When Blessed John Paul II came here on September 30, 1979, to celebrate Holy Mass, he began with the words: “Here I am at the goal of my journey to Ireland: the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock” and, in a certain sense, his words are true for all of us here today, as we celebrate the conclusion of the National Novena; we too have come to the goal of our journey. We come as pilgrims to pray at the feet of Mary, the humble girl of Nazareth, the glorious Mother of God, the “Woman clothed with the sun” who appeared here in 1879 to comfort and console the Catholic people of Ireland. The passage of time tends to make us forget what things were like in Ireland when Mary appeared. Ireland was not yet a free and independent nation; close to a million people had suffered and died during the Great Famine thirty years previously, and in the year 1879 when Mary appeared, hunger had returned to the West of Ireland. Huge numbers of Irish people had been forced to leave as emigrants, never to return, so much so that the population of Ireland plummeted by something like 25 per cent.
And so it was that, in those very bad times, Mary appeared, to comfort and to console and – although she never spoke a word – to lead her people, to direct her children to the Lamb on the altar, the Lamb who was slain but who now is alive, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Yes, the times in which Mary appeared here in Knock were very bad, and yet it bears noting that the century which followed the apparition would be marked by an extraordinary flourishing of the Catholic Church in Ireland, with huge numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life and a deep Christianisation of all aspects of society. Such a flourishing would have seemed impossible in 1879. But the night is often darkest before the dawn.
When we reflect on Our Lady’s apparition at Knock and the historical circumstances in which it occurred, we cannot help thinking about our times and our own future. Certainly, there are reasons for discouragement. It seems as if every few months, a new survey is released showing, or purporting to show, that the Catholic faith is disappearing in Ireland. We have had two decades of scandals, crimes and failures. ‘The Church is finished!’ seems to be the cry heard everywhere.
But, my brothers and sisters, let me tell you what I have seen and heard (cf. 1 John 1:3). Two months ago, I saw the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin exceed everyone’s expectations, with tens of thousands of people coming to learn more about the central mystery of our faith – the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. One month ago today, I was in Ballyvourney in County Cork, where I had the joy of ordaining a young man to the priesthood. The small country church was filled with people young and old; the liturgy was celebrated in a beautiful way, with music and hymns in the Irish language. The sanctuary was packed with more than eighty good and faithful priests, many very young, some quite old, all of them there to welcome and to support their newest brother in the priesthood. Three weeks ago, in County Mayo, I saw thousands of pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday. Many young people. Many men. Some climbing in bare feet. I saw hundreds of people that day going to confession to the priests on the top of the mountain. Ten days ago, I was at Clonmacnoise and I saw literally hundreds of young people kneeling in adoration in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Rosary, confessing their sins, rejoicing in the liberating love of God, and sharing the joy and excitement of being Catholic with their peers.
That, my brothers and sisters, is the future of the Church in Ireland.
So what is this future going to be like? Before all else, I would say that the future needs to be authentically Catholic if there is to be a future. We need to propose the Catholic faith in its fullness, in its beauty and in its radicality, with compassion and with conviction. We need to be unafraid to affirm the elements of the Catholic way which secular society rejects and ridicules.
I believe that the Gospel for today’s Mass points the way for the future of the Church in Ireland. Jesus speaks to his disciples about priorities. He tells us not to worry about things like what we are to wear and what we are to eat, or about how much money we can amass. He says put first things first: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Mt 6:33). And what is this Kingdom of God proposed by Jesus? It cannot be identified with a worldly kingdom. As Jesus says in front of Pontius Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is a Kingdom which only reaches its fulfilment and fruition in the life of the world to come, as described in our first reading from the Book of the Apocalypse. Only in the end, will the Kingdom be complete: “a new heaven and a new earth”, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. That city – to paraphrase Pope John Paul II’s words about Knock – is the goal of our journey. If we seek that city, that goal, that Kingdom, then everything else will be taken care of. But that Kingdom of light and joy is not only a future reality, it is also anticipated, made real in advance, wherever Jesus Christ is truly present in our world, in the celebration and adoration of the Holy Eucharist, in the sacraments and in the love we have for one another.
As the Church in Ireland moves into the future, we need to recognise that everything the Church does is somehow related to that reality: the reality of salvation.
Pope Benedict XVI has instituted a number of initiatives designed to help the Church move into the future. He has established an office for the New Evangelisation, which means finding new ways of presenting and communicating the ancient faith, especially in those countries like Ireland which were first given the gift of Catholic faith many centuries ago. The Holy Father has called a Synod of Bishops, that is, a meeting of Bishops in Rome, which will take place in October of this year, in order to have Bishops from all over the world reflect on this most critical question. And thirdly, Pope Benedict has established a “Year of Faith”, which will also begin this October, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict writes: “We want to celebrate this Year in a worthy and fruitful manner. Reflection on the faith will have to be intensified, so as to help all believers in Christ to acquire a more conscious and vigorous adherence to the Gospel, especially at a time of profound change such as humanity is currently experiencing. We will have the opportunity to profess our faith in the Risen Lord in our cathedrals and in the churches of the whole world; in our homes and among our families, so that everyone may feel a strong need to know better and to transmit to future generations the faith of all times” (Porta fidei, 8).
The Holy Father is insistent on this point. If we are indeed to “transmit to future generations the faith of all times,” we need to deepen our own understanding of that faith. In calling for the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has also indicated a means for deepening our understanding of the faith. The opening day of the Year of Faith (October 11, 2012) is not only the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it is also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a magnificent summary and synthesis of the Catholic faith. The Holy Father recommends that we study the Catechism of the Catholic Church as part of the Year of Faith. He describes the Catechism as a means of encountering the person of Christ. Remarkably, he writes “on page after page, we find that what is presented here is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church” (Porta fidei, 11). That Person is Jesus Christ, God made man.
Here in Ireland, the recently published National Directory for Catechesis of the Bishops of Ireland, entitled Share the Good News, also recommends that Catholics “consider setting up a [study] group to look at the Catechism over a period of time”… “like a book club taking a night to discuss a particular section read beforehand” (page 74). This is a great idea, which would have a very positive effect on the future life of the Church in Ireland.
Brothers and sisters, the future of the Church in Ireland begins now. We have all been revitalised in our faith by the unforgettable experience of the International Eucharistic Congress, which, pray God, has marked a turning point in the life of the Church in Ireland. Certainly, the road ahead is not an easy one, but the road ahead for Catholics in Ireland did not look very easy in 1879 when Our Lady appeared here on that rainy evening in August. And yet her appearance was followed by one of the most fruitful periods in the fifteen centuries of Catholicism on this Island. Yes, brothers and sisters: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Matt 6:33).