14 OCTOBER, 2003

On Friday, 29 September 1979 – a lovely sunny day – Pope John Paul II came to Ireland. At Dublin airport he expressed his happiness at being in the land of St Patrick by reciting the Breastplate of St Patrick,

Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me.

That the Pope should come to Ireland was something wonderful and the people recognised this and turned out in their millions to welcome him and show their love for him. But that he should come so early in his Pontificate, making Ireland only the second country he was to visit after his native Poland, was really remarkable. It was meant as a tribute to the fidelity of the Irish in the face of persecution.

That the Pope should come to Ireland in the first full year of his reign as Pope and that on his first day in Ireland he would set foot in the diocese of Armagh, was a great honour and a great privilege. He flew North to Drogheda. The original plan was for him to come to Armagh. Archbishop George Simms, of the Church of Ireland, had warmly invited him to do so. The invitation of Archbishop Simms had been taken up and repeated by leaders and members of other Churches, including many from Northern Ireland. But fear of violence had made those who were planning the trip, settle for Drogheda.

Everyone has their favourite story of the Pope’s visit to Ireland. I was fortunate enough to be involved in organising some of the transport for the Holy Father. I flew in the helicopter with the Holy Father from Drogheda back to Dublin. On Sunday morning, before the Holy Father left, there was a bit of a crisis when fog prevented the helicopters flying into the Nunciature to take him down to Maynooth and then on to Limerick and Shannon. As he waited for the arrival of transport I was introduced with the words, “This is the man responsible for the helicopters”. The Holy Father responded immediately saying, “Oh, he is not responsible for the helicopters, it is the weather”.

This Thursday, the Holy Father is set to celebrate 25 years as Supreme Pastor of our Church. This makes him the fourth longest reining Pontiff in history, after St Peter, Pius IX and Leo XIII. So this evening we give thanks to God for our present Holy Father and especially for the pastoral care and love, which Jesus Christ always gives to His people. He promised that care to Simon Peter when he had praised his faith. Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said, “Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man, for it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. I say to you. You are Peter, upon this rock I will build my Church.”

That was the promise of Jesus and Jesus always keeps his promises. He always fulfils his promises. He fulfilled that promise to Peter, after the resurrection. Before that there was another important meeting with Peter when he said, “Peter, Satan wanted to have you and to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail. And you, once you have been converted, must confirm your brothers in the faith. Thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren”. Jesus fulfilled his promise, after the resurrection. Before his ascension into heaven, he turned to Simon Peter and he said, “Do you love me more than these?” Three times he asked that question. “Do you love me more than these?” And then He said to him. “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

This week, and tonight in particular, we give thanks to God for Pope John Paul II. He continues, in season and out of season, to strengthen the faith of God’s people with his words but above all, with his example. Last week as we began our celebrations of this Jubilee – with the celebration of the Day for Life – we were reminded of this central idea of his pontificate.

Over the last 25 years Pope John Paul has often spoken about suffering. He has experienced, and is experiencing, suffering in his own life. He encourages the sick and has an amazing love for those who are ill, especially sick children. He never tires of encouraging those who are sick and those who look after them and care for the sick; to try and see every human situation had especially suffering, in the light of everlasting life. We are all travelling on a journey towards that ever-lasting life and sometimes the road is rough because of the sickness and the problems and trials which we endure.

Pope John Paul has given a lot of his energy over the last twenty-five years to teaching the Gospel of Life. He does so because he sees life as such an amazing gift. He has spoken out against all those who deliberately destroy or irresponsibly endanger life. He has condemned those who abuse the limited resources of this earth as if they could never be exhausted. This is irresponsible behaviour because it threatens the quality of life of future generations.

Next Sunday is Mission Sunday. The Holy Father has already sent us a message. He reminds us that the number of those who do not know Christ and who do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase. There is a longing in all men and women – no matter how poor they are – to have their deep thirst for God and for His mercy sated and satisfied. We who already know Christ can help others in various ways to come to know Him also.

In 1996 Pope John Paul reminded the whole Church that the consecrated life of religious men and women is a great gift. On Sunday next the Holy Father is going to beatify Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was a great missionary and great religious. She is Foundress of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa came to our city one year before she died – in a wheelchair – to open the House of her missionaries here in Armagh. We rejoice with, and congratulate the Missionaries of Charity on what will be a wonderful occasion for them.

Tonight we give thanks to God for his gift of the papacy to the Church and for Karol Wojtyla. The Pope is the successor of Peter. He is the source and foundation of the unity of the people of God. We are to remain united with him for he is the one who takes the place of Jesus Christ. United with him we are united to each other and to Christ.

Pope John Paul has travelled the world in over 100 pastoral visits to cement and strengthen and reinforce that unity. ‘Do not be afraid, put out into the deep. Open your hearts to Christ and to His love’. This is his constant message.

The millions of young people who travel to World Youth Days show that Pope John Paul knows how to strengthen their faith also. He has written inspiring words to the families of the world inviting them to walk in the Spirit of Nazareth. In 1988 the Pope was writing to the lay-faithful of the world asking them to obey the command of Christ to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to the whole of creation.

It has been noted that every great reform in the history of the Catholic Church involved the priesthood. Pope John Paul II, would, I think, share that view. Every one of his pastoral pilgrimages around the world included a meeting with local priests. Through his annual series of letters to priests, issued on Holy Thursday, he has tried to strengthen the priesthood. John Paul sees the priesthood as a unique sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

To be a priest – in the eyes of Pope John Paul II – is not to perform a task or play a role but really to become another Christ. Ordination confers a solemn obligation to serve the Christian people after the model of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Our leadership in the Christian community, is not defined by power, but is by service. The priest is someone who makes a total gift of himself to the Church following the example of Jesus Christ. May our celebration of this Jubilee make us priests and bishops ever more generous in that service.

Tonight we ask God to continue to bless abundantly Pope John Paul II – the Vicar of Jesus Christ – teacher – priest and shepherd. We ask Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom he has dedicated his whole service of her son Jesus, to watch over him and protect him. AMEN