About ten days ago I was attending a function in the Slieve Russell in Ballyconnell.  As I was leaving this fine young man from Ballyhaise greeted me with a smile, came over and shook hands and reminded me who he was.  He welcomed me back to my native county.  He knows who he is, I know who he is, God knows who he is and I am not going to embarrass him in any way.  But I really did appreciate that gesture because I think it sums up and typifies all that is best about the parish of Castletara and the village of Ballyhaise. 

How can I describe what I mean by, ‘all that is best’ about this parish and its people?  I mean that you are people whose hearts and minds are open to welcome good news and to welcome people.  Like Mary, in tonight’s Gospel, the people who gather to praise God here in St Mary’s and in St Patrick’s in Castletara are people who are thankful.  You are thankful, I think, to God for the gift of life.  I get the impression you are happy to be living in a beautiful part of the world on the banks of the Annalee and you are at ease and in friendship with your neighbours and your acquaintances.

I congratulate all of you, but especially Father Ray and the Parish Pastoral Council Committee, on the completion of this extension to this Church of St. Mary.  In times of recession it is good to hear some good news.  This extension is, I understand, going to be used for prayer and praise, for worship and adoration. 

In 2012 the next International Eucharistic Congress will be held in Ireland.  It is generally accepted that the most important part of the preparations will be prayers and study.  It will be prayers to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and study of the importance of Jesus remaining with us – in good times and bad – to offer consolation in the face of disaster and to provide hope in the face of desolation which recession often brings. 

I understand that this Pastoral Council are going out to office and I thank each and every one of you for your dedicated commitment during your tenure in bringing about this wonderful extension and the help you have given to the priests in the running of the parish.  I am pleased also to hear of the careful planning that has gone into the preparation of this Mass.  I know that people have been chosen to carry out certain functions – for very definite reasons that link them back to my year in this parish.

So tonight I repeat with Mary, ‘My heart praises the Lord’.  I thank God with all my heart for my time here in Ballyhaise, for all the friendship and prayers with which you have helped me all these years.  It is hard to believe that it is almost 14 years.  Much has happened, many things have changed, but thank God many things remain the same.  Tonight we thank God for all of you whose faith has remained strong, despite the trials, tribulations and temptations which may have come your way.

Many have died since I was here last. We remember them in a special way tonight.  In my house in Armagh I have a little Chapel – an Oratory.  There I place memorial cards of those who have died.  Just before I left today I spotted one of a man from this parish, Charlie Young, and the thought it contains give me great consolation.  It says: ‘Those who die in grace, go no further than God and God is very near’.  I suppose the challenge therefore is for all of us to discover that Jesus is very near and to discover and to know that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus who suffered and died for love of us, is very near.

Next month I am going to Rome for a meeting.  We will be talking about the Word of God and how we read it and hear it.  Could I ask you to please pray that the discussions will bear fruit?  Maybe some of you would be so good as to read a passage from the Bible every day and talk to Jesus about it and ask Him to guide our discussions and to guide all of us, you and us, in our lives through His Word.

I often think of the young people of this parish,

•    whether in the schools, St Patrick’s and St Mary’s – and by the way, congratulations on that beautiful new school at Castletara –
•    whether it is the young people playing camogie or football in the park,
•    whether it is Castletara Band,
•    whether it is in the Agricultural College,

I think of the many students from here whom I taught in St Patrick’s College, Cavan, all those years ago.

These are difficult times for young people.  Last Sunday, in Lourdes, Pope Benedict made a speech to the young people.  He reminded them that God is looking at each one of them personally and calling them to a life of happiness, a life that has meaning and purpose.  He appealed to them not to be defeated by difficulties – Mary was troubled by the message of the Angel Gabriel who was asking her to become the Mother of Jesus – but Mary said, yes, to that call and by so doing she made sure that the Saviour of the world would be born.

Pope Benedict reminded the young people in Lourdes not to be afraid to say yes to the invitation of Jesus to follow Him. I repeat his call to the young people of this parish to respond generously to Jesus – by finding time to pray each day, by having the courage and making the effort to come to Mass each Sunday – because only Jesus can satisfy the deepest desires of your hearts.  Only He can lead you to lasting hope and joy. 

In Lourdes, last Sunday, the Pope prayed that Mary might help those called to marriage to discover the beauty of deep and lasting love.  In this year of Vocations I would wish to ask Mary to help each one of us here present, young and old, single or married, to discover the way to happiness which God has planned for us.  Naturally, I would be delighted if some were to find that this road led to priesthood and religious life, as it has done for many in the past.  Mary is, for all of us, a Beacon of Hope.  I think it is no harm to remember that here in this Church dedicated to her honour.  She is a Beacon of Hope especially for those who are sick and housebound.  I remember, with affection, the sick and the housebound whom I used to visit on the First Friday.

I praise God, with all my heart, for the example they gave us all, of patience, deep faith and hope in the face of sometimes terrible suffering.  For the Lord who is mighty did great things for them.  The same Lord can, and does, do great things for each one of us.  Mary can, and will, do great things for each one of us too, if only we allow her, if only we ask her.  Happy are those who put their trust in Jesus, the Son of Mary and the Son of God.  As He offered His life on the Cross, He offered His mother to each one of us to be our mother.  She will give us hope, even in the darkest nights.