SUNDAY 22 MAY 2005

Your Excellency, my brother bishops, Mons Mohan, Prior, Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ, we gather in this holy place of pilgrimage, on the Feast of the Most Blessed Trinity. We come together in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose it is not very original to say that life is a pilgrimage, a journey from birth to death, a voyage of discovery so to speak. At the same time it is a truth that we are inclined to neglect and to push to the back of our mind. What is even more neglected, in my opinion, are questions such as these:

What is there before birth?
Where do I come from?
Why am I here at all?
Where am I going?
Where am I meant to go after death?
What should I be doing now to ensure that I get to my final destination?

And yet, I am sure that these are the sort of questions that are obvious to lots of people. They must occur to everyone, at some stage or other. Perhaps it is precisely because today we run the risk of “losing our Christian memory and of squandering an inheritance entrusted to us by history”, that Pope Benedict XVI decided to include, in his Coat of Arms, the scallop shell. For traditionally the shell is the symbol of the pilgrim.

For example, every pilgrim who goes to Compostela, Spain’s most famous place of pilgrimage in honour of St. James, receives a present of a shell. I am also told, that once upon a time the pilgrim received only as much food as the shell could hold. So today, as we stand on Ireland’s most ancient place of pilgrimage, for the happy event of blessing a most welcome addition to the already extensive and well-appointed facilities, on which we congratulate Bishop Duffy and the diocese of Clogher, I think it is appropriate that we should reflect a little bit on this notion of pilgrimage.

A Pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place, places such as
The Holy Land
The shrines of Our Lady such as Lourdes, Fatima and Knock;
The tombs of the apostles, Peter and Paul in Rome;

Places associated with our national apostle Patrick, such as Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick.
Pilgrimage is a feature of religions right across the borders of time and culture. Christianity, alone of the three great Monotheistic religions, does not impose pilgrimage as a religious duty. Nevertheless Christians have been going on pilgrimage since the earliest times.

A Pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place for some religious purpose. The journey reminds us of the journey of life. We are a pilgrim people – away from home – Heaven is our real home. We have not here a lasting kingdom; we seek one that is to come. In ancient Syria there were monks who took as their rule, walking from dawn to sunset to tell people that we are all on a journey to Heaven. We hold that our earthly pilgrimage is driven and directed by the human capacity and desire for a life of communion with God.

The words of Augustine sum it all up when he said, “You have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”.

But pilgrimage also means another type of journey – the journey inwards. The journey towards knowing one’s self. It is a journey, which all believers must undertake. We talk about arriving at the Pearly Gates and being met by St. Peter. Of being introduced to a wonderful banquet where we will behold the face of God, and feast on its delights and have all our desires fulfilled in a joy that knows no ending, that is total gladness and perfect bliss. But that is the final destination.

What about the stations along the route? The first station is that of knowing self. We believe that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. So, the first pilgrimage we are called to make is a journey involved in really knowing ourselves. We are meant to accept and cherish our deepest self as an image of God – the first image of God we have. We must know and love ourselves as pilgrims in order to sustain the journey and grow to maturity along the way.

The pilgrimage of life is a life-long process. There is no such thing as standing still. It is a process of discovery, of uncovering the image of God that each one of us is in the depth of our being. It is not just a matter of uncovering something already there – but also of developing and embodying that image of God in every aspect of our life and world. It is a pilgrimage and task of never-ending conversion. Always we are being changed into the reality, which we reflect.

The second station is to notice that we do not journey alone. We move within the community of faith, a cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and the struggling pilgrims at our side. There are those who have gone before us. They have mapped out the journey for us by the example of their lives. Through their example and their legacy, we have some idea of where we come from, where we are going and how to get there.

The only way by which we will know whether we are making progress on this pilgrimage is if we show compassion towards the other pilgrims at our side. We can never fully know where they are on their journey, what they are going through, what may be holding them back from progress. The real journey takes place in the depth of the soul – it cannot be seen.

The third station tells us that yes, we are travelling through this world but we are not unaware of this world – we are not neglectful of this world for our spiritual journey involves a commitment to the improvement of creation. All Christians must help to make present the Kingdom of God and its justice in all those areas and situations in which they find themselves – each one according to his or her unique journey and call.

