Homily Delivered by Very Rev Michael Toner PP
This being the last weekend before the beginning of Lent, we mark Temperance Sunday.
And let me begin by saying that I am not anti-drink, that there is nothing I enjoy more than a nice cool pint of Guinness or a refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio.
And yet, my experience as a priest, particularly through my nineteen years in the Marriage Tribunal, leads me to the view that many of the ills in our society today, be that violence, sexual promiscuity, foul language, anti-social behaviour, lack of respect towards others and so forth, find their root in the abuse and misuse of alcohol. Let me share with you an interesting fact: Ireland has the highest rate of alcohol use and drug abuse by 16 year olds in Europe.
The Alcohol Charter adopted by the European Region of the World Health Organisation states and I quote: “children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption, and to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic drinks”.
Is that right being protected in Ireland today? Does such an environment exist here in Ireland at the moment? Clearly, it does not! Our entertainment culture and most of our social life revolve around the consumption of alcohol. We live in a society where even the most innocent events take place in licensed premises and where no social function is complete without a bar extension.
Now, we can respond to this phenomenon in two ways: one is to throw our hands up in the air, complain privately, but do nothing about it; the other is to accept that we are responsible for the society we have. We live in a democracy and we have a vote. We have chosen the kind of society we have and we can also choose to change it. We must, therefore, be prepared to act to change our society and we must act together.
The first thing that happens when parents come together to talk about problems such as abuse of alcohol or drugs is that they realise they are not alone. They are not the only ones who may feel guilty when their children complain that they are too strict or too old-fashioned; they are not the only ones who are worried about what goes on at discos and nightclubs but are afraid to ask; they are not the only ones who worry that their son may be killed in a speeding car, or that their daughter will be pregnant before she has left childhood behind her. When parents come together to talk and to tease out these issues, they quickly realise that there is more wisdom in the group than in any one individual belonging to it and they can then make decisions about what is to be done. It may well be that they simply agree on an age when they will allow their children to go to discos and nightclubs and what kind of entertainment venues they will go to. Then when the young person says: “Everybody is going”, the parent is able to say calmly and with confidence: “No, in fact they are not”. And when young people themselves realise that their own group are not all going, they feel less pressure themselves and are more content to stay at home. I don’t want to give the impression that parents are the only ones who have responsibilities where underage drinking and abuse of alcohol and drugs are concerned. Publicans and proprietors of hotels and nightclubs have heavy responsibilities too.
Of recent years TV and other media coverage have exposed some dreadful abuses in our society, particularly in relation to the care of children in the past. Parents and many others have quite rightly felt angry and indignant that children should have been treated in such ways by those who were supposed to be caring for those children, especially when those people were priests or men or women belonging to religious orders. The media have done us a good service in exposing the evils that occurred in the past. The questions, I believe, which we now need to ask are: how will journalists in the future see our society today? What are the scandals that will be exposed in twenty or thirty years time that we are now quite unaware of? I think one of them will be the way we have failed to protect our young people from the abuse of drink and drugs. I suspect we will stand charged of having failed to allow our young people to enjoy the greatest gift that they have, which is youth itself. We have allowed them to be stampeded into adulthood before they have had time to enjoy their adolescence. Worse still, because they have rushed into adult drinking and adult sex before they are mature enough to handle these things, many have become teenage alcoholics and child-parents. Their lives have been blighted and their children often condemned to poverty and deprivation.
I suspect that in twenty or thirty years time interviewers will ask uncomprehendingly: “Did you know that your children were drinking when they were 14? Why did you allow them to go to discos and nightclubs when they were still only children? Where did you think they were until 3 or 4 o-clock in the morning? What did you think they were doing at all-night parties? They will also ask our lawmakers and enforcement agencies how was it possible that so many of our young people could obtain drink so easily? Did you know about it? You did? And what did you do about it? There will be questions for all of us.
And there will be questions for young people themselves. Did no-one ever tell you that you should not drink until you are old enough to handle it? Why did you not listen? Did no-one ever offer you a pledge at confirmation that you would not drink until you were 18? Did you take that pledge? Did you keep it?