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It's last orders as the self is elevated over service


The photo on the front page of this paper on Tuesday showed a smiling President Mary McAleese being blessed by a bearded friar who looked like a character from the Middle Ages.

The President was in Limerick to announce a scheme that everyone hopes will lead to the regeneration of Moyross and Southill, two areas that are usually in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Writing about the issue on the same day, child protection expert Shane Dunphy struck a note of scepticism about the regeneration plan.

He wondered whether improving the physical infrastructure of the neighbourhoods would really do much good unless their real and underlying problems were addressed. For example, does moving someone into a better house suddenly bring an end to their drug addiction?

To this effect he quoted 'Barry' from Ballymun, where a similar regeneration scheme has been in effect for some time. Barry told him: "My ma has a nicer place to live, but then, the drug dealers have better-maintained street corners to work off now, too. All they did was move the problem to a nicer neighbourhood."

Enter the good friar who blessed Mary McAleese on Monday. Fr Paulus is a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. As the name implies, they are part of the family of Franciscan orders.

The Friars arrived in Moyross to a considerable blaze of publicity last year. With their distinctive garb and trademark long beards it was hard to miss them, and the fact that they were moving into one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Ireland was bound to catch the attention.

They chose Moyross because they always opt to live in the most socially deprived areas and because they know that the problems faced by any such area go much deeper than the physical environment. To address them you have to lift people out of poverty itself, and not just through hand-outs but by giving them the skills needed to lift themselves out of poverty.

Those skills are not merely technical ones. They are also emotional, and spiritual.

The Friars are a reminder of what we are going to lose as the religious orders in Ireland decline precipitously in numbers or disappear into oblivion altogether.

The orders have received terrible publicity, a lot of it deserved, because of the scandals, but the scandals have caused an awful lot of people to completely overlook the tremendous good the orders have done, and continue to do.

One of the main reasons the orders are in such sharp decline is because they require their members to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

These vows could not be more anti-modern. Vowing never to have sex strikes a lot of us as being a denial of life itself. But maybe that's because we over-value sex.

And although the vow of poverty still retains a certain prestige, nonetheless it doesn't sit too easily alongside a hyper-consumerist society. As for the vow of obedience, that is completely rejected as a sacrifice of independence and freedom of mind.

But is that really what those vows really mean? The vows of chastity and poverty mean giving up family and money for the sake of service. The vow of obedience means giving up personal freedom, again for this sake of service. Viewed this way the vows aren't negative at all, but positive, in the same way that marriage vows are positive if lived out properly.

Now, ask yourself this question; are we better or worse off as a society if we lose all those thousands of men and women who have devoted themselves so completely to the service of others? The answer is that we are certainly much worse off.

On a purely practical level, the person who has taken the three vows will have far more time to devote to the service of others than let's say, me, or probably you.

Very few doubt that Moyross will benefit from the presence of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

No reasonable person can doubt that other communities would benefit if there were more of the Friars to go round.

We used to have such people in abundance and they worked in every manner and type of religious order. Often they were taken for granted. We thought they were a permanent feature of Irish society.

But now flawed thinking, closed minds and a radical shift in societal values that often puts self over service has led too many people to doubt that the vows which are an intrinsic part of the religious life are worthwhile.

Moyross does indeed need more than a brand new physical infrastructure to properly regenerate itself, however important this is.

It needs more people like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

These Franciscans are a reminder of what Ireland is about to lose as many of our religious orders fade into history, for the time being at any rate.

We should appreciate them while we have them.