This morning, Saturday, the day the votes in the referendum are being counted I was in the Phoenix Park. I was feeling pretty heavy hearted. As someone who wrote and preached and indeed voted no, whilst I was not surprised at the outcome, as I had fully expected the Yes campaign to win, I was indeed taken aback at the size of the victory. Here in Ballyfermot the gap between the Yes and No votes was huge. (we are in the Dublin South- Central constituency where the Yes vote was 74.79% and the No vote 25.21%).
Anyhow I was in the park this morning, I had my clerical shirt on, with the white of my collar slightly open, and I noticed three figures coming towards me. As they got closer I could see it was a young woman accompanied by two young men. It was then I noticed all three of them were wearing ‘repeal’ t shirts or sweatshirts. Whilst they were only a few feet from me, one of the lads, said to the others pointing at me, ‘ there’s one of them oul ‘no’ voters, come on and we’ll beat him up!’ Part of me felt he was messing, but if the truth be told, there was a bit of me immediately under pressure. I went into ‘John Wayne mode’ and trying to be funny said ‘ Well there’s three of you and one of me so I don’t have much chance. But which of you is coming first?’ Now of course that could well have been the most stupid thing I ever said. Thankfully they laughed and the lad that was doing all the talking said, ‘Ah come on Fr. Joe, do you not know me, we’re not going to beat you up, we’re going to give you a hug instead’. With that I found myself in the middle of a lovely group hug. It turned out I had celebrated his grandmothers funeral a few months ago. A beautiful and special lady. I have to say I was relieved.
There’s been a lot of tension around the Referendum. It was very divisive at times. I appreciate a lot of people said that for the most part debate was respectful and whilst this may well be true, feelings ran deep and I actually feel there is a need for some healing. It will take time. I wonder is there anything we can do to assist that? I guess generally as citizens it might be good not to keep rehashing the debate. It might help not to slip into scapegoating. Whilst it’s understandable when there is a vote with a yes or no outcome to have some degree of celebration on the part of the victors, given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, it would be good not to slip into gloating or any form of triumphalism.
It must be asked can the Church contribute to this healing? Perhaps the truth is that the Church may not be best placed in this regard. I am fascinated to see what the Church will do in the face of this referendum result. My hope is, to use a theological term, that this may be a graced moment for the Church. That there is grace in this experience, for me is not in doubt, the question is, will we be open to receive this grace. Yet further to this for me is another crucial question. Having received this grace can we be co-workers with the Holy Spirit in living this grace? In other words we live in a modern democracy and we have just had a referendum with a very substantial turnout, over sixty percent, and an unmistakably clear result. Now the real challenge is to try to understand, and face, what this means for the Church. This will take prudence and courage and a good dollop of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit as well.
So then my friends, party or wake? If it’s a party then it’s short lived because we will quickly find ourselves in this immediate post – referendum phase having to face into major decisions, not least of all the new legislation that will face the Oireachteas. If it’s a wake, who or what is being waked? Is it an old Ireland? What’s the new one looking like? Is it the wake for the old Church? What’s the new one looking like? It might be good to remember that neither the new Ireland, nor the new Church, will drop out of the sky. We will shape both of them. There will always be time to party and time to wake, the real challenge will be, how we develop ways of respecting each other especially when we are not all partying or waking at the same time.