undergoing rapid social change, as communities of "new Irish" seek to integrate and make their home here. As Columbans, our challenge is to build communities of peace and reconciliation.

Changing Demographics and Religious Diversity

The recent history of Irish migration began in the 1990s when economic prosperity saw a significant inflow of migrants — both workers and asylum seekers — transforming Ireland into a country of net immigration rather than emigration.

Ireland's history of emigration is well known. In 1841, the pre-famine population was 8.2 million. By 1871, due to starvation and emigration, that population had halved to 4.4 million. As emigration from Ireland continued decade after decade, and consistently exceeded the natural increase in the population, by 1961 the population had fallen to 2.8 million.

But from the mid-1990s onwards, Ireland experienced increased immigration flows, including returning Irish citizens. This inflow was most marked after the 2004 European Union enlargement, peaking in 2006-2007 at well over 100,000 immigrants per year. It began to drop off in 2008 as the economic downturn made itself felt.

The 2006 census showed that there were 419,733 non-Irish nationals living in the country, an 88% increase on the 2002 census, and constituted about 10% of the population. The majority of non-Irish nationals were from the European Union (275,276); followed by Asia (46,952); Africa (25,326) and North and South America (21,124). The changing demographics also saw greater religious diversity with an increase in the number of Muslims, Orthodox, Hindus and others in tandem with a decline to 78% of the population (census 2016) of the Roman Catholic population.

Columban Outreach to Migrant Workers

Some years back when a small group of Columbans moved into the city center, our focus originally was on the situation of migrant workers coming to Ireland in response to what was then a booming economy. As is often the case, the economic need for workers far outstripped the systems of protection against exploitation to ensure all were treated with dignity and fairness.

While many thrived and were welcomed, many others did jobs that involved long hours, low pay and poor conditions. The work permit system, at the time, gave undue power to unscrupulous employers, who used the threat of permit withdrawal and deportation as a way of keeping workers from getting their legal rights under the law.

Many of these migrants came from countries where Irish missionaries had a long history of service. It was natural that when difficulties arose for them that they would turn to people who had some understanding of their life and culture. 

Setting Up the Migrant Rights Center in Ireland

Our work in this area led us to set up the Migrants Rights Center Ireland (MRCI), which is now the leading national organization in the area of advocacy for the rights of migrant workers. Its work has been recognised internationally with the SOLIDAR Silver Rose for Social Justice.

As well as being successful in lobbying the government on introducing legislation to improve the rights of migrant workers, it is regularly consulted by government departments in relation to policy development in this area. Last year, it dealt with over 3,000 cases, helping people from 115 countries to access their rights and entitlements. These cases cover a range of different issues from problems with documentation to serious breaches of law and human rights. One court ruling saw a man awarded nearly $120,000 in compensation for underpayment of wages over many years. The MRCI was also centrally involved in exposing forced labor practices in the fishing industry which exploited vulnerable workers and led eventually to a change in law and labor practices in the industry.

Columban Center, a Collaborative Project

Since 2012, the Columban Center, a priority of the Region of Ireland, in the heart of Dublin has shared the Columban mission priorities of justice, caring for creation and promoting interfaith dialogue. The Center is a collaborative project for the Columban Missionaries in Ireland, operated between the Columban Fathers, Columban Sisters, lay missionaries and co-workers.

Our location near the central bus station and a major rail station, beside hostels and refugee reception centers, makes us the first port of call for many newly arrived and often anxious people making their first steps in their new life. We offer them a warm welcome, some basic English classes, and we help to orientate them in their new situation.

All those working in the Columban Center know from their overseas mission experiences what it is like to be strangers in a strange land. We have an understanding of the isolation and frustration that occurs when trying to settle into a new community and a new culture so we offer practical support to those who are trying to integrate into Irish society.

Through our English classes four mornings a week we welcome migrants who have come to Ireland looking for work and refugees looking to start new lives. Our informal conversation classes give our students an opportunity to share their stories while learning the language under the guidance of experienced volunteer teachers.

Our students come from all over the world – from North Korea to Venezuela, from Syria to Cambodia. With that diversity comes a diversity of religious faiths. Within walking distance of our center we now have a mosque, a Hindu ashram, a Buddhist center and an Indian Orthodox Church. The most recent census shows that nearly 12% of the population were born outside Ireland and that the number of people coming from different religious faiths has increased considerably.

Dublin City Interfaith Forum

In Ireland, the opportunity to engage in interreligious dialogue is relatively new. Five years ago, the Dublin City Interfaith Forum representing seven major faiths (Buddhist, Baha'I, Christian, Hindu, Islam, Judaism, Sikh) was set up. The Columban Center is involved in the development of this forum. Together we try and tackle common challenges of living in the city, and how we can improve our mutual understanding and support for each other.

The Dublin City Interfaith Forum was set up to ensure that diversity would become something positive and not divisive. It organizes a program called "Faith in the City" that brings members of different faith communities together in their different places of worship, to learn about each others' traditions, to pray together and to experience each other's hospitality.

It provides a forum where common issues about where religious traditions and public life intersect (hospital chaplaincies, education, policing, local government and so on) can be discussed and any difficulties teased out. It holds public events like an annual Interfaith Family Day that bear witness to the good relationships between the different communities. Members of the forum come together to work on issues like the refugee crisis.

Recently in collaboration with Dublin City Council and the Lord Mayor of Dublin the forum drew up the Dublin City Interfaith Charter, which sets out clearly both the shared values of the religious traditions and the commitment of the communities to work together to build a community of mutual respect, acceptance and care for others.

The Charter was signed by leaders of all the communities and work has now begun with local communities and their faiths to make the aspirations of the charter a reality.

As Columbans, celebrating our centennial, we are privileged to be engaged in this new venture of interfaith dialogue. The Center is a place of welcome and inclusion for so many seeking a new way of life and is a priority for the Irish region.

Columban Fr. Patrcik Raleigh is the Regional Director for Ireland.