A Discussion with Frank Sammon, S.J., former director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Ireland

With: Frank Sammon

July 27, 2012

Background: In this exchange on July 27, 2012, in Dublin, Frank Sammon, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed the role of the Jesuits and the Church in Ireland.

Please give a brief description of your vocation as a Jesuit.

I joined the Jesuits in 1966 and have worked in social services almost the entire time I’ve been in the Order. I’ve spent time working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, with the Galway Social Services Council, and some time in the Philippines. Incidentally, I did my tertianship under Avery Cardinal Dulles at Catholic University. I also helped found the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (JCFJ), and I served as director there for a number of years. These days, I’m back in a parish (Rathgar), doing parish work, ministering to migrants and refugees in Dublin, and teaching at the Milltown Institute.

Who and what are the major influences in the ways in which you approach globalization?

I entered the Jesuits around the time of Vatican II, so the phrase “discerning the signs of the times” (from Nostra Aetate) is carved indelibly into the way in which I approach my vocation and the world. As someone who’s been working in the social apostolate for decades, I’m interested in sociological investigations of what’s going on in our culture at the moment. One of the thinkers who has really influenced me is Robert Bellah, especially through his book Habits of the Heart (1989). Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian Jesuit, is also a tremendous influence.

As a social-apostolate worker in Ireland over the tumultuous last few decades, how do you view what’s happened in the lead-up to, roar, and failure of the Celtic Tiger?

Fr. Tim Hamilton got it right in his 1992 article (written for JCFJ), “Solidarity: The Missing Link in Irish Society.” The Irish middle class is very individualistic today, a development that may not have been started by the Celtic Tiger, but was very much accelerated by it. To back up a bit, I would say there have been three stages of modernization in this country, each of which has been tied to a massive cultural shift. The first phase happened in the post-independence period under the direction of [first Taoiseach of Ireland Éamon] de Valera, when we went from a rural/agricultural economy to a somewhat industrialized one. It didn’t get Ireland up to speed with the rest of the world, and the country looked like a failed state by the 1950s. Then came the second wave of modernization under the direction of [Taoiseach and de Valera successor Seán] Lemass. At that stage, Ireland was opened to foreign direct investment for the first time, and things began to take a turn for the better. The Celtic Tiger—and the opening to Europe that it fed off of—was the third stage.

At first, it was brilliantly successful and profitable, but as we now know, the foundations were flimsy and the social shift this time round was towards extreme individualism. However logical that response might be in response to the events at hand—an ever-expanding, seemingly limitless pie of wealth-creation to compete for a slice of—we are now paying the price for this as our financial situation has collapsed much faster than the ideology that fed it. Individualism was such a tenet of society that it became ingrained in our educational system. Even Jesuit-run schools don’t offer a complete alternative, since we’ve adopted the fee-paying model (parents pay to send children to Jesuit schools). This is an inherent class distinction, which we sometimes whitewash with talk of “educating the elite.” Crescent College Comprehensive [secondary school] in Limerick was the latest, greatest attempt at providing an intentionally cross-class education, but even that is falling by the wayside at this point.

What do (or could) the Jesuits have to offer in the modern Irish public sphere, even if they’re not fully teaching it at this point?

This country really lacks a tradition of self-criticism, and that is one of the Jesuits’ strong suits. We need to determine how to teach this to our fellow citizens as soon as possible, since Ireland’s not going to advance very far or very fast unless it starts doing some honest national reflection and discernment. If there’s no vision of how things are, why they are that way, and how we’d like them to be, how can we expect to change anything? There are also more people to look after now following the huge immigration waves of the 1980s and 1990s; on top of that, hiring has collapsed, so there’s a generation of impoverished and unemployed people looking for something to do. Catholic and Jesuit teaching on this front is equally strong: work is the key to dignifying the human person at the most day-to-day level. It’s not that the dole is bad; we need the social safety net. But no one is going to be fully realizing him or herself on the dole, and the system also perpetuates the implicit assumption that economic value is ultimate value. Poetry and sociology feed the soul more than economics ever can, and there’s no poetry or sociology being doled out.

In short, what we as Jesuits—in concert with the lay people and others of good will who work with us—can provide is a critical vision, an emphasis on work from the perspective of the poor, and a moral/rational case for the necessity of regulation and solidarity in our economics and politics. Meanwhile, we’ll keep working away in our traditional areas of emphasis in culture and education, where we seem to be more in line with society—fully 55 percent of Irish students go on to third-level education, which is not only a national achievement but a huge leg up in terms of both culture and economic potential.

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