Notes for a sermon preached by Fr Bernard J. McGuckian S.J. at Knock Shrine on the occasion of the joint Pioneer/Matt Talbot Pilgrimage on Sunday, July 15th, 2012.
After God and the Blessed Virgin Mary the inspiration for our pilgrimage today comes from two men, one a priest, the other a layman. Both of them died in the early days of the new Irish State; Fr. James Aloysius Cullen and the Venerable Matt Talbot. Fr Cullen, the Founder of the Pioneer Association, died in Dublin on December 6th, 1921, just as the newspapers were reporting the fateful signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London some hours earlier. Venerable Matt Talbot also died in Dublin, some four years later in Granby Lane, on Trinity Sunday, June 6th, 1925 just as the Angelus Bell was ringing out in the nearby Dominican Church where he was planning to attend the mid-day Mass.
The early lives of these two men could not have been more different. James Cullen was a pious, studious, country boy from childhood in Co Wexford. He was such a good student that he had completed his studies with distinction while still too young for priestly Ordination and required a dispensation. Matt Talbot’s early life was spent in the squalor of Dublin’s inner city where he had so little schooling that his name hardly made it to the roll book. The most that was said of him in the records was that he was a “mitcher”. As the whole world now knows, he was barely into his teens when he had developed a deplorable habit of excessive drinking.
Fr Cullen was well known throughout Ireland for his priestly zeal for over half a century before he died. Matt’s situation was different. His name was virtually unknown outside his family and beyond the circle of his workmates. It only came into prominence on the day he died. A notice in the Irish Independent on the day after his death read. “Unknown man dies in the street”. It was because each of these men took the Gospel of Christ so seriously that we still remember them.
Like the Apostles we heard about in the Gospel, Fr Cullen, from the day of his ordination in 1864 “set out to preach repentance, cast out devils and anoint many sick people with oil and cure them”. Matt did not set out to preach repentance or cast out devils. He had enough to do to change his own life and drive the demons from his own heart. But in the providence of God this is what he has been doing from his place in heaven since the day he died. The example of his conversion from excessive drinking has inspired a change of heart in thousands of others all over the world. Jesus once said that “some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting”. From what we can gather few people have spent so much of their lives in such fervent prayer and rigorous fasting as Matt Talbot. After a careful examination of the known facts of his life competent Church authorities concluded that this working man from the inner city of Dublin lived out the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the essential human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to a heroic degree. This is why he is called Venerable.
When we talk about the wasted early years of Matt’s life we should remember that there were positive aspects to it that should not be overlooked. He always attended Mass on Sundays. He was devoted to the Blessed Virgin. No matter how inebriated he was he said his prayers at night. His sisters noticed that he never indulged in salacious talk and never said anything disrespectful about women. There is no evidence of failures in chastity in his life. This is important in any discussion of the cardinal virtue of temperance. Temperance is the virtue that helps us deal wisely, not just with intoxicating drink, but with all the pleasurable areas of life. We need fortitude or courage to deal effectively with life’s inevitable painful areas.
While some might find it strange that we need a virtue to help us deal wisely with the pleasurable areas of life we should remember that many people have more difficulty dealing wisely with pleasure than with pain. I have rarely heard of a family that broke up because a member was suffering from a painful illness. In fact, if anything, the very illness can help a family to come together in support of the suffering member. It is different if a family member is not sufficiently temperate to resist the pleasurable attraction of an illicit relationship. Deficiencies like this can have devastating consequences.
In the Christian tradition there are four main parts of temperance; modesty and becoming behaviour in our dealings with others; abstinence and restraint in the use of food; thirdly, sobriety and care in the use of drink but most important of all and often overlooked as a dimension of temperance, chastity in the area of sexuality. Modest behaviour, abstinence and sobriety have an importance role to play in protecting chastity. It is a mistake to think that “sins of intemperance “are simply those committed while under the influence of drink. Serious sins against the virtue of temperance can be committed when cold sober. Infidelity can have more drastic consequences than excessive drinking.
Matt Talbot provides us with an example of the fullness of temperance. After his dramatic conversion Matt handed his whole life over to God and allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit and wise spiritual directors. For the rest of his life he was modest in his demands from others and in his overall live style (he gave whatever money he saved away). He ate very little, abstained totally from drink and opted for a celibate life. He dealt very respectfully with a young woman who suggested that they might get married. He told her that he would discuss the matter with Our Lady and then give her his answer. In this way he learned that marriage was not his calling. Mary Purcell, Matt’s biographer, noted that it was to this girl’s credit that she recognised the best man in Ireland when she saw him do his work as a builder’s labourer.
Because of the situation in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century the aspect of temperance that most needed urgent attention was insobriety. Dealing with this is still the primary concern of the Pioneer Association. In founding the Association, Fr Cullen was launching a campaign of “prayer and fasting” on behalf of those who were suffering the effects of addiction to alcohol. Matt Talbot joined Fr Cullen’s movement in 1890 when it was known as the Temperance League of the Sacred Heart. Some years later, Fr. Cullen who was always trying to improve his methods of working, gave the movement the title “Pioneer” which it has now enjoyed for the last 114 years and which is set to continue long into the future. At the Eucharistic Congress last month in Dublin the positive reaction of the many visitors from all over the world to both the Pioneer and the Matt Talbot Stands in the Royal Dublin Society was a source of great encouragement to all involved in this work.
In the Pioneer Association we can be justly proud that the sanctity of the life of more than one of our members has been recognised by the highest authority in the Church. Matt Talbot and Edel Quinn are both Venerable. Fr John Sullivan and Frank Duff are Servants of God. We pray that one day all four will be raised to the honours of the altar. The miracle which will bring this about in the case of each of them will be the occasion not the cause of their beatification. The real cause will be the indubitable holiness of their lives and the continuous prayers of those of us who are convinced of their holiness. In the case of Matt Talbot, the on-going miracle of so many transformed lives will sooner or later lead to his beatification. The beatification will come when the medical profession agrees that something spectacular and outside their experience has taken place. However, in my estimation, this will be something minor compared with the miracles that Matt continues to work and has been quietly working for years.
I leave you with one down to earth reflection found among his notes after his death. “When in company, watch your words; when in the family, watch your temper; when alone, watch your thoughts”