Homily of Bishop Philip Boyce, OCD, for Raphoe Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine
Faith in difficult times
No one would deny that we are going through difficult times at present. Whether we consider our economic, our social or our religious situation, many people are being seriously challenged and are in trouble. Some have lost their employment or cannot get a job. The spectre of emigration has become a harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of young people. Others dread the date of the mortgage payment that arrives unfailingly and cripples their spirit. We have the new poor in our midst. Families who were comfortable or well-off a decade ago, are now doing their best simply to survive, and may well have to appeal at times for help from the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The Church in Ireland has seen the number of vocations falling dramatically, the attendance at Mass and the Sacraments noticeably reduced, with the effects of recent scandals and infidelities weighing heavily upon her. Young people, while retaining many good and generous qualities, are less interested in religion and find it very difficult to make long term commitments.
The pace of change has been mesmerising for many. New gadgets are continually coming on the market and advertised in the media. Middle aged or elderly generations have often given up the race, and are at sea in a new digital age, where they leave it all to their children and grandchildren. Despite so much social contact, loneliness affects many in the midst of the feverish pace of life.
There is no need to labour these points. They are self-evident in the changing scene of modern life and in the shifting sands of contemporary society. We live in a new and ever- changing culture, that is often impervious to traditional faith values. But is there something that does not change? Have there not always been upheavals in human society? For all we suffer from the downturn, we are immeasurably better off than our forefathers were in recent centuries. What kept them going and struggling against all odds? Was it the “hope that springs eternal in the human breast?” (cf. Alexander Pope) or was it their faith in God? Is there something that does not change?
The prophet of old said: “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal 3:6). The Son of God, when He came into our world, declared: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31). He who built his Church upon the solid rock promised that the gates of hell (that is, the powers of death) would not prevail against it (cf. Mt 16:16). In difficult times, faith issues into confident prayer and acceptance of God’s providential ways. As our Saviour in his Agony in the Garden of Olives prayed: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14:36). We are reminded of some old Irish mothers who in moments of extreme tragedy and loss would bend their head and say: “God’s will be done”. It is faith that saves and sustains us when we are hard pressed. In his first Encyclical Letter published a month ago, Pope Francis compares faith to a light in the darkness and says: “Once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim” (Lumen Fidei, No. 4).
However, faith is a gift and we have to be instructed in its content. St. Paul puts it as follows: “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Catechesis then is all important, both the catechesis of children and also of adults in order to explain the faith that is professed. Not that information about the faith is sufficient. Religious education has to touch the heart and become a personal conviction. However, learning what we believe and why we believe it, is a first step. We now have a National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland entitled Share the Good News. We also have the new Catechism. We could all get a copy of it especially of one of the shorter versions of it: the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the edition for young people called the Youcat, both of which are available in all book shops.
Apart from instruction in what we believe, we also have to live our faith and bear witness to the overriding love of Christ in our lives. We have all experienced in some way the love and presence of the Lord Jesus. The way we act, the decisions we make, the things we do and the things we would not do, all proclaim the Gospel and the truth of Christ in which we believe. We affirm each other and support each other in faith by the good lives we lead, by going to church and receiving the Sacraments, by going on pilgrimage to Knock or Lough Derg or Croagh Patrick, to Lourdes or Fatima, and in so far as we can to events like World Youth Day, that has just taken place in Rio de Janeiro.
In the difficult times we face, it is the whole Church that must give joyful witness to Christ. This work cannot be left to the ordained clergy. Blessed John Paul II told us when he was in Ireland in 1979: “Sometimes, lay men and women do not seem to appreciate to the full the dignity and the vocation that is theirs as lay people. No, there is no such thing as an “ordinary layman”, for all of you have been called to conversion through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As God’s holy people, you are called to fulfil your role in the evangelisation of the world” (The Pope in Ireland, Addresses and Homilies, pp. 76-77). Lay people, in virtue of their baptism and in the strength of the Spirit given in Confirmation have to permeate society with the leaven of the Gospel. In good times as in bad times they have to hold fast to the faith that was handed down for generations.
If that is not done, the chain of handing on the faith from the time of St. Patrick to the present will be broken. In such a scenario we could repeat the words spoken to us by Pope John Paul II in Limerick: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? What would it profit Ireland to go the easy way of the world and suffer the loss of her own soul” (Ibid., p. 77).
The word of Christ, the truth of the Gospel, the teaching of the Church must be preached. “Faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17) as Scripture says. But it has to come from people who are on fire with love for Christ. It has to come from enthusiastic hearts or it will not light the spark of faith in others. People are tired of listening in our modern culture. Images flash before their minds in rapid succession on TV screens, on Twitter and Facebook. Their concentration span is sharply reduced. Therefore, what is spoken has to be done with evident sincerity and conviction. Then it evangelises and spreads the Good News of salvation.
Not all are called upon to preach, but every believer has to communicate the faith by a lived witness of life. Pope Paul VI taught many years ago: “The first means of evangelisation is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbour with limitless zeal.” Then he added a phrase that became famous and is been often quoted: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, No 41).
You do not need to be an ordained minister to bear this living witness and exert this powerful attraction for good on others. Blessed John Henry Newman’s words can be used by all believers: “Make me preach Thee without preaching – not by words, but by my example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do – by my visible resemblance to Thy saints, and the evident fullness of the love which my heart bears to Thee” (Meditations and Devotions, p. 365).
Because we cannot take faith for granted in large sections of society, the then Pope Benedict XVI announced a “Year of Faith” which we are still living. The grace of this Year will help us not to let our lives as believers become tasteless or the light they radiate become dim. “This year of faith invites us to study and deepen our faith, to return to its daily practice if we have been careless or fallen away, to appreciate the priceless treasure it is, not to be afraid to stand up for it but to proclaim it by our words and deeds. In this way we are being evangelized and, in turn, we take our part in the ever continuing work of evangelising the world. Jesus Christ was himself the Good News of God, and “was the first and greatest evangeliser.”
We can situate faith in these times by knowing what we believe and being prepared and willing to explain to inquirers the reason for our belief and for our way of life. St. Peter says: “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pet. 3:15). However this is not a merely intellectual exercise.
It has also to be situated in daily life. Explaining the New Evangelisation, the then Pope Benedict said: “Today’s world needs people who proclaim and testify that it is Christ who teaches the art of living, the way of true happiness. (…) Today’s world needs people who speak to God, so as to be able to speak of God. And we must always remember that Jesus did not redeem the world with beautiful words … but with his suffering and his death. (…) It is only through men and women moulded by God’s presence that the word of God will continue its journey in the world, bearing its fruit. (15 October, 2011).
Faith at the difficult times in which we live is not a cheap grace but a costly one. Being and living as a Catholic Christian means letting our faith influence our daily conduct, our actions and decisions. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross every day and follow me” (Lk 9:23). In one way or another we shall have our share of suffering. If we remain true to our conscience and do what it tells us to be the morally right thing, then we will have in various situations, to swim against the tide of public opinion, to make choices that may cost us the loss of public esteem, or the loss of money or career. However, what possible human advantage or personal gain could be worthwhile choosing before our friendship with Christ and obedience to the voice of conscience?
Most of us are quite willing to say that we follow Christ, but when it comes down to choosing between Him and some earthly pleasure or promotion or personal interest, we can often hesitate to choose Christ and the teachings of his Church.
We see this illustrated in various ways in Christian life. Some believers remain firm and loyal to Christ even to the loss of career, of financial gain, even of life itself. The martyrs are the outstanding examples of this loyalty. They are good citizens of the State and loyal subjects of the king, but of Christ’s in the first place. They keep a clear conscience and with Christ who overcame the world of darkness and sin, they are victorious in the end.
Others may assert their faith, but when it comes to a hard decision, they love themselves and their own advantage even more. When they enter a situation of having to choose, they opt for career above conscience, for private gain above fidelity to the demands of faith. How true the words of the Lord remain throughout the ages: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Lk 9:24). It is a fact, then, that we do not always believe what we affirm; we believe only what we do.
Challenging times should not simply be seen as an obstacle to faith. They can also be stepping stones to a deeper faith, “for just as a dam forces the river to rise to a new level, our difficulties force us to rise to a new level of faith” (M. Quoist). It is this faith that has overcome the world and all falsehood and evil. May we continue to believe and trust in Him who is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Let us hold on to the faith of our fathers which is a sure light in difficult times. Pope Francis teaches us: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (Lumen Fidei, No 57). I am sure this has been the experience of many of the sick who come to this Shrine: maybe they receive not a spectacular healing, but in all probability the awareness of “an accompanying presence” that gives light and hope.
We are in Knock, the Shrine of Mary, the Mother of Faith, who was “blessed because she believed” (cf. Lk 1:45). This is holy ground, the spiritual centre of Ireland, a place of faith and hope for over 130 years. Here our faith is celebrated and proclaimed and reinvigorated. On the altar of the Apparition stands the Lamb, slain but victorious. The enemies of the Lord, as is written in the Book of Revelation, “will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with him are the called, the chosen and the faithful” (Rev 17:14). To us in these difficult times, he repeats the encouraging words: “It is I; do not be afraid. I have overcome the world” (cf Jn 6:20; 33).
Let us then proceed in the dark but sure light of faith, living that faith with gladness and with a quiet but visible enthusiasm, “glorifying the Lord by our life.”