28 APRIL 2010

In the Pastoral Letter to the Irish people, Pope Benedict encourages all of us to rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The Pope invites us to avail ourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.  Transforming power is precisely what it is – because one of the most liberating experiences of life is to discover our own dark side, our sins, to acknowledge their existence in Confession, to ask pardon for their consequences and to be set free from the shadows of guilt.

I am hopeful that the visit of the Relics of St John Vianney may prove to be a providential opportunity to renew our faith in the power of God’s forgiving love in the Sacrament of Confession.  The fact is that we all need forgiveness, whether we know it or not.  The Christian simply cannot ignore the Lord’s call to repent.  None of us is capable of forgiveness in the sense that Christ forgives.  When Christ forgives He reaches into the roots of our being and if we are ready and willing to be touched and healed, then Christ does so.  But no human being can forgive sin.  In fact we cannot change people at all unless we have the capacity to love them with the love of Christ.  If people are going to be touched by the forgiveness which we offer them, then we first need to be freed of an inability to love.

The saints are people who led this amazing appreciation of God’s love for them.  They saw the power which God’s love affected in their lives and they responded to that love in a most remarkable way.

We are gathered this afternoon to welcome the Relics of St John Mary Vianney.  Some people are sceptical about devotion to the relics of the saints.  They think we treat them as if they were a magic wand.  We are devoted to relics because they help our memories.  They remind us that the saints got their heroic strength and ability to love not from themselves but from the merits of Christ, our one and only Saviour.  They also remind us of the importance of our own bodies. It is in our bodies and through our bodies that we live our existence here on this earth.  

John Mary Vianney used his body well to get to know people and to speak to them and to help them figure out why they are here on earth.  The Relics remind us of a man who used his body and his time well, to talk to God and hear Confessions.  In so doing he built up this wonderful friendship with God.  In his 16 hours a day in the confessional, his poor body helped hundreds of thousands to get to know Jesus and to make their peace with him and find their joy in him.

For a long time, as a priest, I had the great desire to visit Ars.  I wanted to see for myself where this great priest spent all those years. Finally I got my chance to go there when I joined the staff of the Irish College in Rome.  In summer I used to drive my car home all the way from Rome, through France, to Ireland.

When I eventually did get to the village of Ars in France what struck me was how small the original Parish Church actually was.  I suppose I shouldn’t really have been surprised as it was only a parish of some two hundred and thirty people when St. Jean Vianney arrived there as its Parish Priest.  All of that changed dramatically as a result of his life of prayer and penance, the power of his sermons and his dedication to hearing confessions in that little Parish Church.  We are told that in the last years of his life some one hundred thousand people, a year, would visit as he spent 16-18 hours each day in the confessional.

Today the Sacrament of Reconciliation is in crisis.  Perhaps this is because this Sacrament is the most personal of all the sacraments, the most intense and therefore the most difficult.  It demands a lot of us.  It is very hard to try to see ourselves as God sees us and to express that condition in words to another person.  It requires such maturity and a capacity to face up to the reality of who we really are as opposed to the person we pretend to, ourselves and to others, to be.  It challenges us to overcome our instinctive self-sufficiency and pride.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation puts us in touch with the very mercy of Christ.  It heals the deepest part of us, our soul – that deepest part of the human person where conscience, character and God’s own presence interact.

I am reminded of something Pope Benedict XVI said in his Letter announcing the Year for the Priests:

‘In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution has long inhibited the practice of religion.  Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance.  By spending long hours in church before the Tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness.  Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the Confessional for up to sixteen hours a day.  It was said that Ars had become “a great hospital for souls”.

If the priest of twenty-first century Ireland is to become a mediator of the grace of the divine healer and doctor of souls, then I believe he will have to rediscover the healing power of this great gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in his own life.  Indeed, if every priest was to take the opportunity of the Year for Priests to make the most comprehensive and sincere confession of his life to date then I believe the fruits of this initiative would be immense.  We cannot heal those around us if we do not know what it is to be healed and restored by the forgiving love of Christ ourselves.

Pope Benedict also wishes a revitalization of the priest hood in Ireland.  He prays that it may come about through the intercession of the Curé of Ars.

St John Mary Vianney modelled himself on the Good Shepherd.  He got to know his parishioners.  He shared their troubles.  He stated clearly his concern for their eternal salvation if they did not change their ways.  

Like, the Good Shepherd, he was fearless in confronting the thieves and robbers who would dare rob his people of their faith.  Of course he soon discovered that he would have his share of trouble, disappointments and difficulties.  He soon found that while the power of Jesus on earth progressed and grew, the power of evil on earth had not disappeared.  So he decided not to be surprised and certainly not to be overawed.  So he was not daunted by the fact that the evil one singled him out for special targeting.

Cardinal Martini of Milan chose as his Motto a phrase from the Word of Gregory the Great:  “To love adversity for the sake of truth.”  He says that if we are really doing our job as followers of the Good Shepherd, we should expect to be touched by adversity.  At the same time we should trust absolutely that the Lord will preserve us from being crushed.

The Curé of Ars modelled himself on the Good Shepherd, who leads the sheep out to rich pastures and protects them from the robbers and the wild animals.  He does so in the sense of teaching them the truth about God and about eternal life and about sin.

But he also modelled himself on the Good Shepherd who goes looking out for those who have a strayed and got lost.  When he finds them he persuades them to come back.  In chapter 5 of St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we read:  “All this is from God who, through Christ, reconciled us to Himself and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation.”  For Paul the Ministry of the New Covenant is a Ministry of Reconciliation.

This Ministry of Reconciliation is active throughout our lives but especially on two different occasions.  The first is during Mass.  Priests perform this service when they offer the Body and Blood of Christ and present Him to the people.  It is the supreme moment when we say, “Behold the hand of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

If only we fully understood the extraordinary quality of this action and of these words.  We are often depressed at the reports of crimes and atrocities and still we say, “Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.”  There we are stating the certainty that this world, despite the fact that it is immersed in sin, is going to be repaired.

The second occasion is in the Sacrament of Confession.  There God restores the sinner through a free and creative act.  It really is miraculous that a human being can get forgiveness from God for very serious offences that are capable of destroying the human soul.

We cannot give peace if we do not have it.  We cannot offer reconciliation to others if we are not ourselves reconciled.

We should turn to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, often – for her help.  She is the mother of reconciliation.

When Jesus on the Cross entrusted Mary to John, and John to Mary, it is a sign of reconciliation that has been achieved by Jesus.  That entrusting of the disciple to Mary is a guarantee that all the divisions between us have been resolved.

We thank God for the presence of this wonderful relic and for God’s love and care for His people.  We thank God for the powerful inspiration of St John Mary Vianney.  We rely on His intercession for ourselves and for all those who are dear to us.