In our joint message recently Archbishop Richard Clarke and I prayed for a hope-filled New Year 2016. It is particularly important at the beginning of a new year to have confidence that, with the help of God, we can make a real difference in the world. Despite the awful realities of war, poverty, abuse of power and terrorism, and even though personal struggles and difficulties may almost, at times, seem to overwhelm us, we cannot allow ourselves to be ‘robbed of hope’. God does not abandon us.
The Word of God today invites us to seek a blessing for the New Year. The psalmist asks: ‘O God, be gracious and bless us’. The Old Testament reading invokes the ancient blessing:
‘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 (Numbers 6:23ff).’
It is important at the beginning of a New Year to hear words that promise hope and peace in the midst of the darkness and storms of life. They’ve taken to naming storms now – we’ve seen the destruction in recent weeks left behind by storms ‘Desmond’, ‘Frank’ and others. The storms of violence, war and persecution on a world scale are no less devastating and frightening. And many of us can name storms and struggles in our relationships and personal lives which leave us feeling anxious, useless or unloved.
Although the secular world may want to move on quickly from the Christmas season to January sales, the Church in its liturgy continues for another week or so to find calm, comfort and inspiration in the readings and prayers of the Christmas season. Today we focus again on the shepherds who, at the Angels’ bidding, left behind their flocks and hurried to see the Christ-child. The Gospel tells us that they came away glorifying and praising God and they couldn’t wait to share their news. They were changed by their encounter with Jesus. They simply couldn’t go back to the way they’d been before.
If we are open to the joy of Christ’s presence, that encounter can leave us equally transformed, filled with hope and ready to make a difference in the world.
In his message Overcome Indifference and Win Peace for today, the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis reflects on the dangers of indifference. We can so easily become comfortable and disengaged from the tragic situation of so many of our fellow human beings. We remain untouched. Pope Francis observes that sadly, ‘today’s information explosion does not of itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems … Indeed, the information glut can numb people’s sensibilities and to some degree downplay the gravity of the problems’ (3). He is concerned that we can be so turned in on ourselves that we become incapable of compassion, closing our eyes and our hearts, deaf to the cry of those who suffer, forgetting about their problems and the injustices that they have to endure, even at times blaming them for their own predicament.
But God is not indifferent to the suffering in the world. And the followers of Christ are the agents of Christian hope. Our challenge is to get out there, witnessing to hope, accompanying those who suffer, willing to make a difference. One of the difficulties we shall meet is indifference to God. Many people – even in our own families, communities, and country – are so swept away by the pace and concerns of everyday life that they have little time or space left for God and for reflection on their eternal destiny. One of our tasks – and privileges – is to gently introduce others to the joy and hope of an encounter with our friend, Jesus. Such an encounter changes us, so much so that it is impossible to remain indifferent to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth, our common home.
The beginning of a New Year will open up new ways for us become agents of hope. This year, 2016, has added significance in that it marks the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme – events which had a profound impact on the history and culture of this island. The commemorations will provide opportunities for us to deepen our understanding of who we are as a people and to affirm our hope for lasting peace and justice. We will be able to reflect on where we are as a society and on what we want to achieve for the future. People of faith will shape their understanding of these transformative events in the context of Christian values such as love of neighbour, respect for life, reconciliation, hope and healing.
Sadly there are many families among us who shoulder grief and nurse wounds that are still raw and hurting from the legacy of violence and years of unrest. We have not yet found a way of acknowledging our troubled past without being tempted to control the narrative, resorting to blame and creating hierarchies of victims. During 2016 we must resist being so indifferent to the other’s suffering that we engage in revisionism or false glorification of the past with its tragic loss of human life on all sides. Instead we should redouble our efforts to find safe spaces where we can genuinely hear one another’s stories and pain, and bolster friendship, mutual understanding, justice and peace. With my fellow Church leaders I pray today that “our memories and commemorations of the past, alongside our hopes and longings for the future, strengthen our resolve to live together in harmony, trusting in the Lord, Jesus Christ in whom we find our hope, for he is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever'”.
2016 is also significant for Catholics as it marks the Jubilee Year of Mercy, launched recently by Pope Francis, with the theme ‘Merciful like the Father’. Pope Francis is calling us this year to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity our way of life. He contrasts mercy with indifference which often seeks excuses and hides behind the hostilities and prejudices that keep us apart. He writes:
‘Mercy is the heart of God. It must also be the heart of the members of the one great family of his children: a heart which beats all the more strongly wherever human dignity – as a reflection of the face of God in his creatures – is in play. Jesus tells us that love for others – foreigners, the sick, prisoners, the homeless, even our enemies – is the yardstick by which God will judge our actions. Our eternal destiny depends on this’ (5).
With this in mind, let us greet the New Year 2016 with mercy, determination and hope.
Happy New Year and may God bless you all.