14 August 2009
Cardinal Seán Brady
On this day, August 14th, 68 years ago, Maximilian Kolbe, journalist publisher, broadcaster and intellectual was executed. His death took place in the death camp of Auschwitz. His crime was that of setting up a refugee camp for some three thousand Poles and two thousand Jews. Possibly he was also accused of taking an independent line, critical of the Third Reich. In the same camp a young husband and father was about to be sent to the notorious Cell 13. Cell 13 was a place of torture and death. Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take his place with the words “I am a Catholic Priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old. He has a wife and child”.
After two weeks of starvation and thirst Kolbe was still alive. The guards were outraged not only because he was alive but also because he was so serene and cheerful. So they promptly dispatched him with an injection of carbolic acid. His death was, in the words of one survivor, “a shock, filled with hope, bringing new life and strength”.
In 1982 Maximilian Kolbe was declared a Saint by Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, formerly Archbishop of Krakow, the diocese which contains Auschwitz. Present at the ceremony was Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek whose life had been saved. We celebrate St Maximillian’s feast today.
Recently someone encouraged me to watch a film called ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. I am glad I did. It tells the story of the friendship between two small boys who lived on either side of the fence of such a death camp. The film reminded me of the day I visited Auschwitz. I will never forget the moment I stood in grim silence at the threshold of Cell 13. As the number 13 suggests, it was a place of no hope and yet from it came forth this amazing story of sacrifice and hope.
The theme of our novena this year is “Seeds of Hope”. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was a beacon of hope in the midst of the most unspeakable evil and darkest despair. His heroic offering of his life to save that young husband and father, was the culmination of a life of hope. It was a life modelled on the life of Jesus Christ. Kolbe had dedicated himself to spreading the message of Jesus as a journalist, as a broadcaster. He had cared for the weak and oppressed, especially the refugees. He finally sacrificed himself to save the life of an innocent man after the example of Jesus on Calvary.
Maximilian Kolbe had a hard life. Two of his brothers died in infancy. His father was executed by the Russians. He himself contracted tuberculosis after ordination and struggled with it all his life. As he said himself “he lived under the constant shadow of death”. To all appearances, he hadn’t much reason for hope. So it is timely and important that we reflect today on where he found his hope so that we too may find our hope.
Since this time last year, as we are constantly told, there has been a dramatic downturn in the economy. That downturn has raised many new and disturbing challenges to hope. I imagine, for example, that some people here today may be worried about their job, their finances or the future of their home. This is something that was quite unthinkable a short time ago.
Some of you may be still struggling to cope with the death of a loved one or the breakup of a treasured relationship. Other may be worried about ill health or failed exams or a change of plans and prospects. Or perhaps you are here to pray for the well-being of loved ones, either here or abroad. Maybe your concern is for someone you love who is suffering from depression or blighted by addiction to alcohol or drugs.
Lots of things tend to dash our hopes. Whatever it is that causes you to struggle with hope at this time, I pray that this Novena will be a source of healing and renewal of hope for each one of us and for our country. I pray that today may be a powerful occasion of grace, mediated through Our Lady of Knock, the Mother of all Hope. May it help each of us to rediscover the unshakable hope that comes from knowing Her Son, Jesus Christ, and the power of his resurrection – that is, the power of his victory over all suffering, all evil and all death. I pray especially that it will be a time of healing and renewal for those whose lives are broken or wounded in any way.
Research suggests that in difficult times we can do a number of things to improve our sense of hope. They include having a deep inner faith, maintaining a positive outlook, having goals or plans, finding meaning in life, being open to new possibilities and being connected to others.
Young people are likely to place more emphasis on finding hope in having clear goals and plans than older people. It suggests that the older we get, the more likely we are to draw hope from having a deep inner faith. I believe this is because the older you get the more you realise, in the words of the poet Robbie Burns, that ‘the best laid plans of mice and men, gang oft agley, And leave us naught but grief and pain, for promised joy!’
God, on the other hand, does have a plan. It is a reliable plan – a trustworthy plan. – a plan for our fulfilment and joy. God says to each and everyone of us, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have in mind for you – plans for peace, not for disaster!’