Finally, the spiritual pilgrimage is only possible in relation to the final destination, which is the mystery of God, Father, Son and Spirit. The pilgrim is from beginning to end accompanied by a good and gracious God. God takes the first initiative, supports our every step along the way, and delivers the final fulfilment in the form of face-to-face communion. It is up to us to believe in Word who calls us, to hope in the promise that keeps us going and to surrender in love to the One who will carry the journey through to completion.
We stand on holy ground – ground made holy by the footsteps of millions of pilgrims over a millennium of years. Pilgrims who were disciples of Christ and who came here to fast and to pray, to stay awake and deprive themselves of sleep, to chastise their bodies and bring them into subjection lest they become castaways. They came inspired by the memory of the fast of Jesus in the desert and by the six years of Patrick on Slemish. They came that they might make progress in the voyage of discovery of the knowledge of themselves, made in the image of God. They came to be apart – clear their heads and sort out their priorities. They came that they might grow in maturity of their relationship with their fellow human beings. They came that they might make progress on the journey of appreciating the beauty and goodness of all of creation. They came here on their pilgrimage towards their final destiny – union with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or perhaps they came for more ordinary motives:

To pray for the health of a sick child or for their own health;
To give thanks for the birth of a child or the cure of a loved one;
To express their gratitude that someone had regained their faith and come back to the practice of their religion.

Perhaps they came in moments of confusion or despair to rediscover hope.

It is one of the miracles of the mass media of communications that they often filter to the general public the insights found in the human science – for example, the science of psychology. The result is that more and more people nowadays see human life as a journey of development, a voyage of discovery, a growth towards maturity and pilgrimage towards wholeness and fulfilment. To be human is be a traveller, a wayfarer, a pilgrim.

Of course the believer has known this all along since he holds that the pilgrimage in question is driven by the capacity which every human being has for the life of friendship with God. The believer holds that on the journey of life we are, at all stages, accompanied by a loving God. Hence the importance of places like Lough Derg where people can draw apart and be still and silent for a while and come to recognise the spirit of the Lord and his gracefilled presence that accompany every stage of life.

So, my hope is that Lough Derg will continue to be a place where people are set free – set free of fear; especially of the fear of the future which is often seen nowadays as bleak and uncertain, and from the fear of loneliness for example. Set free for works of charity and solidarity and affection.

My hope is that many young people will come here and enjoy the peace and security, which only a place of prayer and penance like this can offer. Its Patron, Patrick came to Ireland as a boy of sixteen years, rather lukewarm in his faith and indifferent in his practice of the faith. But thrown on his own on the slopes of Slemish, he learned to put his trust in God. In the process he came to know a loving Father a compassionate Saviour and a consoling Advocate. May that be the experience of everyone – young and old – who come to Lough Derg. The spirituality of Patrick has much to offer us as we come to terms with the fact that the only future in this part of Ireland is going to be a shared future. My hope is that, young and old, Protestant and Catholic, will come to share their hopes and futures in the safe space of this lovely island and learn from the example of Patrick who returned to the help of the Irish despite their earlier appalling treatment of him.

So today we thank God for Lough Derg and for place like it – places where people go apart and savour all that God has prepared for those who love him. A place where we jog our Christian memory and take steps to ensure that the inheritance entrusted to us by history will not be squandered.

We gather in the context of the Year of the Eucharist – a year dedicated by Pope John Paul II to renewal of our devotion to three things:

1. The Sunday Mass,
2. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and
3. The Celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The pilgrimage from the home – the domestic church – to the parish church, which the family makes each week to worship God in the celebration of the Holy Mass, is probably the most important pilgrimage of all. It has immense importance for the development of our relationship to oneself, to others, to the world and the mystery of God.

The celebration of the Blessed Eucharist has always had a central position in the ceremonies on Lough Derg. Today we thank God for the priests who have provided that service – first there were the Augustinians, later the Franciscans and since 1790, the priests of the diocese of Clogher. The three-day order of exercises still observed is based on a scheme drawn up in 1613.

Today we thank and congratulate the Bishop, the Prior and the priests of Clogher – not alone for the high quality of liturgy and preaching which are synonymous with Lough Derg and made available for pilgrims from all over the world – but we congratulate them also on the vision and the courage revealed in the development of Lough Derg over the last twenty-five (25) years. The modern Lough Derg is a Sign of Great Hope because it is a sign of Jesus Christ alive in His Church and a sign of hope for all.