A few weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Advent, we celebrated the beginning of the New Year in the Church calendar. Today, as a community of faith, we gather to give thanks for the past year and to mark the beginning of the New Year in the civil calendar. As Christians, we have an important contribution to make to Irish society and to this republic which, during the coming months, will commemorate the centenary of its proclamation.
It was Pope John Paul II who initiated the tradition of celebrating the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God as the World Peace Day. Mary gave birth to Jesus who, as St. Paul wrote “is our peace” (Eph. 2). He is the one who binds us together and breaks down the barriers between us.
“Peace” as Pope John Paul once commented “is the fruit of Solidarity”. As Christians, our own commitment to peace; to the healing of relationships and of memories, takes root in our experience of the solidarity of God, who has been born into our world. Pope Francis in his message for this year’s world peace day, reminds us, however, that indifference is one of the major challenges to peace. Nothing rubs salt into our wounds more than the feeling that nobody cares what is happening to us.
Looking back over 2015, two of the major challenges we have faced and which, to a large extent, still remain to be resolved, are the crisis of homelessness and the problem of flooding which has affected so many parts of our own diocese in recent weeks. On the international scene, the challenges are quite similar. We have the refugee crisis and the on-going challenge of protecting the future of the earth, which is our common home. There have always been refugees, of course but, at least in such large numbers, they have always been somewhere else. This time they are in Europe and it is not so easy to be indifferent.
I would like to think that people are becoming more aware that, especially with the quality of information available to us from so many sources, we cannot remain indifferent to any of these challenges, simply because they don’t touch us personally.
Today, we acknowledge that, as a society, we have a lot to do. I think it is also good to celebrate how much has been achieved during the past year, through the hard work of the naval service, the civil defence, the Red Cross and so many men and women both those who are working for local authorities and those who serve in a voluntary capacity. In recent weeks, in the context of a break-in at home, I became “known to the Gardai” and, in a more personal way came to understand the significance of someone who comes when you need help. This year also brought the stark reminder, with the death of Garda Golden in Co. Louth, that the Gardai never know what awaits them when they respond to a call. We pray for Garda Golden and his family.
Our Christian Faith should inspire us in particular to redouble our efforts serve the common good. Our solidarity with one another, and especially with those in the greatest need is an expression of who we are as the people of a merciful God. In a particular way this year, we Christians are called to be “merciful like the Father” and one of the characteristics of mercy is that we see the other person as someone like ourselves.
During the past year, the Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). This document was an expression of the desire of the bishops at the Council that the Church would engage more effectively with the modern world. It begins with the words:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
Emergencies tend to bring out the best in us. Between the army and the volunteers in Athlone, the sand-bags have been filled and put in place and the pumps are working away. In much the same way, volunteers and statutory agencies have worked together to in places like Munich Central Station, to welcome refugees and to provide them with essential services. Sometimes, however, we need to ask ourselves if it is enough simply to be responding to emergencies as they arise. Peace and the common good might be better served if the needs could be identified and responded to before it becomes an emergency.
Those of us who are professionally involved in the service of others, whether in the Church or in civil society, know in our hearts how easy it is for indifference to creep into institutions. Things tend to be put on the long finger. If we allow ourselves to become bogged down by routine or discouraged by the size of the task, there is a risk that we settle for being functionaries. Then the people whom we are called to serve can become little more than statistics.
The best defense we have against indifference in our institutions is people who really care about those whom they are called to serve; people who care enough to stick their necks out, as many of you do on a daily basis. That is, essentially, why we invite you here every year, both to give thanks to God for your gifts and your service of the common good and to offer you some encouragement through our prayers.
Looking to the future, one of the first tasks of 2016 will be the election of a new Oireachtas and the formation of a new government, which will serve the common good. I know that people sometimes feel powerless in the face of the democratic process and I think that experience of powerlessness is shared by some of the politicians themselves. Be that as it may, but non-engagement would be an abdication of our responsibility.
What we need to do is to consider the quality of our participation. As Christians and as citizens, we need to engage with the candidates about the questions that really matter, not just to ourselves personally, but to our society as a whole. Alongside the things I have already mentioned (the homelessness, our response to the refugees and our stewardship of the environment), there are a number of other challenges facing us as citizens and as Christians.
I believe, for example, that we need to examine very carefully what the various political groupings are proposing to do about education, not just based on what they say in their manifestos, but on what they have said and done in the past few years. Our Catholic schools have a very good track record of inclusiveness, but there are those who would like them to be less Catholic. Does religious education have a place in our schools? If you believe it does, will that influence how you vote in the election? How will you support that choice in your own family? We are, after all, talking about your children and your grand-children.
There has been a lot of political posturing about repealing the eighth amendment, which is the only remaining protection unborn children have in our legal system. That protection has alread been significantly eroded in recent years. I believe that committed Christians must make this an election issue and that candidates must be questioned politely but firmly, not just on their future intentions but on their past record. These are, after all, your children and your grand-children.
As we embrace this New Year, just beginning, with all its challenges, my prayer for you is in the words of our first reading this evening. It is a blessing that comes to us, from almost three thousand years ago.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.”