Homily of Bishop Philip Boyce at the National Novena in Honour of Our Lady, Knock Shrine
Homily of Bishop Philip Boyce, O.C.D., Bishop of Raphoe
Given at Knock Shrine, on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August 2009
“Sickness and suffering are often very difficult to understand. We tend to ask: Why me?” Bishop Philip Boyce
Hope for the Sick and the Suffering
“Let us rejoice in the Lord and celebrate this feast in honour of the Virgin Mary, at whose assumption the angels rejoice, giving praise to the Son of God” (Entrance Antiphon). Before leaving his Apostles, Jesus promised that He would prepare a place for them, that He would come again and take them to himself, so that where He was, they might be also (cf. Jn 14:3). As we celebrate today’s feast of the Assumption, we contemplate how this promise was fulfilled for Christ’s own mother. He took not only her soul but also her body to heaven. As we read in the Catechism: “The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things” (No 966). It is good to have a friend in the King’s court, even better to have a loving Mother.
This is the reason for our hope and our joy today. Mary is a pledge of the fulfilment of Christ’s promise to take us to himself. Her Assumption is truly for us “a sign of sure hope and consolation” (Vat II. Lumen Gentium, No. 68). The Church even declares this day to be a Holy Day of Obligation so that we take the time to be present at Mass and praise God for all He has done for Mary. We are reminded of the destiny to which we are called, namely, to gain victory over sin and death, to live forever in happiness and perfect fulfilment with God. For we are all pilgrims, seeking “the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). The Blessed Virgin has reached that goal already. She is the perfect woman in whom God’s plan for our salvation is already completely fulfilled. She is the masterpiece of his creation. The Assumption was a fitting conclusion to the holiness and sinlessness of her life.
Today’s feast then raises our minds to heaven. We might be tempted to ask, where is heaven? Or, what is heaven? Instinctively, we look upwards, but heaven is not simply the skies or the firmament with the sun and the stars. “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme definitive happiness” (CCC 1024). It transcends all that we can see or touch. It is a state of joyful union with God, where we will be amazed at the sight of divine beauty, where the joy of the Lord will enter our soul and give us peace. God will be with those who enter heaven; they shall see him as He is, in a beatific vision. God himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things (of this life shall) have passed away” (Rev 21:4). The Lamb of God “standing as though slain will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water” (Rev 5:6; 7:17).
And we are reminded of the Apparition scene in Knock: the Lamb standing on the altar, the hovering angels, Our Lady and the Saints in adoration.
To this heaven the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed. We rejoice today in her everlasting reward. Never having sinned, her body was kept free from corruption. What took her life in the end was the ardent love that burned in her heart. She died from love. She gave Christ, her Son and God, all that she had, refusing him nothing, always obeying his will. What dignity could be too great for her since she was so closely associated with the eternal Son of God during his life on earth? And so it was fitting that she should be assumed body and soul into heaven when her life here below came to an end.
Knock a place of hope
We understand then why the Shrine at Knock is a place of sure hope for the Sick and the Suffering. Our Lady, Health of the Sick and Comforter of the Afflicted, knows how to introduce each sick pilgrim into the presence of her Son who never refuses her what is best for her children. It may be a cure that might seem to us miraculous, or it may be (more precious perhaps) the grace of inner peace, the strength to bear the cross of illness or the gift of loving union with Christ in his redemptive sufferings. To receive the gift of his peace, of his joy, of his consolation, is indeed precious beyond words.
Proof that Knock Shrine is a place of hope for the sick and needy is the constant stream of pilgrims that return in their hundreds of thousands each year. They carry in their hearts a secret of divine favours received through Mary’s intercession, be it strength to bear the cross and burdens of life, gratitude for a weight of sorrow lifted off their minds, the grace of conversion for themselves or for others, remission of disease, or hope rekindled in the heart.
Sickness and suffering are often very difficult to understand. We tend to ask: Why me? Why this cross, this sickness? We all admit we have to bear the crosses of life, but we never seem to be given the right one, the one we could manage. The one that is our lot seems to be unbearable. Any other one would seem to be better. But we have to admit that if we got one we could bear with, one that suited us better, it would cease to be a cross. We would not have to rely on the Lord Jesus any more and on his Blessed Mother: We could carry it on our own. If we refuse a cross that hurts, would we accept any cross?
Even Our Lady did not understand the crosses and sorrows that afflicted her heart during her life. She did not understand why her Son left her and St Joseph, and let them look for him anxiously for three days. She did not understand Simeon’s prophecy of a sword of sorrow that would pierce her heart. She could not fully understand the Passion and death of her Son. But she pondered them in her heart and kept on hoping against hope.
