Mass celebrated in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh
· Pope Francis invites us, in a spirit of compassion, to “embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, or forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands”
· My wish on this World Day of Peace is that Christians everywhere, who exchange the Sign of the Peace of Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist, will be empowered by God’s grace to become active ambassadors for peace in the Church and in the world, beginning in their own homes, families, workplaces and neighbourhoods
· The high levels of depression, addictions and anxiety in our country, and the frightening reality of domestic violence is not often spoken about openly, but it is an indication of the huge need that exists for inner peace and family reconciliation
· We have pledged to play our part in raising awareness about domestic violence and abuse and in supporting anyone affected to confidentially access information
Brothers and sisters, the words we use at Mass: “Let us offer each other the sign of peace”, are especially meaningful on this first day of the New Year, the World Day of Peace.
The gesture of peace which we exchange at Mass goes back to the dawn of Christianity where it often took the form of a “kiss of peace” – many of the New Testament letters sign off with an invitation to “greet one another with a holy kiss”. The idea of expressing harmony, reconciliation and peace within the Christian community finds its deepest meaning in the words of Jesus himself: in Matthews Gospel:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift: Mt 5:23-24
The handshake we give nowadays at the Sign of Peace during Mass is not any ordinary friendly gesture or greeting. It is a solemn exchange of the peace of Christ. It is a prayer for unity within the Church herself, and a plea for peace in the whole human family. The Sign of Peace makes a statement, just before Holy Communion, that we are brothers and sisters, one family in Christ the Lord. It is also a pledge that we will go out from the Eucharist in charity and in love, to build bridges and to heal hurts and divisions within the wider human family.
Let us reflect for a moment on the words which accompany the Sign of Peace at Mass:
The Priest introduces it with the prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
who said to your Apostles:
Peace I leave you, my peace I give you,
look not on our sins,
but on the faith of your Church,
and graciously grant her peace and unity
in accordance with your will.
Who live and reign for ever and ever.
The people reply:
Then the priest adds:
The peace of the Lord be with you always.
The people reply:
And with your spirit.
The deacon, or the priest, then invites all present :
Let us offer each other the sign of peace.
Afterwards we say together the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, ending with the words: Grant us peace. The focus of this moving and meaningful ritual is strongly on the peace of Christ, a peace that world cannot give by itself.
I have heard that some people apparently do not like the Sign of Peace at Mass, and, for various reasons, would prefer not to be invited to offer it. That would disappoint me, but I think we should be far more troubled by the reality that Christ’s Peace is needed so much and by so many, with all the threats to unity and peace within the Christian community and the world.
On this first day of the New Year, I am reminded of the violence and war that continues to rage in many parts of the world, and in particular, of the horrific acts of terror that are carried out by some people who have so distorted and twisted their religious beliefs to justify such gruesome and shocking atrocities.
Last Holy Week we heard of 45 Coptic Christians in Egypt being murdered at worship on Palm Sunday. It is shocking to learn that there have been further attacks during the Christmas season, most recently on Friday last when nine people were killed during an attack on a Christian Church in Cairo. Here in Ireland, as we exchange the sign of peace on this first day of the New Year, let us do so in solidarity with so many of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who suffer or die for their faith.
I am mindful also today of migrants and refugees who are languishing in camps or wandering in hope for a better life for their families. In his Message today for this, the 51st World Day of Peace, Pope Francis draws our attention to “the over 250 million migrants worldwide, of whom 22.5 million are refugees”. He calls them “men and women in search for peace”, remarking that, “In order to find that peace, they are willing to risk their lives on a journey that is often long and perilous, to endure hardships and suffering, and to encounter fences and walls built to keep them far from their goal”. Pope Francis invites us, in a spirit of compassion, to “embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, or forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands”.
The Sign of Peace we offer at Mass challenges us is to make a concrete commitment to helping migrants and refugees find the peace that they are seeking. Pope Francis suggests a practical strategy, combining four actions: “welcoming” strangers, “protecting” the dignity of those who are in danger of exploitation or abuse, “promoting” education and other means of human development, and finally, “integrating” migrants and refugees so that they can play a full part in the life of society.
In the face of such huge longing and need for peace at a global level, we sometimes forget that the work of peace begins in our own hearts and in our homes. If our Sign of Peace at Mass is to be authentic, then it challenges us to face the tensions and contradictions in our own personal lives and in our own families. We all yearn to be at peace with ourselves and with one another, but the sad reality is that many individuals struggle with inner turmoil, mental health or addiction issues and a large number of homes and families are impacted by disagreements, family rivalries, bitterness, resentment and even violence. The high levels of depression, addictions and anxiety in our country, and the frightening reality of domestic violence is not often spoken about openly, but it is an indication of the huge need that exists for inner peace and family reconciliation.
Organisations like Women’s Aid alert us to the fact that at least 14% of all crime reported to the police last year was related to domestic violence with one call every 18 minutes. Just before Christmas, the Catholic and Church of Ireland Cathedral parishes here in Armagh came together for training in the Safe Church Initiative. We have pledged to play our part in raising awareness about domestic violence and abuse and in supporting anyone affected to confidentially access information. We hope to draw more attention to this initiative as we continue our preparations for the World Meeting of Families next August.
My brothers and sisters as the New Year 2018 begins, the challenge to speak and live the message of peace remains more important than ever. My wish on this World Day of Peace is that Christians everywhere, who exchange the Sign of the Peace of Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist, will be empowered by God’s grace to become active ambassadors for peace in the Church and in the world, beginning in their own homes, families, workplaces and neighbourhoods. In this way the Sign of Peace will avoid becoming an empty or meaningless gesture, but will rather be an impulse and driver towards reconciliation and peace building.
The peace of the Lord be with you this New Year and always!
· Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland
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