Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary for the Annual Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick 2003

25 Jul 2003


25 July 2003

Issued by the Catholic Communications Office on behalf of the Archdiocese of Tuam



Strictly embargoed until 12.00 noon on Saturday 26th July 2003


This is the year when our attention is drawn to the world’s highest mountain, to Mount
Everest in the Himalayas. Fifty years ago that peak was first conquered by Hilary and
Tensing. Others, including the Irish, have made it to the top ever since. Mountains
have always presented a challenge to those who live in the valleys. Men and women have
risked their lives down the years to stand at the mountain top and look back at a distant
landscape. Today we approach a less intimidating mountain here in Mayo and as we set
out we are not just trying to reach the Reek top but at the same time we search for
something deeper and more elusive. Each year, here, we are presented with a fresh
challenge as life throws up new problems and new dilemmas. We come to the mountain
top to clear our vision, to discern a path for the future and discover what we should
do when we come back down again.

When we look down from this mountain, we can pick out the spires and the church buildings
which stretch from Achill away to the East and to the islands which punctuate the Atlantic.
In years past we knew that each parish had its own resident priest and each parish held
its own pride in its native sons and daughters, in its football or hurling teams, its
drama groups and in its history. Now the scene has changed totally. Population decline
combined with shortage of vocations results in many of those parishes having no resident
priest while old identities are dying.

Year after year now, dioceses throughout Ireland are keenly aware of the falling number
of priests and students for the priesthood while convents, which were the centers of
education for so many, are closing their doors. This surely prompts us to have a fresh
look at the challenges of tomorrow.

For years, the parish was run and managed by the priest with a few voluntary lay people
while the majority were content to be passive congregations who were happy to live out
their lives in the faith of the church from the day of baptism to the day of death.
There was a priest at the altar, a priest in the confessional, a priest to bless the
rings. There was a priest at the bedside with the oil for anointing, and a priest to
trowel the clay over the coffin laid to rest. Church leaders could have been forgiven
for thinking that this would last forever. Now the stark reality is staring us in the
face. These days, for the foreseeable future, are gone. Why is it that most young
people are no longer attracted towards the priesthood or religious life? Is it that
people have grown selfish? Has the spirit of adventure slipped away? Have the young
been seduced by the affluence of today’s Ireland? Have they been deeply affected by
the scandals of recent years? Has the notion of service disappeared from our land?
I think not. We have only to look back at the way this country hosted the Special
Olympics. Towns, villages and local communities across the country reached out in
generosity while 30,000 volunteers made the games a source of pride. The great goodwill
is there. As a Church we are challenged to harness anew that willingness and great

John Hunt, a man who led the Everest expedition fifty years ago reminded the world press
at the time that the mountain was just not conquered by the two men who stood on the peak
but by the entire team who were their support from the time they took their first steps

Pope John Paul in a letter for the new millennium in 2000 highlighted the need for “new
forms of association, traditional and newer church movements which would give the church
a vitality that is God’s gift in a new spring time of the spirit”. Today the call goes
out from our parishes asking you to step forward, for you are part of the “priesthood of
the laity of all believers” which was so strongly reaffirmed as far back as the second
Vatican Council. The renewal of the church in Ireland cannot depend upon the efforts
of bishops and priests alone but on the renewal, energy and commitment which lay people
can bring to every parish in Ireland.

The prophet Isaiah had this to say: “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills………….Many people
shall come and say “come let us climb the Lord’s mountain” (Isaiah Ch.2). Many lay
people in our Archdiocese of Tuam and in others dioceses have begun that climb already.
Their work of service to the poor, to the sick, to the housebound rarely makes the
headlines. Many bind up wounds of body and mind but now the Christian communities
call for more. All baptised Christians carry a responsibility to share their faith.
Many are afraid to take that further step and yet Pope John Paul constantly reminds
us that holiness is not the preserve of the few and should not be thought of as
“something outside the boundaries of ordinary life but within the ordinary everyday
experiences in which you find yourselves, at home, in the parish, in the work place,
at school and in the playing field”.

It is clear that we cannot live on our past history. We cannot thrive on a theology
which is rooted only in the past. We need to turn to God for guidance. Whatever the
reluctance or the fear we should call out in the words of Psalm 121: “I lift up my
eyes to the mountains from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord
who made Heaven and Earth”.

As we face this mountain of Croagh Patrick today we may see it as a symbol of a greater
challenge, the challenge to make the Irish Church a more vibrant one, born both from the
tradition of the past and the powerful energy of parishes like your own. We can remember
the old ruins of houses from which families had to take the emigrant boat in the past.
Thatched roofs fell down on empty fireplaces which one day echoed to the dancing fiddle.
We cannot allow that to be a symbol of the local church in years to come. The exciting
challenge for all of us is to strengthen, develop and renew our church in a changed and
changing Ireland, especially at parish level.

Cardinal Newman often said that “in all times the laity have been the measure of the church”.
May we look down from this sacred mountain and see with clearer vision the exciting task
and challenge ahead.

+Michael Neary
Archbishop of Tuam


25 July 2003

Further information:

Catholic Communications Office: 01 505 3000
Fr Martin Clarke: 087 220 8044