My brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ

It is a pleasure to be here this evening in this beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Sligo. It is a great privilege to open this Parish Mission of Prayer and Reflection for the final week of Lent.

The theme of your parish Lenten Mission is ‘Hope in Challenging Times’.  This seems to me an excellent topic.  Our times, no doubt, are tough, very tough for some, tougher for some than others.  The hope of all of us is that they will improve.  Of course we know from past experience that they will improve, eventually.  But I suspect that there some among us who can remember equally tough times in the past.  I am thinking of the older ones.  Remember there are people who have come here from abroad – especially those who have come from countries where they once had to suffer for their faith.  The good news is that people survived those tough times.  We will do so again, please God.  The fact is that people survived recessions best in the past when their neighbours rallied round and shared with each and helped out.  I believe that the same spirit of generosity and compassion for those in need is still strong in Ireland.  I hope that it will come to the fore and make its presence felt powerfully in these tough times. 

Canon Hever suggested to me that since this is the Year of St. Paul, I should say something to you of what St. Paul had to say to us that will give us hope in these tough times.  Now he knows well that I am no expert on St. Paul.  But, like the rest of you, I have listened to and read him all my life and I know this much:  Paul had a lot of troubles in his life.  He suffered both physically and mentally.  He was detested by the Jews as the ultimate renegade – a turn-coat and a traitor.  For a long time he wasn’t even trusted by his fellow Christians either.  Could you blame them; after all he had been in the vanguard of those that persecuted them.

I am conscious I am in the Yeats County. Someone said to me recently it is as if we are witnessing what Yeats meant when he said: ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre… things fall apart; the centre cannot hold!’

Yeats was referring of course to the period of social and economic turmoil which followed the First World War. Interestingly, he goes on to say in the same poem: ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’

I believe St. Paul is a model of hope for our time. St. Paul was a man of deep conviction. He was a man of passionate intensity about Christ and about the hope which his life, death and resurrection offer to the world. In the words of the famous preacher, Msgr Ronald Knox, during a Lenten retreat some years ago: ‘For St. Paul… the life of Christ was to him an energy that radiated all about him, was the very breath he drew with his lungs…he saw Christ in everyone, Christ in everything; nothing but Christ!’

It was this conviction about Christ which sustained St. Paul through the many sufferings and challenges he endured in his life. Suffering was not an academic subject with St. Paul. He was once scourged with 39 lashes. He was beaten three times with rods and once stoned by an angry mob. He suffered shipwreck three times and faced drowning adrift in the sea for a night and a day. Those Jews who wanted to kill him for being a traitor hounded him across the Roman Empire. He tells us that some of his fellow Christians betrayed him (2 Cor 11:24-28). In the second letter to the Corinthians he tells us that he endured, “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Cor 12:10). In the end he suffered a martyr’s death.

Yet this man of passionate intensity about Christ never asked, “Why me?” He never attempted to explain to the suffering Christians of his time, “Why you?” Rather he focused on the mystery of Christ crucified. Rather than complain he could say with joy: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

It is this same mystery which St. John draws us to consider in this evening’s Gospel: ‘Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’

The grain is Christ. The rich harvest is the abundance of life which flows to the world from his death and resurrection. The grain did not die for the sake of dying. It died to become something even greater, something it was difficult to imagine a simple seed could ever become. It died to bring forth a great harvest of life.

This is why the paschal mystery we are preparing to celebrate in Holy Week is the greatest source of our hope. It is the mystery of our immersion into the death and resurrection of Christ in our baptism. For Saint Paul, it is a mystery being worked out in creation itself. In Romans 8 he says: ‘All creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth… and we ourselves, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ Then St. Paul goes on to say: ‘We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’

This mystery is at the heart of our Lenten journey, the mystery which culminates in the dramatic liturgies of Holy Week.  The sufferings and challenges which face us, whether in our personal life or in the events of human history, are opportunities for transformation, opportunities to allow the grace of God to  bring forth in us and through us something better and something new. God’s plan is for our welfare. As St. Paul reminds us, in all things God is working for our good.

The temptation is to avoid the challenge, to turn away from the pain involved in transformation and renewal. That is why St. Paul is quick to remind us in the second reading that our Lord ‘learnt to obey through suffering’. Obedience is not a very popular concept today. What St Paul is referring to of course, is obedience to the things which God has taught us will bring us real life, real joy and real hope – a hope we can trust. Just as it is difficult for people to hear the good news offered by the Gospel in our day, so in St. