Sunday, 27 September 2015
The theme of ‘Christ our Hope’ is an especially appropriate one for our National Eucharistic Congress which has been held here in Knock this weekend at the distance of some three years from the International Eucharistic Congress that took place in Dublin back in 2012. Our focus today is on hope – Christ our Hope – and I think it we can certainly say that the experience of the International Eucharistic Congress three years ago engendered a feeling of hope which continues to resonate in our own day and which is so tangible here this afternoon in this beautifully restored Basilica of Our Lady of Knock.
Christ is indeed our hope. It is he who leads us forward. So many times since I arrived in Ireland in January 2012, people have asked me about signs of hope. And I have always said that I see such signs in the Church of the Ireland of today. I have seen the vitality of young people in Catholic schools across Ireland. I have seen their parents’ strong commitment to Catholic schools. I have seen the dynamism of movements such as Youth 2000, Net Ministries, Pure in Heart, the Legion of Mary, Couples for Christ, Rise of the Roses, and so many others. I have been edified by the continuing faithfulness of women religious who have returned to Ireland after decades in the missions, and who now are praying for the Church in Ireland – and not just praying, but also working in many ways. I have seen the thousands of pilgrims who converge at this beautiful Shrine of Our Lady of Knock every weekend during the pilgrimage season. I have seen families at Sunday Mass all over Ireland, and met the priests who serve them so generously in their parishes. And we always have to remember that all of these hopeful signs are happening on an island with a Catholic population that is less than that of the Archdiocese of Milan in northern Italy, and is just slightly more than the Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Thirty-six years ago, in these late September days, a pilgrim came to Knock. His name was Karol Wojtyla, Saint John Paul II, and in his homily that day, he called on the Church in Ireland “to be open to the needs of humanity and at the same time to be unfailingly faithful to the unchanging message of Christ.” He reminded the pilgrims gathered here that “the task of renewal in Christ is never finished. Every generation, with its own mentality and characteristics, is like a new continent to be won for Christ. The Church must constantly look for new ways that will enable her to understand more profoundly and to carry out with renewed vigour the mission received from her Founder.” (John Paul II, Homily, 30 September 1979). His words, the words of a saint, are as true today as they were when he spoke them in this holy place on that September day. Indeed, every generation, with its own mentality and characteristics, is a new continent to be won for Christ. Every generation needs to encounter Christ, for history continually shows us that human life, when it is deprived of the transcendent, the spiritual, the eternal, the immutable, soon becomes oppressive and often unbearable. The human heart and mind are made for God, and without him, human life itself begins to wither into meaninglessness and despair, the opposite of hope. It is Jesus of Nazareth, God made man, who comes to us to call us out of that desperation and despair.
Certainly, in these days, are thoughts here in Knock are with Our Holy Father Pope Francis as he comes to the end of his Apostolic trip to the United States of America with a Mass today for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Saint John Paul II had said that every generation is a new continent to be won for Christ. Today, Pope Francis concludes his visit to a continent, a continent whose Catholic faith was shaped in no small part by the faith of Ireland. I couldn’t help noticing that last Thursday; Pope Francis’s itinerary spoke in an unintentional, but immensely eloquent way of the influence of the faith of Ireland in America; in the morning, he was in Washington, D.C. at a parish named for the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, where he met with homeless people and reminded us in no uncertain terms that “there is no justification whatsoever for lack of housing.” Then he got into a plane and flew to my own city of New York, where he went to celebrate Vespers in a Cathedral named for the same saint: Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The fact of the Pope visiting two churches in two different cities in America on a single day, both named for the Patron Saint of Ireland is just a small reminder to us of how the Catholic faith of Ireland contributed mightily to the evangelization of a new continent. Now, in our own time in Ireland, it is not a geographical continent which we are called to evangelize, but rather a generational continent, as Saint John Paul II said so prophetically when he was here at Knock during the last papal trip to Ireland thirty-six years ago.
I have mentioned signs of hope, and indeed there are such signs, but there are also immense challenges, arising from secularism and the scarcity of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Saint Paul assures us “…hope will not lead to disappointment, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5). But it is always important for us as Christians to remember and to reflect on where it is that we place our hope. Hope is not the same as humanistic optimism. Optimism comes from the Latin word optimus, meaning “the best,” and humanistic optimism is the view that things – on a human level – are always going to get better. Hope, on the other hand, necessarily implies faith in God. And we need always to understand that God’s ways are not our ways, and that ‘success’ in evangelization cannot be measured in human terms. In fact, that was part of Pope Francis’s message in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York last Thursday, where he spoke to priests and members of religious communities. Pope Francis said “We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. Not that these things are unimportant! We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us. But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion […] and, need I say, it calls for great humility. The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labours. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross” (Vespers, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 24 September 2015).
Hope then means seeing and evaluating things from God’s perspective, which for us means from the perspective of faith, and therefore it calls us – as Pope Francis says – to constant conversion. We need to be ever more converted to Christ.
When the new translation of Holy Mass was introduced a few years ago, there were a few people who were perplexed by the translation of the prayer which the priest says at the conclusion of the Our Father, and which speaks about hope. That prayer, which we had been used to after some forty years of repetition, was changed in our new translation of Mass, to read as follows: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.” This prayer, like so many prayers in the Mass, actually comes, in part, from Sacred Scripture, in this case from the Letter of Saint Paul to Titus where Saint Paul writes about waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ (cf. Tit 2:13). The prayer is prayed just before we come to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and it expresses the fact that the fulfilment of our hope, the completion of what we long for is still in the future. We have here no lasting city (cf. Heb 13:14). We are on pilgrimage to the house of the Father, to the Supper of the Lamb. As Saint Augustine says: “The entire life of a good Christian is an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he does come you may see and be fulfilled” (Tract 4 on the First Letter of St. John). And as Jesus teaches us so strongly in our Gospel today, whatever sacrifice we must make in order to attain that kingdom, that life of the world to come, is small in comparison with the joy that will be ours. That hope, that longing for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom does not, however, lessen our commitment to making this world a more human place. As the Second Vatican Council taught: “the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather must stimulate our concern for this one” (Gaudium et spes, 39). Every celebration of the Eucharist reflects a twofold reality – natural and supernatural: bread and wine are consecrated, both of which are “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” The Eucharist is only possible because of the human care for, and transformation of the natural order; wheat becomes bread; grapes become wine. That human transformation of what is natural then becomes the prerequisite for the supernatural transformation of what is human. Bread and wine become the Flesh and Blood of the Divine Saviour. This Eucharistic dynamic makes us realize once again, as Pope Francis has recently underlined in his Encyclical Letter Laudato Sì, how important it is for us to care for the natural order, the created order, the environmental order. It is a gift of God which becomes the point of contact with the Divine
Christ is our hope. Christ gives us the hope that does not disappoint us. He is the Son of the woman whom we also praise as “our life, our sweetness and our hope.” It is she who appeared in this place some one hundred and thirty-six years ago, to give hope to a struggling people. Let us pray to her today, asking her to intercede for Ireland and for us, as we seek to communicate the hope that is within us to a new generation of believers. Amen.
His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown is the Apostolic Nuncio in Ireland
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