We come together to celebrate this Mass in memory of the Ulster Earls – O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire and their companions, who arrived in Rome this month four hundred years ago.  We come to this historic Church of St. Pietro in Montorio.  Here, as in St. Anthony’s in Louvan, the noble Franciscan community, in the best tradition of St. Francis, gave princely hospitality to our fellow countrymen, in their hour of need, and a last resting place in their hour of death.

We come to the Eternal City – not the intended or preferred destination of the Earls – but, nevertheless, a city where they were welcomed with great courtesy and respect and honour.  We remember the fact that they were given the rare privilege of carrying the canopy at the Papal Corpus Christi procession. 

The departure of the Earls was one of our history’s greatest milestones.  It has been described as perhaps the most significant event since the coming of St. Patrick in terms of its impact on our country’s destiny.  Of course, now at a distance of 400 years, it is very hard for us to try and imagine the anguish and the turmoil involved. 

The facts are well known.  After their disastrous defeat at Kinsale, the Earls had surrendered at Mellifont.  O’Neill had then gone to London, in the company of Mountjoy, to be well received and formally pardoned.  Once again it appeared, that despite all that had happened, the State was placing its trust on the new Irish nobles.  But things don’t always work out as planned.  So it was that on 4 September 1607 O’Neill, quickly gathering his family together, sailed from Rathmullen for the continent.  The effect of their departure was to raise the possibility of the confiscation and colonisation of Ulster.  In December 1607 they were adjudged to have forfeited their lands to the Crown. 

I have often been asked the question:  What is there to celebrate about the Flight of the Earls?  It is not an easy question to answer but, at this point in time, people are daring to hope that we are celebrating the end of four centuries of unhappy conflict and of bitter, sometimes very bitter, Anglo-Irish relations and the arrival of a very different relationship.

There is a certain poignancy in Tadhg O Cianáin’s contemporary account of another arrival – the arrival of the Earls in the City.

“They went on after that, through the noble streets of Rome, in great splendour.  They did not rest till they reached the great church of St Peter in the Vatican.  They put up their horses there and entered the Church.  They worshipped and went around, as on pilgrimage, the seven chief privileged altars of great merit.” 

But, three months later Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrone died. He was buried in this Church on 28 July 1608. 
The sense of disbelief, of denial, of alarm and of ruin among the people of Ireland is well captured in these verses from a poem by Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird:

“That the hand of O’Donnell of Dun os Samh
has fallen, (if it is true) in Italy.
Since that is the cause of thy distress,
it is no groundless alarm.

However it be, if the land of the children of Conaill,
should hear what I have been told,
she would think it her own ruin,
that right land of clear waterfalls and cool mounds.”

That the Earls should, as their first deed on their arrival in Rome, proceed to St Peter’s to worship, is worthy of note and celebration. They had experienced humiliation and defeat, they had been exiled from their native land, yet their first instinct on arriving in the Eternal City was to honour God and give thanks for their lives and for their faith. It is striking that the faith which had been the very cause of their suffering at home, found itself so immediately at home in this city. It is as if, in the words of our Gospel, they had run from the ‘voice of the stranger’ in Ireland to find in St. Peter’s the voice that ‘they knew’, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who had led them through the valley of darkness to pastures fresh and green. Suffering can divide us from God or it can draw us nearer to God.  We rejoice that their sufferings seem to have brought the Earls nearer to their Creator into a deeper appreciation that the Good Shepherd is indeed the King of Love whose goodness never fails.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, a time of renewal for the Catholics in north-east Ireland was underway.  It came about thanks to the arrival of priests and religious, trained here in Europe, in the Irish Colleges on the Continent.  They were able to function because they received hospitality in the homes of the Catholic families of the Pale.  From there they undertook their mission of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, despite the fact that church buildings were often in ruins.

The Catholic Archbishop of Armagh at the time, Peter Lombard, was here in Rome and was never able to set foot in his Diocese.  I’m sure the people back home may have, at times, felt leaderless and without a shepherd. By contrast, in 1612, Bishop Blessed Cornelius O’Devany OFM, of Down and Connor and Blessed Patrick O’Loughran of Donaghmore, Co Tyrone, were martyred for their faith.  I am sure their sacrifice played no small part in giving hope and courage to the Catholic people of the north at the time.

So, what we commemorate today then is a time of tumultuous change and uncertainty in Irish affairs. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another, the beginning of a long chapter, of some four hundred years of unrest, uncertainty and tribulation.  It was the beginning of four centuries of unhappy, bitter, sometimes acrimonious Anglo-Irish relations.

Happily today Britain and Ireland enjoy a very different relationship. Thanks to the patient effort of many ‘good shepherds’ at local and national level, wise and courageous leaders,  the relationship between Britain and Ireland has never been more interdependent, more characterised by respect and solidarity than it is today. Our geographical and historic proximity is at once a gift and an opportunity. It means that in spite of all that has happened in the past, the relationship between Britain and Ireland will always be a special one, one of mutual possibility and promise and I think it needs to be clearly noted that the development of the broader European project was critical to the healing of this relationship. Indeed the transformation of the relationship between Ireland and Britain generally, and the Northern Ireland peace process in particular, is one of the most recent and tangible manifestations of the founding aims of the European Union.

