19 Sep – National Commemoration of Pope John Paul II’s Visit to Ireland, Clonmacnois
NATIONAL COMMEMORATION OF POPE JOHN PAUL II’s
VISIT TO IRELAND
HOMILY GIVEN BY
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH
CLONMACNOIS – 19TH SEPTEMBER 2004
Honoured guests, fellow pilgrims, the visit of Pope John Paul II to our beloved country in September 1979 was a time of great joy. Those of us, who were old enough to be there, are never likely to forget it.
As we remember those days we become immersed in a cascade of images;
There was the spontaneous cheer of over one million people in the Phoenix Park as the Aer Lingus jet, the St Patrick, suddenly appeared overhead;
There was the singing of tens of thousands of young people waiting patiently for the Pope to arrive in Galway.
There was the joyful dignity of the sick and disabled who gathered for the Sacrament of Anointing at Knock.
And then, there was the quiet yearning of those who hoped for an end to violence in Northern Ireland, as they heard the Pope remind us at Drogheda that peace can never flourish in a climate of terror, intimidation and death.
Yes, extraordinary images of three wonderful days, days, which were, by any standards, historic. We remember them today with thanksgiving in this Silver Jubilee Mass.
But history does not stand still. Historic moments, however memorable, do not diminish the challenges, which every age must face. For each new generation is a new opportunity to address the challenges of the present with the wisdom of the past.
THE HOLY GROUND OF CLONMACNOIS
We stand on holy ground. All around us there are signs of the noble and deeply Christian past of the Irish people. For one thousand years, Clonmacnois was the one of the most important centres of learning and holiness, not only in Ireland but also in Europe. Clonmacnois has produced some of the most valuable books, which Ireland possesses. It is often referred to as the Westminster Abbey of Ireland. Countless kings and queens were buried here. Among these ruins there are two round towers, eight churches, three large sculptured crosses, a castle and over two hundred tombstones with inscriptions. Clonmacnois, and all it represents, has something important to say to us today.
No wonder that the Pope, on his return to Rome, said of Clonmacnois: ‘I will never forget that place… the ruins of the monastery and churches speak of the life that once pulsated there… Whole generations of Europe owe to them the light of the Gospel. These ruins are still charged with a great mission. They still constitute a challenge.’
At Knock, the Holy Father had spelled out that challenge. In quite prophetic words he prayed that prosperity would never ’cause Irish men and women to forget God or abandon their faith.’ He pleaded that they would ‘remain faithful in prosperity to the faith they would not surrender in poverty’. He hoped that they would ‘build a just and peaceful and loving society where the poor are never neglected and the rights of all, especially the weak, are respected’.
A NATION AT THE CROSSROADS
On that occasion Pope John Paul suggested that the Irish nation was at a crossroads. It would have to make a choice. One road led to a prosperous and confident future rooted in its Christian past, marked by solidarity, respect for nature and a deep reverence for the things of the soul. The other road led to a soul-less future, rooted in rampant consumerism and the glorification of the individual over the community. Twenty five years later it is not quite clear which road has, in fact, been chosen.
On the one hand we have enjoyed unprecedented economic success and a confident participation in the international community. All of this is to be welcomed. Today we thank God for the immense progress which has been made in the years since the Papal visit of 1979. And yet, there is a growing sense that we may have lost, or may be losing, something precious and important in the process.. We must look more closely at how our success has been achieved and how its fruits are being distributed. One commentator has spoken of the new soullessness of Irish society.
IRISH PRESIDENCY OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
Many people wonder what the Pope would say to us now if he were to come again. My fervent hope is that God will allow him to do so sometime next year. Well, we got a very clear indication on September 6th last when the Holy Father addressed Ireland’s new Ambassador. Recalling that Ireland has recently achieved remarkable economic growth, Pope John Paul said, ‘A more prosperous society has greater possibilities of becoming a more just and open society. But it is also faced with new challenges, including the danger of a certain spiritual impoverishment and indifference to the deeper moral and religious dimensions of life’. ‘I am confident’, the Holy Father continued ‘that by remaining true to the values which has reshaped Ireland as a nation from the time of its evangelisation, your people will help to make an outstanding contribution to the future of Europe’. He described the steps taken during the Irish Presidency of the European Union in favour of openness to other peoples as inspirational, and he hopes that those steps will continue to inspire the attitude of the community to immigrants. He also expressed the hope that Ireland will continue to address this important problem with an open heart and persevering commitment. All of this prompts some questions.
What does the gap between rich in poor, in Ireland today, say about our sensitivity to the deeper moral and religious dimensions of life?
