In the seemingly endless bad news coming out of the Irish Catholic scene, one figure enjoys almost universal admiration: John Hume.
Civil rights activist, peace-maker between Catholics and Protestants, Nobel Laureate, voted "Ireland's Greatest", now Pope Benedict has made John Hume a Knight Commander of St. Gregory. Hume started life as the eldest of 7 children in a very poor Catholic family in Northern Ireland, and spent time as a seminarian before leaving to embark on the life of a practicing Catholic layman - whose impact on his homeland has been staggering.
"When he set off on his life-long mission to bring peace to this island of ours and to heal the divisions between the two communities, it was always about respect, about integrity and about dialogue. But it was a very long, very lonely and very difficult journey. Attacked from all sides, his life threatened, he never gave up and against all the odds, he kept going and stayed true to his vision of a new agreed Ireland, where difference is respected and not used as an excuse for violence. All of us are reaping the benefits of his lifelong work - and that is why I passionately believe we should all be eternally grateful to him and overjoyed that he has won the title of Ireland's Greatest."
It is all too easy for highly committed Catholics in a time of clerical shortage to undervalue a call to lay life and secular vocations and to focus almost entirely on priestly and religious vocations - but that is to miss some of the most significant things that God is doing in our time such as the evangelization of the culture and structures of our society.
The credibility of the Gospel, of the faith, of the Church is profoundly tied to the presence or absence of great men and women of faith like John Hume, who, inspired by the Church's social teaching, persisted in the midst of opposition and difficulty and changed the course of history.
Can you name any other lay Catholics that you admire the way that the Irish admire John Hume?
Few Catholics leave the faith for theological reasons but millions leave for real-life existential reasons. In Ireland today, the most universally honored Catholic in the nation is a layman while the reputation of the clergy - fairly or unfairly - is at it lowest level in generations. In the 21st century, those who have rejected faith for themselves are still impressed by and attracted to those who have lived it at great cost and with great integrity for the sake of great fruit.