Being saved in Jesus Christ is about trusting in this plan of God. It is about trusting in it every moment of every day. It is about believing, ‘that in all things God works for good with those who love him’ (Rms 8:28).
Absolute trust in this plan allowed Maximillian Kolbe to remain a bright star of hope in the midst of the dark despair of cell 13. In a rare letter to his mother while in the death camp he wrote: “Do not worry about me or my health, for the good Lord is everywhere and holds every one of us in his great love. Mary gives me strength. All will be well.” These are the words of a man who had discovered the truth of God’s eternal plan for each of us and found the deepest meaning of life. They are the words of a man whose life had been utterly saved and redeemed by his confidence in God’s promise to be faithful.
And this brings me to a dimension of hope which I believe is at risk in Ireland today. In the 70’s and 80’s it was quite common in Ireland for religious leaders to express concern about a loss of the sense of sin, even though good and evil were still such evident realities among us. Today the issue is even more fundamental. Fewer and fewer people understand what it means to be saved, even though more and more would seem lost in a meaningless cycle of escapism and emptiness.
It reminds me of the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. His life is a metaphor for those who live without hope, without meaning, or without purpose. I suspect more and more people are finding themselves in sympathy with Sisyphus as the full impact of the global economic turmoil of recent months bites deeper.
In the Gospel today, Jesus reminds us that we can do something to break this cycle of hopelessness and despair. He reminds us that hope is bolstered by action. When he reached down to heal the man with the withered hand, try to imagine the scene. Imagine how much that poor man must have suffered because of his disability, but he comes, full of hope, that this famous wonder-worker from Nazareth, might pour out some healing power on him. And Jesus, full of the surpassing love that God bears towards all his children, obliges. Jesus broke through the hardness of heart of those around him to reveal the God of all consolation. He reached out to heal by bringing to that man, the gentleness of God. This is how we, in turn, can bring healing and hope to the broken and the wounded. We too can become the hands, the face, the voice of the God spoken of by St Paul in the second reading – a God, who comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we can, in turn, offer to others, in their sorrows, the consolation we ourselves have received.
Like St Maximillian Kolbe, we too can be witnesses to hope in our own generation, in our own time and in our own circumstances. We too are called to heal others and our country with our compassionate healing love. We can do so in lots of different ways:
• We can examine our consciences about how we have been living our lives in recent years. I can ask myself honestly: what values have been driving my life, my time and my use of resources in recent years and how will I act differently in the future?
• We can try to reconnect with others around us and to improve the quality of our relationships with spouses, children and our wider family? This is one of the most valuable things we could do to rebuild a culture of hope.
• We can seek ways of working with others to create strong and inclusive local communities, communities rooted in care for others, especially those left most vulnerable by the economic downturn. Here the attitudes which influence our behaviour should be the attitudes of the compassionate caring Christ.
• We can rediscover the apparently lost art of forgiveness and put that forgiveness into practice. Jesus once asked the Pharisees this very important question: do you not know the meaning of the words – I want mercy, not sacrifice? When we forgive someone, we show them mercy. We liberate them, and ourselves, from the burden of past wrongs and hurts. This, in itself, opens up the possibility of hope, the hope of a better future free from the darkness and bitterness of the past.
Evidence suggests that those who are constantly exposed to negativity, cynicism and despair are more likely to become negative and despairing themselves. Of course, if we want to be realistic and build a genuine culture of hope, we should not ignore the prophets of doom. However, we would do well to limit our exposure to them. We should try to achieve a balance by being more careful and discerning about the type of literature we read and the amount of television programmes we watch.
This begs the question: How do I nourish hope? For a start we could take more time to reflect and to pray. To help us, each of us has available to us exactly the same resources, in fact far more resources, than were available to St Maximillian Kolbe. Here I am talking about the vast resources of modern technology and communications. There we can find the Sacred Scriptures, the lives of the saints, the teachings of the Church, These are all living springs of encouragement which nourish and sustain our hope.
Pope Benedict’s most recent encyclical is called Charity in Truth. In it he discusses economic activity around the world. It is a subject that has received quite a lot of attention in recent times and in many quarters. For his part, Pope Benedict calls for economic activity “carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit”! There he would include economic entities that draw their origin from both religious and lay initiatives. I would love to see some of our many serious and distinguished economic analysts reflect upon and tease out the implications of what the Pope has said.