Has our more prosperous society, in fact, become a more just and open society?
I do not presume that there are easy solutions, particularly in a global economy, marked by instability and unpredictability. Rather, I think that this is an occasion to applaud those who are working to make Ireland a more just and caring society. One thing is certain – the Gospel is quite clear about the need for justice as a concrete expression of solidarity and love – and the need to judge our real wealth by the relative plight of the poor.
COMPETITORS AND COMMODITIES
Pope John Paul II once wrote, ‘The individual and society for whom nothing is sacred suffer moral decay in spite of appearances’. Conscious of the bitter lessons of Auschwitz and the Nazi manipulation of human life, Pope John Paul has emerged as the outstanding defender of the dignity of every human person and the outstanding spokesperson for the Gospel of reverence.
I get the impression that the sense of reverence and respect for all that is sacred has diminished significantly in our society in recent times. Life has become cheap. Violence is very common – whether on our roads, or in the markets, people have become competitors and commodities. Recklessness and aggression are the order of the day. Basic courtesy and respect for others becomes an option rather than an obligation. It is despicable to learn, for example, that in some places, attacks on people with disabilities have become a significant problem. Some see this as a matter of law and order, others as one of education. Is it is not rather an example of the spiritual impoverishment of which the Holy Father spoke?
A CENTRE IN MANY RESPECTS
Clonmacnois is located on the Shannon, of course the great waterway of this island. But Clonmacnois is also located on the Eiscir Riada – that continuous line of gravel hills that runs from Dublin to Carinbridge, dividing Ireland into Leath Conn and Leath Modh.
Clonmacnois, the geographical centre of Ireland, was also an outstanding spiritual centre for one thousand years. Here people came apart to find silence and to renew and enrich their sense of the sacred. They came to pray and to find their God and to respect and reverence that God, and creation. They followed a programme – the programme found in the Gospels a programme that had Christ at its centre.
The message of Clonmacnois is that a balance between prayer and prosperity, between society and soul, is not only possible but, in fact, highly desirable. In many ways, Clonmacnois represents a high watermark of Irish religious, economic and cultural achievement. That it happened in the context of a strong and unapologetic Christian faith is an important reminder to us all, that success does not have to be at the expense of the soul. Solidarity and the common good are consistent with the progress of the individual. The practice of virtue and a constant awareness of the presence of God can open up, rather than curtail the most creative and life-giving energies of the human person and society as a whole.
Pope John Paul urges us to remain true to the values which shaped Ireland as a nation at the time of Patrick and Ciaran. Clonmacnois, and its glorious High Crosses, tell us what those values are. The High Crosses are probably the greatest jewel of this magnificent monastery. The most gracefully proportioned of all the Irish High Crosses is the Cross of the Scriptures. The theme of that fascinating cross is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. Christ is represented no less than ten times. Faith in Jesus Christ was clearly an all-important value in this monastery.
Speaking to our new Ambassador, two weeks ago, Pope John Paul noted that the Church in Ireland is working together with other Christian communities and is committed to consolidating positive attitudes of understanding, respect and esteem of others, through ecumenical activities and education. The welcome presence of people from the other Churches, led by Bishop Richard Clarke is a sign of that working together. Today we commit ourselves once more to that working together for we know that the message of the Gospel cannot be separated from a call to a change of heart. Neither can the announcing of the Gospel be isolated from ecumenism and the promotion of reconciliation.
The cause of peace in Ireland has always been dear to the heart of the Pope. Re-echoing his sentiments we salute the work of those who are doing their best to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the recent set-back, we continue to hope and pray that their efforts will be blessed by God’s grace and bear fruit for the children of tomorrow.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me”? Jesus asked Peter by the sea of Tiberias. Down through the ages lovers have asked each other that same question alongside countless rivers and seas. Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Today, here by the waters of the River Shannon, Jesus asks the same question of each one of us ‘Do you love me’? And the reason is simple – the plan found in the Gospel, and handed down through the ages, remains the same, it has its centre in Christ. Christ is to be known, loved and imitated so that we may live the life of God and with Him, transform history.
We think of Mary today, Mary most holy, as Pope John Paul always does in his homilies. In her we come to know the transforming power of Christ. In Mary we see the world renewed in love. Like the monks who carved those glorious crosses, we turn again in hope and love to the contemplation of Christ. He is the goal to whom our hearts aspire in our thirst for lasting joy and peace. Christ, and Christ alone, can satisfy our hungry hearts. He and He alone, can sate our thirst for He, and he alone, can give the water that wells up to eternal life.