Homily of Bishop of Limerick Dr Donal Murray at requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II in St John’s Cathedral Limerick at 7.30pm Thursday 7th April 2005

07 Apr 2005


7 APRIL 2005




We gather to pray for Pope John Paul and to give thanks for all that God has
done through his ministry as Pope.  It is not an occasion for attempting to
catalogue the highlights and achievements of his remarkable pontificate,
which, no doubt, people will be trying to do for many decades to come. It
is a moment to pray for him and to reflect on his life and his death.

Over twenty years ago, he wrote about the nature of suffering and said that,
when a person’s body “is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person
almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and
spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those
who are healthy…” (Salvifici Doloris 26).

The final years of his life, and particularly recent months, added particular
poignancy to those words as we watched him face his own grave illness and
incapacitation.  He believed and lived what he had written – that suffering
is transformed by Christ, not from outside but from within (cf. Salvifici
Doloris 26). Christ does not abolish suffering; he shows that far from being
something to be merely endured with helpless despondency, it can be a powerful
and eloquent expression of love.

In his dying, Pope John Paul was still seeking to exercise his ministry of
teaching.  He never became merely a patient, having things done for him. We
will not forget the images of him at his window blessing and trying to speak
to the crowds in the last week of his life.

He had always stressed that suffering, death and injustice and disadvantage
are not simply events that happen to us.  The fact that we are constricted
and confined does not mean that we cease to be free. We remain free human
beings; our dignity is not at the mercy of other people nor are we simply
tossed around by external forces. We choose how we will respond to events
and what they will mean in our lives.  Christ, helpless and agonised on
the Cross, was also at the same time completely free; he was freely
expressing unlimited, infinite love: “The Crucified Christ reveals the
authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully, in the total gift of
himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom” (Veritatis
Splendor 85). Pope John Paul often pointed to the example of the martyrs,
whose options could hardly have been more limited – deny your faith or
die. But they affirmed their freedom and their dignity in the most eloquent
way, by freely choosing to die for their belief.  That is the full meaning
of freedom – it is our ability to give ourselves in service of God and of
all our brothers and sisters (cf. Veritatis Splendor 87).

What Pope John Paul was expressing was part of a broader message which
applies not only in sickness and in persecution, but in every situation
that restricts and diminishes us.  It was the message that he repeated
again and again to his Polish compatriots under Communist rule both
before and after his election as Pope: ‘Do not let yourself be defined
and limited and enslaved by what your oppressors think of you or do to
you; you are free human beings with a dignity that no one can take from
you’. He saw the full meaning of that dignity in the light of the Gospel.
There we see what our Creator and Redeemer has made us, what God calls
us to be. That gives rise to deep wonder and amazement at God and at
ourselves (Redemptor Hominis 10).

His experience of Nazi occupation and communist oppression made him acutely
aware of the importance of believing in the dignity we have as human beings,
however bad the situation. Indeed the more challenging the circumstances,
the more urgent the call to value the truth and wonder of human dignity.  
In all of his ministry as Pope he was a shepherd who brought that message
to the weak, the lost, the straying, the wounded, and indeed to the fat
and strong: our essential dignity and task is to exercise our responsibility
by putting people before things, putting morality before technology, putting
spirit before matter.  Human persons ‘cannot become the slave of things,
the slave of economic systems, the slave of production, the slave of (our)
own products” (Redemptor Hominis 16).  He put that challenge to the million
young people, including some from Limerick, who gathered in Toronto in 2002:
“Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian
regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no
difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope
that springs eternal in the hearts of the young.  You are our hope; the
young are our hope” (Homily at Closing Mass, 28 July 2002)

If we simply allowed others to shape and control us and our society, we
would be abandoning our own responsibility. When speaking about the way
that sin can affect the society and the world in which we live, he referred,
in a powerful phrase, to the sinfulness ‘of those who take refuge in the
supposed impossibility of changing the world’ (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia
16). In other words, one of the most harmful kinds of sin is to yield to
the temptation of thinking that nothing can be done.  We are always free;
we can always decide how we will respond.  What changes our helplessness
into strength is the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge.  “Christ…
is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that
suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit”
(Salvifici Doloris 26).  When we are in union with Christ, we are united
to the One who has revealed to us the love which is more powerful than
death and more powerful than evil (cf. Dives in Misericordia 8).

