Homily Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio
Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, Apostolate of Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a real joy and a privilege for me to be with you this afternoon here at the shrine of Our Lady of Knock, for the pilgrimage of the Apostolate of Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration. It is truly good to be here (cf. Mt 17:4). Since my arrival in Ireland some fourteen months ago, I have made several visits to this holy and renowned place. My first visit as Nuncio was less than a week after arriving in Ireland, in February 2012, and since that first experience, I have become ever more convinced that the renewal of the Church in Ireland is, in a profound way, connected to this place of pilgrimage and to everything that it represents. All of us know well the history of Knock; how in 1879 Our Lady appeared to simple people gathered in prayer outside the parish church, to comfort and console them in their struggles and difficulties. Ireland in 1879 was a difficult place. The effects of the famine thirty years before were still felt sharply in the lives of the people. The countryside, especially here in the West, had been depopulated; hundreds of thousands of people had died or had emigrated, and in 1879 it seemed very likely that the famine might return. And so, it was in those challenging and frightening circumstance that she appeared – to comfort and to sustain the faith of her people by her maternal and loving presence.
The apparition of Knock is somewhat unusual for the fact that Our Lady did not speak. Rather we can say that, instead of speaking, she opened the eyes of those who were present that day to see what our physical eyes do not normally see – a vision not unlike the one given to the Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, on the Island of Patmos, a revelation of heaven, a vision of the ceaseless act of adoration, which is what heaven will be. At the centre of Saint John’s vision, recounted in the Book of the Apocalypse, is the Lamb “who seemed to have been slain” (Rev 5:6), that is, with his wounds still visible, surrounded by countless angels and by the symbolic figure of 144,000 redeemed people, coming “from every race and tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). Here at Knock, the symbolic 144,000 are represented by just three of the redeemed, three saints: Our Lady, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Beloved Disciple himself. And here too, as in the vision of Saint John in the Book of the Apocalypse, at the centre is the Lamb, Christ our Lord and our God (cf. Jn 20:28); the Lamb upon the altar; the Lamb of sacrifice. The apparition here at Knock is, as I have said, a vision of heaven, and in that vision, the presence of the altar is very significant. The altar, on which the Lamb is standing, connects the realty of heaven – the “life of the world to come,” as we profess ever Sunday in the final words of the Creed – with earth. The presence of the altar in the apparition here at Knock links heaven and earth. And that connection is in and through the Mass. The ceaseless act of worship, which is what heaven will be, already begins for us as Catholics here on this earth in the celebration of the Holy Mass. In Holy Mass, we, as baptized Christians, are drawn into the heavenly liturgy of the saints and angels. Our elevation into the adoration of heaven becomes very explicit in the Mass at the end of the Preface prayed by the priest, the prayer which leads us into the “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Each of the different Prefaces always concludes with some reference to all the angels and saints of heaven and to their unending hymn of praise to God, and then we too here on earth truly join them in their song of adoration of the Thrice-Holy God: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…” This is the hymn of the angels, which becomes our hymn here on earth. The Mass is our act of adoration in which we are united with the Lamb who offers himself to the Father for us.
It is important for us to see the centrality of the Mass as the principal act of adoration of the Church, because the beautiful and worthy apostolate in which all of you are involved, that is, the Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration is intrinsically connected to the Mass (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 66). It flows from the Mass and leads back to the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI designated this year as a Year of Faith; the Eucharist is the mystery of faith, the fact that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic adoration is, like the Mass itself, an act of faith. We adore because we believe that he is really present, and through our adoration our faith increases. As I mentioned earlier, when we think of Ireland in 1879 at the time of the apparition here in Knock, we remember that Catholics faced considerable challenges. But they held fast to what was most important, namely their Catholic faith. Our time has its own challenges. In my view the greatest challenge in our own age is the erosion of faith. Eucharistic adoration can be seen as the antidote, the remedy, both personal and communal, to the weakening of faith. We adore because we believe. The crisis of faith may be a distinctively modern or postmodern problem, but we see it as well in the Gospel that we have heard proclaimed today. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, which we have been reading at daily Mass all this week, Jesus teaches his followers about the Eucharist, the bread of life, and, as we heard today, many of those who had been following him said “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” (Jn 6:60). We ourselves in our own time hear the same thing said about the Catholic faith: “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” And Jesus says the same thing to us today that he said to his Apostles in the Gospel: “What about you, do you want to go away too?” Our response has to be the response of Saint Peter, who as the first of the Apostles, speaks for all of them and for all of us: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and we know that you are the Holy one of God.” In adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, we put these words into practice; “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life”. In adoration, we recognize that the Lord is here in our midst and that he is the Holy One of God.
A beautiful way of entering into adoration of the Eucharist is to open the Gospels and read slowly and meditatively his words while being in his presence. When we do that, Jesus truly speaks to us “the words of eternal life,” because the Gospel is not a dead letter or even a just book of history; the Gospel is a living word which speaks directly to the heart of the person in adoration. The beautiful experience of adoration increases our faith and it also increases our love. There are so many fruits of Eucharistic adoration; vocations to the priesthood and religious life flourish when there is adoration. Adoration should also lead us to a greater love of our brothers and sisters, especially those who are most forgotten, marginalized; the poor, the elderly, unborn children in their mothers’ womb.
And finally adoration leads to joy. Our Holy Father Pope Francis has spoken so powerfully about the joy that comes from following Christ. The words of Pope Francis on Palm Sunday in Saint Peter’s Square express this joy so powerfully: “Jesus is God, but he lowered himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother. He illumines our path here [on this earth]. And in this way we have welcomed him today. And here the first word that I wish to say to you: joy! Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst; it is born from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! And in this moment the enemy, the devil, comes, often disguised as an angel, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us follow Jesus! We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders. This is our joy, this is the hope that we must bring to this world” (Pope Francis, Homily for Palm Sunday, 24 March 2103).
My brothers and sisters, how many saints in the history of the Church found their joy and their strength in Eucharistic adoration. We need to follow the same path. Let us ask Our Lady, who opened the eyes of the visionaries here at Knock to see the reality of Christ on the altar, to open our own eyes through a progressive deepening of our faith. That is the way forward for the Catholic Church in Ireland. And so, we will make our own the words of Saint Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68).