This is but one reason why today we should give thanks for those who took the vision and experience of St. Columbanus, St. Gaul, Hugh O’Neill and the other Earls, to its logical conclusion by founding a European Union.  It is a Union based on interdependence and solidarity as the principles of enduring peace. To commemorate the flight of the Earls is to celebrate the intimate and irreversible links between Ireland and the rest of Europe. To celebrate the principles of interdependence, solidarity and peace which inspire the European Union, is to celebrate values which are at the very heart of the Gospel. They are the values which allowed the Earls, as people of faith, to feel ‘at home’ in the Europe of their day.

This is why I believe that developing the concept of a ‘Europe of values’ remains a critical but somewhat unresolved dimension of the European Union. In the context of an increasing technocratic and economic emphasis within Europe, otherwise the vision which inspired the fundamental project of the European Union can. all to easily, be lost. As a recent Report of the Bishops of COMECE in Brussels put it:

‘The European Union was not fated to happen…. It is, as is all human endeavour, fragile. Today it is searching for the way forward. It must become more aware of the strength which lies at the heart of the values it enshrines.  Values such as dignity of the human being and human rights, peace, freedom, democracy, tolerance, respect for diversity and subsidiarity, and the search for the common good without any one group being dominant over another… Their roots lie deep in two thousand years of Christian tradition, as also in the traditions of other creeds and philosophies. Those values and that tradition are as powerful now as they were in the past. They must remain the foundation of our common endeavour, which we must pursue with consistent and determined leadership.’

This last point has particular significance for people of faith. Unlike the Earls in their day, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those of religious faith to feel completely ‘at home’ today with what appear to be the dominant values of the European Union. Some have even developed an innate disposition of suspicion towards any proposal from the Union, or its bodies, which has an ethical dimension. Put simply, people of religious faith who may be natural enthusiasts of the concept of a European Union, increasingly approach European developments with scepticism.  The reason is this, they have an expectation that a secular, relativist and utilitarian approach dominates ethical considerations.  For example, it would appear that the right to maintain a distinctive ethos, even in religious institutions is constantly under threat.  Issues such as the nature of marriage, the family or the origin and end of life have to be constantly defended and justified against a dominant centralising and standardising tendency.
This is why the structured dialogue between Governments, Churches and faith communities proposed in the Lisbon Treaty and already established by the Irish Government is so important. It would be regrettable if some people, on the assumption that the European Union is innately hostile to particular religious or ethical values, were to misjudge or misrepresent other critical European developments. On the other hand, this failure to give due recognition, equality and protection to the objective, rational and often shared ethical values of large numbers of citizens within the Union, undermines the very principle of tolerance and diversity on which the Union itself is based. That failure may also become a source of increasing threat to the successful progress of important European developments. It undermines the principle of subsidiarity and diversity on which so much of the success of the Union has been based to date.

Today, as we celebrate ten years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we give thanks for the progress made in bringing peace to Ireland, especially Northern Ireland.  One of the lessons we can learn from the period of the Flight of the Earls is that where peace is concerned, there can never be grounds for complacency.  There can be no substitute for justice and truth, solidarity and respect, tolerance and reconciliation, as the basis of an enduring peace.   A ‘brittle peace’ of a sort descended on Ulster after the Flight of the Earls but it was short-lived as the history of the century that ensued has shown.  But it was short-lived precisely because the basis for genuine peace was missing.  

We have every reason to believe that the current peace in Northern Ireland is more than a ‘brittle peace’. However, the experience of the previous four centuries should spur us on to build and consolidate the peace and to build it into a just and stable peace for all. 

We thank God who, in His infinite mercy, has sustained the people who negotiated the peace in Northern Irelands.  We pray that, in His mercy, He will now lead all the people of Ireland, Britain and Europe into an era of even greater harmony and understanding and mutual respect. 

It is hoped that, in the process, people will not become so obsessed by material progress that they will forget the help given to them by God through those centuries of tribulation set in train by the plight and flight of the Earls.

Today we also remember the great European leaders of modern times and recognise their positive influence in shepherding the human family for the common good of peace along the ways of justice and prosperity.  Good shepherds are trusting.  They trust others to follow them and in turn they inspire trust in those who they lead. They are happy to be humble instruments through which others can go freely in and out making their own way to live life to the full. 

Today we pray that God will continue to bless Europe with leaders who will look into their hearts and ask themselves are they real shepherds of the nations entrusted to their leadership.   Are they people who will have the courage to see and respect both the spiritual and material needs in the lives of all; leaders who will assess positively the things of real value such as life, family, marriage.
Hugh O’Neill was a man for whom religious faith mattered.  His dealing with Europe and his migration to Rome reminds us that our contact with Europe began long before the second half of the twentieth century, before the development of the Common Market and later the European Union.

As we celebrate his memory and those of his colleagues and friends who rest in this place, let us ask the Good Shepherd to guide each of us and his Church through the challenges of our own time. The future belongs to those who can give reasons for hope. The Earls never lost their hope.  Even though they mourned their beloved homeland in exile, their first hope was always the Good Shepherd who, as the opening hymn says, is someone ‘true to his name’.  Whose goodness faileth never.  Such hope, St. Paul reminds us, is not confounded. Surely goodness and kindness shall follow us, all the days of our life. And in the Lord’s own house shall we dwell, for ever and ever.