I am sure that in Pope John Paul’s mind the conviction that we should
never lose hope, never abandon our responsibility, was reinforced by the
Gospel passage we have just heard.  Peter no doubt felt that his betrayal
of Jesus had disqualified him from any further part in the mission that
the risen Lord would give his disciples.  But, instead, he is called to
be the leader of the apostles, to be the first in the long line of which
John Paul II is the latest. And the way in which that call was given to
him was that Jesus put a clear choice to him: ‘Do you love me?’

Pope John Paul put a choice to us over a quarter of a century ago on a
glorious day in the history of Limerick: “Ireland must choose”, he said,
“This is a time of decision”.  He saw that we were already in a time of
testing. The trends that have grown so sharply and painfully in recent
years had already begun to be evident – the decline in priestly and
religious vocations, the decline in religious practice, the realisation
that Irish society is no longer as religious as it was.  He was far from
being under the impression that the situation in Ireland was rosy. He
quite firmly alerted us to the danger that we might follow ‘the way that
many nations have gone, giving excessive importance to economic growth
and material possessions, while neglecting the things of the spirit’.
‘What would it profit Ireland’, he asked, ‘to go the easy way of the
world and suffer the loss of her own soul?’

Perhaps many of us seeing the trends around us are tempted to believe
that the decline in religious commitment and practice is irreversible
and that ‘there is nothing we can do’. Perhaps, like Peter after his
betrayal, we might feel that we are too weak and flawed to make a
difference. I have no doubt that Pope John Paul would want to tell
us that taking refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the
world is a sinful surrender.  He would say to us what he said a quarter
of a century ago: “Ireland must choose.”

Our weakness is changed into strength because, despite any trends or
appearances, when we seek to follow Christ, when we seek to respect
the face of Christ reflected in our brothers and sisters, when we try
to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, we are offering
ourselves to be part of the only utterly invincible force in the world
– the plan of the all-powerful God to unite all things in Christ, things
in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1:10).

In his homily at the Mass which began his ministry as Pope, John Paul
II spoke of the confidence that comes from recognising Christ at work
in our lives and in our world: “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid
to welcome Christ and to accept his power… Open wide the doors for Christ.
To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political
systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development.  Do
not be afraid.”

He was conscious that how we use our freedom affects the society we live
in; but he also knew that it determines the meaning we give to our own
lives. When we choose, when we use our freedom, we do not simply decide
to do something; we make a decision about ourselves and about where we
want to seek the meaning of our lives. By our free choices we set our
life “for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately
for or against God” (Veritatis Splendor  65, cf 71).  In his death as in
his life, Pope John Paul challenged us to choose what is good and true
and to set our lives for God.  If we choose to direct our lives to lesser
goals, to affluence or prestige or power, as if they could provide the
meaning of life, our freedom destroys itself and we become slaves our
own illusions and lack of vision.

Two years before he became Pope, he pointed out that even though people
do not choose to die, and we do not choose the manner and time of our
death, ‘nonetheless by choosing his own way of life, (a person) does
in a way choose his own death too’ (Wojtyla Karol, Sign of Contradiction,
Chapman, London 1979, p.161).  Death becomes a ratification of the life
that a person has lived and of the choices that he or she has made.

Each person, and a Pope is no exception, faces death with trepidation.  
The document of Vatican II with which he was most associated speaks of
‘the dread of forever ceasing to exist’ which leads every human being to
‘rebel against death’.  But that very fear tells us how utterly valuable
life is. It tells us that we bear within ourselves ‘the seed of eternity’
(Gaudium et Spes 18).  And our faith tells us that however much we may
rebel against death, the real truth is that we are in exile from the
Lord and that death is a homecoming if we have used our freedom as a
choice for the Good, for the Truth and for God.

Pope John Paul II now returns to the house of our Father, making that
journey to eternity which we all must one day make. He brings with him
the choices by which he tried to set his life for the Good for the Truth
and for God.  We pray for him that he who worked so tirelessly, who taught
so profoundly, who led so perceptively, who reached out to so many,
especially those who suffer, who ceaselessly worked and prayed for
peace and justice, and who visited and inspired us here in Limerick,
may now enter into the joy of his Lord and see in that new life the
fulfilment beyond all imagination and expectation of the words with
which he bade farewell to Limerick: Slán go deo le brón is buairt –
and that he may be filled with all the fullness of God.

+Donal Murray
Bishop of Limerick