Sr Consilio Fitzgerald: Christmas story offers hope of change for us all
THE greatest threat facing our country is that any person, or family, should feel excluded and, in all of the difficulties confronting our country, be without hope. It is a sin against everything that Christmas is about and everything that it stands for.
In Cuan Mhuire centres, Christmas has always been a time for open doors, welcome and warmth. Even when, back in the early days, we had little, there was always enough to go around. In the old Dairy in Athy, where Cuan Mhuire began, no one was ever excluded.
This year, the pressures on Cuan Mhuire, and on our entire sister voluntary bodies and agencies, are greater than at any time I can remember.
There will be upwards of 600 residents in our different centres and our transition houses around the country.
Even so, the same warmth and welcome -- and a sense of fun -- will be there.
These are qualities literally beyond any price. The important thing is that the greatest gifts we give are when we give from ourselves. By this, I mean the hope that 2012 will be the start of an individual's freedom from dependence and addiction. I also mean the certainty of all of our support, as they make that journey.
There is, I believe, a lesson for the country here. Hope is not some wishy-washy quality; it is bounded by faith and by charity.
It is a strong virtue and it sets alight the kind of transformational change that people are desperately seeking these days.
I would be the very last person to minimise what many are going through this Christmas. But surely what really matters is how we as individuals, and as a community, respond to their pain and worry and uncertainty?
In that first Christmas, a young Jewish girl and the good man to whom she was betrothed, found themselves excluded in their time of very great need. For the birth of their firstborn they found themselves consigned to a stable. God himself had chosen to embrace the experience of the homeless and the excluded -- but that can't have made it easier for them.
When no help seemed at hand, it was the shepherds who came and gave that young mother and child respect and acknowledgement and, I have no doubt whatsoever, some of what little they had themselves.
Later came the wise men with gifts that made things easier. But first they had to get through a cold and very difficult night. This they did with the support of ordinary people doing a difficult job. That, too, has been our experience in Cuan Mhuire.
The homeless and the excluded are still with us. Tens of thousands of individuals have come through the doors of Cuan Mhuire over the past 45 Christmases.
Many have come burdened with worry and fears. They have found respect and welcome and security. Their 'religion' or lack of it, and personal circumstances, have mattered not a jot. Each and everyone has been created in the image and likeness of God and it is our privilege to support them as they rediscover in themselves the beautiful persons they are called to be.
We are like the shepherds that first Christmas -- called to affirm them, with joy, at a time when the world seems completely unmoved by their needs.
I often think of that most beautiful parable of the 'lost sheep' and what Christ himself said in explaining it: "Which of you, with a hundred sheep, if you lost one, would fail to leave the 99, and go after the missing one until you found it? And when he found it, would he not joyfully take it on his shoulder, and when he got home call together his friends and neighbours, rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost."
This Christmas, there will be a very great number of individuals coming to the many different Christmas services. Many may not have seen the inside of a church for years.
However, such is the pain and worry in the country that they will feel compelled to come and to seek hope. Where else would they come? Isn't this what our church is all about: hope and the certainty of love and practical support -- a sense of solidarity with each other, in our needs?
IAM certain of this. The Christ-Child welcomes all -- especially, the 'lapsed' and the 'lame' -- with his word and presence. I hope they will kneel, perhaps with their children, at the crib and return home strengthened by the fact that Christmas is a hope- filled new beginning for all of us.
Christmas, properly celebrated, is the greatest possible gift to us at a time of great pressure on our people and on our country. From what had been a cold and dark stable at Bethlehem, a great light shone, and continues right to our own time -- a universal hope, from which none are excluded.
We should see, in the salvation narrative that began with a young couple shut out in the cold, the hope of transformational change in our lives and, also, in our country. We should treasure the child and the children in our midst. We should ensure that, in our community at least, Santa Claus is guided to their door. In our churches, we should welcome, above all, those who are fragile, vulnerable, or who have lost their way: this is their church.
In every Cuan Mhuire throughout the country this Christmas, the traditional candle will be lit, guiding those who feel lost to the welcome that is theirs by right. Along with our sister voluntary bodies, we promise them a welcome and a rekindling of the real hope that does not disappoint.
This, in a special way, applies to our 'new' Newry Cuan Mhuire, serving Northern Ireland and the border counties, as it nears completion this Christmas, bringing hope to all suffering from marginalisation in what was, until recently, a divided community. Surely there is a message there of how serving and supporting each other, from our hearts, paves the way for rebuilding hope and trust in the lives of our sisters and brothers.
If we can do these things, we will re-discover the "pearl of great price", and the beginnings of the rebuilding of our country and our churches.
Sister Consilio Fitzgerald is the founder of Cuan Mhuire, the largest multi-site detox and residential rehabilitation service provider in Ireland, north and south