The beautifully descriptive stories of creation in the Old Testament Book of Genesis remind us of the fact that the world and everything in it is very good. “God saw all he had made and it was good”. That being said, our experience of living in a world of rapid change can be very challenging, disconcerting, threatening and traumatic. Many people, understandably, find it deeply unsettling. What do I believe, whom do I trust, what do I teach my children, how do I communicate important values in a way that they will respect them? Religious faith ought to provide us with an opportunity to acknowledge and address the deeper issues of meaning and purpose in life and the dignity of each person. Religious faith enables and encourages us to ask those deeper questions which are frequently ignored – why we are here and what kind of world do we wish to create and hand on to those who come after us?
Religion and faith provide an explanation of who we are, where we have come from, our place in society, where we are going and our relationship with the world in which we inhabit. In that sense, religious faith can provide a compass as we try to maintain our identity in a vast sea of change and at the same time sustain human dignity which the world often denies.
There is a close relationship between faith and family. Indeed that close relationship is borne out clearly in modern civilisation. The decline in and the fracturing of family values and the decline in faith testify to this. It used to be claimed that the undermining of religious values contributed to an undermining of the family. Today we are becoming more conscious of the fact that the undermining of the family has further eroded religious faith. We are being bombarded by the world of advertising in the face of which we maintain a rather passive approach. Prejudice dominates. There is an urgent need to become more conscious of some of the good which religious faith, the Church and Christianity have done and continue to do in our world.
We witness enormous changes in the pattern of family life. Families are relatively time-poor compared to previous generations, spending less time together. Family is a hive of hectic activity with children being driven from one activity to another. Family is also a home for the wounded heart, where hurt finds forgiveness and new hope. We are very alert at detecting unhealthy trends in our society, for example, the increase in obesity, particularly in children as a combination of fast-food diets and the sedentary life-style are sowing the seeds of an unhealthy adulthood. There are other unhealthy trends in our culture, which require our attention and may be more challenging to address. It is undoubtedly an anxious time for parents today. Many parents do not want a huge gap between their children’s values and their own. They do not wish to see moral values undermined by a secular culture. They are, at times, bewildered by the ferocity and the prejudice which confronts religious faith today. In our contemporary culture success requires competition rather than collaboration, resulting in a deterioration of human relationships. Yet, society must concern itself with the quality of human relationships, whether within families or communities. When social workers replace caring neighbours then the fabric of society comes apart, the sense of belonging diminishes and people feel vulnerable.
Society depends on the family. Family is the place where we were first welcomed, accepted and nurtured. It was there we began to utter our first syllables, tried to put words together, and gave our first smile, uttered our first cry and shed our first tears. There we knew we were loved and lovable. Through the family we learned how to relate to others, to use words and communicate. We witnessed the reaction to different situations and began to react similarly. We noticed the difference between right and wrong, good and evil and were able to differentiate between what is appropriate and inappropriate, between the important and the unimportant.
As we come on pilgrimage here to Our Lady’s Shrine on this Feast of the Assumption, the family is central to our thoughts and prayers. Family finds expression in different experiences – our own family, parents, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Knock is a family shrine. One hundred and thirty-nine years ago the Apparition included Our Lady, St. Joseph, Jesus the Lamb of God on the altar of sacrifice in front of the cross and St. John representing the extended family. As we come here we are conscious of God’s wider family – our brothers and sisters across the world.
On this Feast of the Assumption we are given a glimpse of the future to which God calls all of us and our families. There is a particular homecoming about this Feast. We rejoice that Mary our Mother has already been welcomed home. We are conscious of the fact that mothers want the best for their children. Today’s Feast is a festival of hope. If there is one thing that is very urgently required in today’s world it is the virtue of hope. The veil between Heaven and Earth is drawn aside and we are given that privileged insight into the meaning of the words of Mary in today’s Gospel “the Almighty has done great things for me”. What the Lord has done for Mary he has promised to do for all of us. In our busy hectic world we may sense that we are very far removed from the destiny which God has in store for us. This Feast however gives us a privileged insight into our future. In many respects this Feast could be related to a Feast which we celebrated only a few days ago, the Feast of the Transfiguration. You will remember Jesus took with him three of his disciples, Peter, James and John and brought them up a mountain where they were given a glimpse of his glory. This was to sustain them through the trying and testing time of the passion and death of Jesus. This Feast of the Assumption is intended to sustain, encourage, comfort and challenge us as we struggle to maintain our faith in Jesus Christ and move with confident hope towards the promise that he holds out to us. As we do so we have the powerful support of Mary who is described in the Preface of today’s Mass as “a sign and comfort for us on our pilgrim way”.
Coming to Knock on pilgrimage on this special Feast day has a dimension of transfiguration about it. We leave aside for a few hours the trials and tribulations, the problems and impossibilities. We realise that we will have to return to them again. Here at Knock on this Feast we move aside from the fast lane of life and we catch a glimpse of the future and the wider scene and in doing so we are enabled to dream large dreams about the powerful purposes of God. Our presence here at Knock today should enable us to light a candle of hope in what, for many people, may be a dark world. In a few days we will welcome the successor of Saint Peter, the Bishop of Rome, as a pilgrim to Our Lady’s Shrine at Knock. He is coming to pray for the success of the World Meeting of Families. In doing so, he is praying for all of us and the families that we represent. May his visit and this Shrine continue to be a beacon of hope for all who are struggling and for those who may have abandoned hope.