We see that her faith did not remove the pain of suffering. Nor is our faith, no matter how strong, an anaesthetic that prevents us from feeling all pain and fear. A holy lady, who was no stranger to sickness, puts it this way: “The cross of the Lord, carried in faith, does not break, it strengthens. Faith however does not transform earthly matters as such. Suffering remains painful, but faith gives it a new and deeper meaning, inviting us to strive for conformity with our Lord. Jesus, too, knew the anguish of suffering. The sweat of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane gives witness to his immense suffering, as does his plea: ‘If it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.’ Yet, He suffered in a spirit of full submission to his Father’s will, which enabled him to say, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’” (M. Julia, foundress of The Work).
At times, all we can know is that Christ himself, who was innocent and without fault, wished to share in our pain and weakness. He identified himself with it and gave it a higher meaning and value, so that, if illness and suffering are accepted in union with Him, they become sanctifying, they help to save ourselves and many others. As it is said in a Church document: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from his Gospel, they overwhelm us” (Vat. II, Gaudium et Spes, 22).
Perhaps this is why so many pilgrims, so many sick and infirm visit Shrines of Our Lady, why about a million and a half pilgrims come to Knock Shrine every year. Our Lady, Health of the Sick and Hope of Christians, leads them here to the healing presence of her Son, who gives our searching hearts a glimpse of ‘the reasons why’, and courage for the journey ahead.
Suffering transformed by love and hope
As Our Lord himself and his Blessed Mother suffered so much because their love was great, so must our weakness and suffering be transformed by love. The power of Christ’s love for us and of our love for Him will transform our suffering into love. In this way our love is increased through suffering and we are united more closely to our God. This gives us confidence and an unwavering hope. Jesus wants his Cross to transform all our suffering into love.
Around a person who is sick or suffering, there often arises an atmosphere of love and hope. There are acts of patience and gratitude by the sick person; there are countless acts of kindness and assistance by relatives, friends and carers. The love of Christ and neighbour is made visible. As the well-known French poet said: “Jesus came not to suppress suffering, nor to explain it, but to fill it with his presence” (Paul Claudel). Any Cross does make us turn more earnestly to Christ and implore the intercession of Mary, “our life, our sweetness and our hope”.
Many a pilgrim has received grace, courage, consolation and hope at Knock’s holy Shrine. It may have been in the chapel of the Apparitions, at the Blessing of the Blessed Sacrament, in the sacred silence of the Confessional or at the Anointing of the Sick. Around each pilgrim the faith of thousands of other pilgrims is being expressed in private and communal prayer. Mary leads each one to her Son and with full confidence repeats, as she said at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). This surely is a font of hope and peace.
Advice of Pope John Paul II
In conclusion, we cannot but recall the visit of Pope John Paul II to this Shrine at Knock – thirty years ago next month. In addressing the sick, he declared that “to love the sick is something that the Church has learned from Christ … Jesus calls upon the sick, upon everyone who suffers, to collaborate with him in the salvation of the world … You (the sick) are called to love with a special intensity. But remember that Our Blessed Mother, Mary, is close to you, just as she was close to Jesus at the foot of the Cross. And she will never leave you all alone.” Those were encouraging words.
Not very many years later, the same John Paul II had to tread the path of sickness and suffering himself. He gave the world a wonderful example of courageously bearing his debilitating cross, of keeping going and of doing what he could, and of unflagging hope in the intercession of Our Lady. On one occasion he addressed sick pilgrims with the words: “Dear suffering Brothers and Sisters”, and gave them three little pieces of advice that probably sprang from his own experience of sickness and suffering. The first was that whatever your suffering may be, accept it as it is without letting it control you and make you think your life is a failure. Secondly, go forward accepting it, knowing that the Lord can bring good from evil and that if it is accepted in faith, you will grow in serenity and hope. So be as active as you can in spite of sickness, using what strength and talents you have. Thirdly, offer it with love in union with Christ and you will do much good for the Church and for souls (15 August 1983).
For 130 years Our Lady has given hope to pilgrims at Knock. She has given encouragement in times of difficulties and trials, confidence and consolation and healing in days of sickness and pain. May she, the ‘Virgin of Hope and dawn of a new era’ be with each of us in our pilgrimage at Knock today on her great Feast day, and accompany us as we return home with a lighter step and a heart filled with that hope that does not deceive. Amen.
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678