Professor Siobhán Garrigan Calls for a New Understanding of ‘Home’ in Inaugural Lecture

Loyola Professor of Catholic Theology, Siobhán Garrigan, gave an inaugural lecture on the topic of ‘Theology and Homelessness’ recently to mark her appointment as the first Chair in Catholic Theology at Trinity College Dublin. In her lecture, Professor Garrigan focussed on the need for greater critical engagement with prevailing, limited notions of home and argued that religiously-inflected connotations of this concept bear some responsibility for society’s failure to adequately tackle the problem. A podcast of the lecture can be downloaded here.

The event marked a double inauguration at Trinity – that of a new Established Chair and the appointment of Professor Siobhán Garrigan, a long-time worker with homeless people and other community action groups, particularly those tackling sectarianism, as head of the new centre.

Referring to homelessness as ‘a great scandal in Ireland today’, Professor Garrigan said: “As a concept, it is a profoundly religiously-inflected idea. It is based, in part, on the idea of our having been separated from our origins (in God) through birth and then longing to go home, to a final resting place, find ourselves back at the beginning and, at peace.”

Arguing that this prevailing notion of home in western culture, therefore, sets limits on our ability to act on homelessness, Professor Garrigan proposed instead that we draw on alternate definitions and highlighted the benefits of a cultural understanding of the phenomenon. She also suggested that “Theology needs to offer a clearer account of the idea of ‘home’ if Christians are to be effective in combating homelessness in today’s world” and that “we need to look more carefully at how ‘home’ is used in wider societal debates such as nationalism, sectarianism and Islamaphobia.”

In her lecture, Professor Garrigan discussed the findings of her research on home, which showed that  ‘home’ is what people appeal to when they do not want to love across the boundaries of difference, whether in sectarian dismissals of the other community, or in white racist norms of who belongs and who doesn’t. “People confronting difference often say they felt ‘far from home’ – too vulnerable, not able for the risk. Or ‘homeless’ – displaced, disoriented, not in control. Or rendered ‘a stranger in their own home’, as today’s UKIP rhetoric in England demonstrates.”

Critiquing the long-held interpretation of home as a mostly a matter of belonging and identity, Professor Garrigan said: “Home needs to be seen instead as an outward-facing disposition, an ‘openness to the Other’”. Professor Garrigan added that “Christian theology has many resources to help us do this” and she illustrated the talk with an analysis of one particular native ritual, the lighting of a candle on one’s windowsill Christmas Eve to welcome the stranger, Christ, roaming the world. The significance of this ritual Professor Garrigan explained is that it casts us as potential bearers of the Divine home, because “… it is said, Christ roams the world looking for a place to make his home. Moreover, s/he will come in the guise of a stranger, and so will need a signal of welcome from you in order to approach.”

The new professor also spoke about how home matters in Christian terms. “It is an affirmation of our place in this world and of God’s desire to make God’s home right here, right now among us; but, it is home for the Other. For the one yet to come. What I have then, in terms of material effects, or familial love, or societal bonds I have only with a light in their window, in readiness to give away, in openness to the Other.”

Professor Garrigan’s inaugural lecture expanded on an earlier talk at the launch of the Association of Catholics in Ireland in which she called for a new vision of what ‘Catholic’ means for the Catholic Church. “It should be about being open, critical, sacramental, loving witnesses to God’s presence in our world and that means speaking up on major political issues, such as homelessness.”

Professor Garrigan was previously the first director of the second Emmaus House, an intentional community for people who are homeless in the UK. She comes to Trinity after three years teaching at the University of Exeter and eight before that at Yale University.

The Loyola Chair is the cornerstone of the Loyola Institute at Trinity College. It is an academic unit within the Confederal School for Religions, Peace Studies and Theology, and provides teaching and research in all aspects of theology in the Catholic tradition.