It is probably an understatement to say that confidence in many commercial banks is declining and that disillusionment has set in. Has the time not come for responsible Catholic economists to take the lead in developing some, not for profit, systems of lending, saving and insurance, built on an ethic of authentic human development? Such initiatives would certainly increase the hope of a more humane and ethically robust economy.
The Credit Union is one such initiative. The Knights of Columbus Ethical Investment Programme in the U.S. is another. It would be tragic if nothing is learned from this recession. There is one thing we could all learn – a certain wariness.
Pope Benedict recommends being wary of “a speculative use of financial resources that leads to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise”.
The culture of hope is enhanced by building a culture of respect for life, from the moment of conception to natural death. All true charity begins with valuing human life. That means welcoming each new human life and sustaining our concern for the well-being of every person throughout that person’s life, up to the moment of natural death.
The continued effort of individuals and groups to introduce abortion to Ireland and the increasing pressure to accede to legalised euthanasia are a fundamental threat to human hope. They threaten the inherent dignity of us all.
Respect for life is a pre-requisite of hope. “Openness to life is at the centre of true development,” Pope Benedict reminds us and “the acceptance of life”, he continues, “strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help.” When we speak of bringing healing to the broken and the wounded there are few more vulnerable and exposed than those at either end of the unbroken continuum of human life – the infant and the elderly.
And yet there are some important signs of hope beginning to emerge. Recent research from the United States suggests that for the first time since Roe v. Wade, the United States of America is now a pro-life country. On May 15 of this year, Gallup announced that 51% considered themselves pro-life. It is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. Subsequent polls have confirmed that there has been a significant shift among Americans to the pro-life position.
There are many reasons for this shift. However, there can be no doubt that the concerted effort of Christians from all denominations, and of others, to promote, explain and defend a consistent ethic of life from conception to natural death, played a vital part. This gives real cause to hope that a similar ethic of life can be sustained in Ireland and progressed across Europe if we have the courage and patience to promote and explain it.
Finally, to contribute to a culture of hope, we should all take practical steps to protect the environment and ensure the well-being of our planet for future generations. The way we have plundered the resources of our planet in recent years is disgraceful. The impact of human activity on the climate threatens to jeopardise the very viability of our earthly home. Not only is humanity broken and wounded, our planet itself is broken and wounded. This beautiful planet is God’s creation and his gift to us. We have a responsibility to care for it. Everybody can play their part. These are the seeds of hope which can be nurtured by every one of us. These are some of the signs of hope which are already present among us. There are many others.
Last week two young men in County Cavan, Simon Delaney and Matthew Gibbons, lost their lives tragically when they gallantly went to try to save some people who had got into difficulties. These young men totally forgot about themselves and were concerned about saving others. I extend my sympathy to their grieving parents and families.
• That there exist such people in our midst is, for me, a sign of great hope. It is also a great consolation to their parents and families.
• There were many young people gathered recently here at Knock for the Youth Fest, giving of their time to draw aside and to reflect – I see that as a sign of hope.
• There is a Youth Festival coming up in the diocese of Clonmacnois soon. And many young people have been going to Lough Derg,
• Groups of young people are going out abroad to help build houses for those in need in programmes like Habitat for Humanity. These are all seeds of hope.
There is also the hope of the peace process in the North. There is the hope of greater encounter and understanding between religions and cultures than ever before because of our new means of global communication. These are all solid grounds for hope for humanity and for our future.
Ultimately, however, our earthly hopes are limited. If we do not have an eternal future of love and joy with the Blessed Trinity and with all those who have gone before us, then all our hopes are in vain. This is why St Paul implores us ‘not to rely on ourselves but only on God, who raises the dead to life’.
The God who raises the dead to life is the greatest source of our hope. This is the reason why Maximillian Kolbe and so many other martyrs of our faith could go to their deaths with such serenity and hope. This is why in this novena we turn to the Mother of all hope. We ask her to restore our trust in God’s promise to be with us always, even unto the end of time. It is why we proclaim with Elizabeth: ‘Blessed is she who believed God’s promise to her would be fulfilled.’ It is why we pray with such confidence, Holy Mary, Mother of God – Mother of Hope – pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.