- “Mary’s apparition took place with the sense of hopelessness that followed the Famine years in Irish society and particularly here in the West of Ireland. Mary reminds us that God’s heart is close to those whom the world might overlook. She is insistent that God has a preference for the weary and the worried, for the poor and downcast” – Archbishop Neary
Mary is at home here
The Nazareth into which Mary was born was very different from the Knock that she visited one hundred and forty-two years ago, and from the international Eucharistic and Marian Shrine at which we worship this evening. Yet Mary is at home in all these situations, although in time they may span two thousand years, and geographically they may be three thousand miles apart. When I say that Mary is at home in all these different situations, I mean that she is conversant with what is happening, observing what is taking place, and reacting to them as she did at the Wedding at Cana, bringing them to the attention of her Son.
Independent and free, but adrift
Our culture today prides itself on independence and freedom. In this situation, the individual can find that he or she is adrift on the sea of life, with a feeling of helplessness and being subject to economic and political forces over which we have very little control. Understandably this can very easily hoover hope out of the human heart and leave us bereft of human dignity. In this situation, it is not uncommon to witness an abandonment or dismissal of values and relationships which enhance human dignity.
Mary’s Magnificat – a guide for today
What does Mary say to this situation? Mary helps us to expand our world view. Although she is a woman of very few words, nevertheless her prayer in the Magnificat is very informative. Mary’s Nazareth was close to one of the great trade routes of the ancient world and would therefore have come under various influences. Galilee was regarded as lukewarm in matters of faith; it was referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. In many ways this was not unlike the secularism with which we cope in our culture today. At times we become very conscious of the contradictions in our society. On the one hand we are captivated by the celebrity status, on the other hand we admire the underdog and the disadvantaged who copes with adversity and perseveres.
With so much emphasis on achievements and success it is not surprising that considerable amounts are expended on advertising companies and spin-doctors which encourage self-promotion. In those situations, the individual is at the centre of the world and everything and everyone revolves around the centre. In a paradoxical way, however, this results in a one-dimensional and a very narrow horizon and constricted world view which craves for instant and immediate success. In her Magnificat Mary helps us to address this situation in a very honest and realistic manner. In doing so she acknowledges that we cannot understand and appreciate ourselves or others without reference to God. She presents us with an expansive vision which is richer, deeper and more inclusive than the contemporary culture. Mary acknowledges the gifts that she has received but places all of those gifts in a context of her relationship with God. Her humility will not permit her to hide or deny her gifts – recognising God as the source and giver.
Mary’s total dependence on God
Power, privilege and prestige are banners behind which our culture is happy to parade. Mary however succeeds in putting all of these into a different context. Mary’s faith enables her to acknowledge her total dependence on God at every moment and illustrates that the Lord extends his care and influence to the whole of life.
Walking by faith and not by sight
Today we experience the way in which people of faith are so readily dismissed and God is seen as a last resort, if at all. It is so easy to compromise our values and beliefs for the sake of convenience and to avoid embarrassment. In this situation we need a faith for tough times. In Mary we see the way in which faith enables her to cope with situations which she may not fully understand. For example, at the Annunciation she was given sufficient information which enabled her to say “yes” to the messenger. She did not have to know in advance what would unfold and therefore her patience with God is a salutary message for us. How often do we grow tired of approaching God and become frustrated when God is not answering in the way in which we want?
Mary: a combination of gentleness and real strength
Today, both at the international level and at the personal level we are conditioned to accept that might is right. However, in Mary we see the combination of gentleness and real strength. This strength enables her to act courageously while remaining attentive to the difficult situations in which others find themselves. This is particularly true of the challenging situations in which Mary’s apparitions took place.
We are familiar with the devastation and sense of hopelessness that followed the famine years in Irish society and particularly here in the West of Ireland. Mary reminds us that God’s heart is close to those whom the world might overlook. She is insistent that God has a preference for the weary and the worried, for the poor and downcast.
Mary leads us into a bigger, broader, more joyful world
After this challenging experience of Covid-19, it is understandable that our faith might be shaken. We have lost loved ones, perhaps lost jobs, witnessed brothers and sisters becoming depressed and lonely. We are unable to rely on what we had considered the usual support systems in the same way as we used. When we are inclined to close doors and perhaps experience circumstances in which doors are closed in front of us, we need Mary to open those doors and lead us into a bigger, broader, more joyful world. She does this in her Magnificat but she also did it silently here at Knock and continues to do it when we approach her in prayer.
The necessity of women’s voices
At a time when the voice of women, their insights, perspectives and antennae are absolutely crucial for the mission of the Church, surely the place and the role of Mary as a woman of indomitable courage, buoyant hope, resilient faith, exuberant joy, gentleness and strength has something very important to teach us today, particularly at a time when those qualities are so necessary if we are to engage with and endeavour to influence our culture today.
Silently announcing that Knock is a special place
One hundred and forty-two years ago this evening the Apparition of Our Lady, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist, with the Lamb on the Altar and the Cross in the background lasted for about two hours. While no words were spoken, Mary was effectively saying that Knock will continue to be a special place for all who wish to make contact with her and with her Son, Jesus Christ. As you come here this evening or join us online, our faith tells us that we are approaching someone who is listening to our cares, able to sympathise with us in our struggles and wants to encourage and support us.
Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland, you gave hope to your people in a time of distress and comforted them in sorrow. You have inspired countless pilgrims to pray with confidence to your divine Son, remembering His promise, ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.’”
Notes for Editors
- Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, preached this homily on 21 August 2021 in the Basilica of Our Lady of Knock in the Archdiocese of Tuam.
- The story of Knock began on the 21 August 1879 when Our Lady, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist appeared at the south gable of Knock Parish Church. This miraculous silent apparition was witnessed by fifteen people, young and old. Knock is an internationally recognised Marian Shrine and was visited by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1979 as part of his apostolic pilgrimage, and in 2018 by Pope Francis as part of the celebrations in Ireland for the IX World Meeting of Families. On 19 March 2021, Pope Francis officially recognised Knock as an International Marian Shrine through the Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation. Archbishop Neary is the custodian of the Marian Shrine and Father Richard Gibbons is parish priest of Knock and rector of the shrine. Please see www.knockshrine.ie for more information.
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