Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary for the Annual Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick 2002
Jesus had a biblical reputation for taking to the mountains for it was there that he rested, reflected and prayed to the Father. Land speaks to us in many ways. The silent river valleys called to us in the past to settle there as the land was fertile and welcoming but the mountains always hold out a challenge and none more so, than this conical commanding mountain of Patrick in Mayo. It speaks of strength and solitude. It has been made holy by pilgrim people down the centuries who came here carrying their pain, their poverty, their hunger and their hopes to its difficult slopes.They came in all weathers and from many different eras in our country’s history and all the time they reached out and up… reached out to each other when the steps were laboured and reached up to God in the breaking light of dawn. In their tedious steps up the side of Croagh Patrick they felt in their hearts that the ascent of the people would be met by the descent of God.
This is what we feel on this July day. In the words of Pope John Paul “the cross which seems to rise up from the earth, in actual fact reaches down from heaven enfolding the universe in a divine embrace”. The cross we know in these days is “not on a green hill far away” but is planted on our earth, on our nation and in our parishes. It casts its grey shadow over us all. In days and nights of darkness we feel frightened and insecure. The old certainties are not there. We feel let down by Governments, by what we thought was the stable world of banking and commerce. We feel that the Church has been shaken to its roots in the revelation of its human face of sin. Are we, a people gathered here, a people who have climbed a mountain path and have come to a crossroads to find that the sign-post has been removed?
The ascent of this people will be met by the descent of God.To the wandering people of Israel in the desert, the same God came on Mount Sinai and promised if they would be his people, he would be their God, their guide, their strength and shepherd.Their bargain, their covenant would be that they would live by his law, his commandments. The same God is and will go on being our God under this sacred mountain in Mayo if we pledge again to be his people. We can no longer be honorary Christians, no longer sideline spectators as light grapples with darkness in a difficult age.
The Church which has suffered in recent years, perhaps more even than in the days of open persecution, is your Church and, as the early years of this century unfold, we will discover that all of us together will be better equipped and more willing to take on leadership of our local church community. The days of passive commitment are gone, the days when we thought to be a Catholic meant clocking in for Mass on a Sunday. Now we face the challenge of taking the teaching of Christ into every facet of life…… to the home…to the school…to work, to leisure, to the sick and dying, to the bereaved and the handicapped. By baptism we are called to minister. For too long ministry was seen as the preserve of the priest. He will continue to celebrate liturgies with the people of God but will spend many days empowering others in ministry. The concept may be startling and a new beginning but the God of Mount Sinai declared in the Book of Revelation “behold I make all things new”. Today we are part of that challenging renewal in which lay people, with their priests, accept responsibility for parish life.
When Jesus went to the mountains he sought a closer communion with the Father. Even in the day of glory at the transfiguration, a cloud overshadowed him. For all the beauty and splendour of the mountain top, he knew that he had to leave and to go down to where life was and, on another hill, on another day, to pay the price of loving and saving us in crucifixion. There is a sense of mystery and something mystical about a mountain top. The land with its problems we have left far below, the noises, the commerce and the cries of the world are out of earshot.
Perhaps on the mountain top, we have experienced a moment of total peace and tranquility, and like the apostles on Mount Tabor we too would want to cry out; “Lord, it is good for us to be here”, but we know that it is not enough to remain and marvel at the glory of God in Jesus on any mountain top. We must come down and go on.
Mountaineering is a sport for the young. It calls for great and unselfish teamwork where one climber is roped to the next for strength and safety. So often the lone climber will get lost and confused in the swirling mist and perish. In this year when the youth of the world will meet the Pope in Canada, they will be reminded by him again that by their companionship and enthusiastic teamwork they will become a new people of God for a new century. He has already written to them; “when the light fades or vanishes altogether we no longer see things as they really are. In the heart of the night we can feel frightened and insecure and we impatiently await the coming of the light of dawn. Young people it is up to you to be the sentinels of the morning (Isaiah 21, 11-12) who announced the coming of the son which is the risen Christ”.
Some say that this pilgrimage replaced an earlier pagan festival when the Celtic god Lugh was celebrated. This may be a sober reminder to us that if we let go of the God of our ancestors, the eyes of a new generation may turn to the shrine of another God we have dubbed … the tiger. As we turn to the challenge of the mountain and of life we call again to God in the words of Psalm 119 “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”.
Archbishop of Tuam
27 July 2002