The Most Rev John Fleming, Bishop of Killala, in the West of Ireland, gave the following homily on Saturday for the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association at St Muredach's Cathedral, Ballina. The Mass was celebrated to coincide with the National Pioneer Ball which took place in the Downhill Hotel, Ballina. The media have filled our minds recently with images and words which highlight the consequences of the abuse of alcohol in Western society today. The tragedies which have marked the lives of so many families and individuals have been paraded before us and they force us to ask fundamental questions about our society, our lifestyle and ourselves. One family will never see their son again. Other families will have to live with visits to their sons in jail for the foreseeable future and the realization that they have served time, for the rest of their lives. Football wives and families will also have to live with the unanswered questions of what happened when they were not there. And the scenes in Dublin, in the aftermath of the parade on St Patrick's Day, have also highlighted our awareness not only of the issue of drink in our society but also to the way we live as a country and a people. The publicity which surrounded all of these events leaves its mark on us in a variety of ways for the foreseeable future. Against this tapestry of tragedy and pain a number of stark facts present themselves. Under the influence of drink, violence can explode in a single moment and mark an entire lifetime. Drinking to excess has consequences which go well beyond the life of the drinker and affect the lives of family members, colleagues at work and society in general. The assumption that taking a drink is the only acceptable form of socializing must now be seen for what it is; an insecure foundation on which to exercise the need for recreation which we all share. The challenge to drink to excess as the yardstick for a successful night out must now be placed in the arena of the questionable. And, finally, we as a people have a duty to explore the issues which have caused these tragedies so that future generations of our people can live lives free from this kind of tragedy and enjoy life to the full. We, the Irish, have struggled with the reality of alcohol abuse for generations and there are few families in our country who have not been touched by this in one way or another. The Temperance Movement begun by Fr Matthew in the early nineteenth century reminds us of just how long this problem has confronted our people and how deep an issue it is for us. Between 1838 and 1856 Fr Matthew achieved remarkable results in the struggle for temperance in our country. However, within twenty years of his death, the Irish Bishops were alerting their people once more, in terms as strong as any group in our society might do today, to the dangers of drink. Temperance movements sprang up again and Fr Cullen, a Jesuit, founded the Pioneer Movement. For a second time success, however, was eventually followed by failure and the number of Pioneers in our country today has dropped dramatically while the culture of drinking has established itself firmly in our time. This brief history of the temperance movement forces us to ask the question; is there something in the Irish temperament which makes us more prone than other nations to drink to excess? A recent survey of the drinking habits of Europeans has much to tell us about our own pattern of drinking. It reminds us that Irish drinking levels are twice the European average. In Italy, the home of good wine, for example, only 12% of Italians drink alcohol on a regular basis while 52% of the Irish drink regularly. I lived in Italy for almost twenty years. I rarely, if ever, saw an Italian drunk. I have often seen young Italians of the eighteen to twenty five age-group socialize with a pizza and a coke and none of them touched alcohol throughout the evening. The basic question which we all must ask at this point is; where do we begin to tackle this problem? I believe that the answer lies where we don't wish it to lie; it lies with ourselves, with each and every one of us as individuals and as a society. No amount of preaching by the Church or publicity on health and safety issues given by the State will solve this problem. No amount of advice given by parents, by teachers, by the law or by the media will ever eradicate fully the tragedy we witness on a daily basis. You can parade facts and figures before people till the cows come home or kingdom come and you will not effect a change in this area. You can call for a ban on advertising, earlier closing hours for pubs, stricter vigilance on the part of publicans and consideration for the staff of A and E units in hospitals and to little avail. The fundamental issue which faces everyone and, in particular, which faces those who are tempted to drink to excess is; what quality of life do I wish to have for myself, create for my family and encourage in society at large. Peer pressure at school will tell young people that they are immature if they do not drink to excess. Once they enter the workplace or go to third-level colleges, they are persuaded that they are not cool unless they drink too much at weekends. The married are convinced that they are not a regular couple if they do not have a good night out on a weekly basis, sometimes leaving their children to fend for themselves. And the list goes on. However, ultimately each one of us has to ask the fundamental question, how can I take a drink in such a way as to enrich myself, my family life and my friends rather than undermine or destroy them? And no one can answer that question for you or for society except yourself. At present we seem to face an insurmountable mountain in the task of creating a culture in our society where drinking enriches our experience of living rather than undermine or destroy it. We can, I believe, take courage from the peace movement in Northern Ireland. For almost thirty years this country seemed condemned to suffering violence and death in the North. Gradually, through a variety of small initiatives, a culture of peace began to develop and take root. Through many setbacks it held on tenaciously. Eventually the will of the majority of people on this island became committed to having a peaceful island in which all its citizens can enjoy our land. I believe that the same can happen with regard to the creation of a temperate society in our country. By example rather than by word, by patiently striving for excellence and acceptable standards rather than by reacting on impulse, each of us can contribute to a better future for our young people, our children and our country. Young people, like yourselves, who stand back from so many things which are taken for granted in our society today deserve our support and encouragement. Each one of you is aware of the destructive influence of substance dependency, whether that is drugs or drink. You have decided to approach life in a balanced, careful, thoughtful way, analysing the things which will enrich your experience of life and rejecting what might undermine or destroy. You delight in the things which every young person delights in, sport, music, the company of your peers, recreation and so on. You reject what can destroy a wholesome experience of life. With patience, courage and generosity you have the opportunity to effect a great change in our society and make it a better place in which all of us can live. I compliment you and the Pioneer Movement on your work and commitment. I thank you for your sacrifice and your prayers for temperance in Ireland. I pray God's blessing on each of you and on your families. Further information on the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association is available at: www.pioneertotal.ie Source: Irish Bishops Conference Communications Office
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