Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A View from the Pew - A Christmas Carol

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the December-January 2008-9 issue.

By the time you read this it will be the joyful Advent season, and we shall all be looking forward to the delights of Christmas - at least I hope so! I like advent, the anticipation, and I like Christmas, just as much as I did as a child. Even if the festival has become too commercial, even if I give out that it starts far too early, I wouldn’t want to be a Scrooge and say ‘Bah, humbug!’ In Advent we anticipate the extraordinary grace of God’s incarnation. Christmas is a day to rejoice in the miracle of our Saviour Jesus Christ’s birth. But I don’t think Christians should be po-faced – Christmas is not only a religious festival, but also a human celebration - a celebration of our relationships, our families and friends, and our common humanity. I intend to celebrate, God willing, by enjoying all the traditional merriness and jollity of Christmas – the carols, the mince-pies, the parties, giving and receiving presents, feasting on turkey and plum-pudding, cards and phone calls to far flung family - as well as Church on Christmas day.

But as one fortunate enough to enjoy all these things, I must also take to heart the message of Charles Dickens much loved tale A Christmas Carol. Because in Ireland, this year as in other years, many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are too poor to be able to enjoy them. The statistics are stark. You can find them on the web site of Combat Poverty, the state agency established in 1986 to advise the Government on poverty policy. Its functions are to be moved back into the Department of Social & Family Affairs, where I pray its voice will not be muted.

300,000 people in Ireland live in consistent poverty
Over 700,000 people live on weekly incomes less than the official poverty line - €220 for a single person, €510 for a family of four. No less than 300,000 are living in consistent poverty. Do you know what consistent poverty means? I had to do a bit of research to find out – see the side bar. The Mid-West region within our own diocese has at 10.4% the highest rate of consistent poverty in the country. 30% of those in single-parent families are in consistent poverty. Over one third of those in consistent poverty are children. What kind of Christmas are they likely to enjoy?

One thing we can be sure of is that more and more people are falling into poverty: unemployment is climbing; people unable to pay mortgages are losing their homes; fixed incomes from pensions and savings are falling; and food and energy are much dearer than a year ago. St Vincent de Paul reports that calls for help are up 40% on last year.

The causes of this shocking poverty are surely as varied as each individual family. There are places like Moyross and South Hill in Limerick, euphemistically described as disadvantaged communities and blighted by the desperate criminality of a few, where deprivation and poverty are transmitted from one generation to the next as if by a virus. But most of the poor live alongside us in our own nice communities, yet almost invisible. Underlying causes include unemployment, low pay, old age, disability, long-term illness, early school leaving without qualifications, single-parent families, addiction, and homelessness. But these abstract words conceal the real stories of the people involved, which are often quite harrowing. Here is one I heard recently from a member of St Vincent de Paul:
A teenage boy, in great distress, came looking for help. With no father, his mother is dying of cancer, and he has given up his apprenticeship to nurse her and look after the younger children. They are living on social welfare and he can hardly make ends meet. He has no money to buy little presents or Christmas treats. He desperately wants to make this Christmas special, because he knows his mother will not see another.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
In A Christmas Carol Dickens deals with the themes of social injustice and poverty. The misanthropic miser Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound experience of redemption, as he is visited on Christmas Eve by the three Ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present and of Christmas Future. He becomes a new man, shocking his nephew Fred by his transformation. He sends the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop anonymously to his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit. He donates generously to charity. He becomes an adopted uncle to Bob’s disabled son Tiny Tim. And he gains happiness and a reputation as a kind and generous man who embodies the spirit of Christmas in his life. It is a deeply human story, but also a deeply Christian one.

Scrooge redeemed treats Bob Cratchit

Our Christian duty is surely to advocate and work for the changes required to create a more just and caring society, one more like the Kingdom of Heaven. And we can expect support from people of all faiths and none, for it is not just Christians who share this objective.

Relieving poverty - St Vincent de Paul and Protestant Aid

But those in consistent poverty cannot wait, they need help now. I feel I should be as generous as I can afford and give that help as an extra Christmas present, to either The Society of St Vincent de Paul ( or Protestant Aid (

Both organisations do excellent work, giving help regardless of religious or ethnic background, after evaluating the need. St Vincent de Paul has been in Ireland for 164 years and welcomes members from the Church of Ireland. Through a network of over 9,500 volunteers and 500 staff it expended €35 million in 2006 on assistance to individuals and families and other charitable activities, such as holiday homes, housing and youth clubs. Protestant Aid is older but smaller. Started in 1836, it helped over 1,200 individuals and families in 2007, distributing over €577,000 in charitable giving. I recently talked to someone who experienced their help as a child and is eternally grateful. You can find out more about their work on the web, and donations can be made easily by credit card.

May you and yours have a very happy Christmas, and as Tiny Tim says,
God bless us, every one!

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