Archbishop Michael Neary’s homily for Knock Novena – “The joy of following Christ”

21 Aug 2007


21st August 2007

Archbishop Neary’s homily for Knock – “The joy of following Christ”

“Mary is the first Christian Disciple … [and] as a role model will never become outdated” – Archbishop Neary

The Archbishop of Tuam, Archbishop Michael Neary, has delivered a sermon at the Knock Shrine on the theme: “The Joy of Following Christ” as part of the 2007 National Novena. Knock is Ireland’s National Marian Shrine and is visited by over one and a half million pilgrims annually. During his sermon, Archbishop Neary said:

There is a certain restlessness quite rampant in our country today. Parents find themselves under pressure as they struggle to provide a good education for their families. Many become disillusioned when they witness their sons and daughters dismiss the standards and values which they had held dear. What parent does not dread the knock on the door which brings news of the tragic accident?

These are the things which get highlighted in the media. Yet in spite of all that there is so much that is positive and good taking place. It may be neighbourliness, involvement in community and parish projects, support for noble causes, participation in Church activities, helping to form the young.

Role models exert an extraordinary influence, whether in the world of music or sport, and determine what is cool to wear and how we ought to react. I do not wish to dismiss these role models; they are important but it is interesting to note their limited lifespan. Their sell-by date catches up rather quickly with them. Perhaps our need for role models indicates that our age, like all the generations that have gone before us, is searching for someone who is worth following, who will put a song in our hearts and fulfil our deepest longings. This search in intimately connected with faith. In the bible, faith and following go together.

Sometimes the language which we use to describe faith and our relationship with God can be cold and clinical, lacking in warmth and understanding. In the last lecture of his life, a great theologian speaking of faith used a parable that he had written about many times before. If you want to understand faith, he said, ponder the first smile of a new-born infant. Mothers tell us that the first smile does not really happen until into the second month. The theologian talked about it as a first act of freedom, born from being loved by the mother. When the first smile comes, what is it saying? Long before verbal communication, the first smile is saying something like: “I recognise that I am loved”. And that is the core of Christian faith.

Mary at Knock
This evening I want to focus on a central theme of faith, following Christ with Mary at Knock. Faith is fraught with challenge and becomes evident in crises. Mary is present at crisis moments in the scriptures – at the Annunication, the birth; Cana, Calvary and Pentecost.

Mary’s Apparition here at Knock, 128 years ago on this day, was very much in keeping with her presence at crisis moments in the New Testament. Dejected and dispirited at the time of the Apparition, the people had suffered great deprivation and starvation during the famine. Mary’s apparition was an acknowledgement by God of the human cries of the people. The apparition with St. Joseph, St. John and the Lamb of Sacrifice on the altar provided hope and encouragement for the people in their suffering. That is history but it helps us to interpret Mary’s message at Knock for us today.

As the one who was the recipient of the first smile of Jesus, Mary must surely be the one who was particularly equipped to follow Christ. Mary is the first Christian Disciple. St Augustine underlines the fact that doing the will of God is of greater value even than being the Mother of Jesus. He says: “Mary’s relationship as mother would have been no profit to her, had she not more joyfully borne Christ in her heart than in her body”. Time and again Luke gives us Mary as the woman who hears the word of God and keeps it, puts it into practice. She is a model for the Christian disciple and provides a challenge for us.

Mary and the Eucharist
Mary at Knock today invites, encourages and inspires us to follow Christ. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, the late Pope John Paul II referred to Mary as a “woman of the Eucharist” in her whole life. Her apparition at Knock has a very pronounced Eucharistic flavour. She is in the presence of the altar on which is standing the Lamb of God with the cross of Calvary in the background. The apparition is a silent one.

Silent adoration is the appropriate response when faced with mystery. There is a great dignity in silence. In our own experience of being with and trying to support people in tragedy, very few words are spoken. It is the reassuring presence that provides the support. Mary’s presence, whether then or now is a pointer. It is in this context that we situate her presence at Knock. Mary always points to her Son and leads others to him: at Cana as the one who transforms crisis into celebration; at Lourdes as the healer of brokenness; and at Knock as the Eucharistic Lamb who satisfies our deepest hunger.

Mary at Knock – Solidarity with people in their crises
Consider the deprivation and loss of hope that followed the famine, the terrible suffering of the people of the time as the countryside was strewn with reminders of death. It was a time of crisis, calling for a reassuring presence to which people could respond in faith. Mary sensed the deep pain of a suffering people. She is present in solidarity with us today as we come on pilgrimage, wounded, worried, hurt and helpless.

How do we cope with crises today, with experiences of the eclipse of God? At times of loss, broken relationships, betrayal, disappointment, disillusionment? Times when we feel God is not listening, when God does not respond to our prayers in the way we had hoped? Does this lead to sadness and distrust in God? Does the apparent silence of God wear us down? How different is the reaction of Mary. She knew God does not deceive, that He has a heart bigger than hers.

Hope and Joy.

Our age today is in urgent need of the great hope that God never disappoints, that God never deserts us. Mary’s words to the stewards at Cana “Do whatever he tells you” indicate that God is always present to us. Isn’t this what we need to hear today as we totter on the verge of disillusionment and perhaps despair. When we feel we have made mistakes and feel trapped with no one to whom we can turn? Mary’s reaction provides direction, and whether at Cana or at Knock, cuts through an excessive theoretical and talkative spirit which is so prevalent in our culture and even in our Church today. At Cana Mary noticed that there was no wine, no joy. She noticed because she already had this joy in her own heart so she has a unique sensibility to where it is not present. There is an intimate link between joy and hope.

Here at Knock Mary recognises the human hungers which we her children experience, for love, acceptance, understanding, reassurance, trust, hope and joy. Without speaking a word, her silent adoration in the direction of the Eucharistic Lamb on the Altar points us towards the Eucharist where each of us is forgiven, welcomed, understood, accepted and given a dignity which we cannot find elsewhere.

When we have joy in their hearts we realise that we are under God’s protection; like the infant we can smile and rejoice even under present suffering. Once we are convinced of God’s love for us then we no longer have to conform to the changing winds of the prevailing culture or to the politically correct. Joy is related to peace, courage and hope.

At Knock Mary provides direction for us today, inviting us to come and adore Christ in the Eucharist. With the Eucharist as the focal point in life we have a firm anchor and can rearrange everything around it and with reference to it. We will experience the truth of the words of the apostle Paul: “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (Romans 8:39). This is what we need to hear today in the midst of the din of discordant voices who wish to relegate God to the circumference of life and dismiss Christian faith and values as old fashioned and outmoded in a technological society. In a very special way Mary at Knock is a woman of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is for wounded people and broken hearts. St Paul who was the first to write about the Eucharist underlines that fact, reminding us that it was on the night he was betrayed that Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke it and gave it. In the Eucharist Jesus draws our brokenness, in whatever form, into Himself so that the Eucharist becomes an opportunity for healing and hope, whether in our individual, family, community, parish or cultural situations. The transformation, which takes place as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, is a pointer to the transformation that Christ brings about in us. Our anxieties, worries, frustrations and failure no longer weigh us down but are transformed by Jesus Christ in a way that provides us with healing, hope, courage and joy so that we can face a new future.

This is where Mary at Knock beckons us as she invites and encourages us to avail of, be surrounded and supported by the free, unconditional and transforming love of her son Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Role models may come and go, but the role model that is the Mother of God knows where true and lasting peace and joy will be found. In that respect Mary as role model will never become outdated.

Further information:
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan Communications Officer (086 817 5674)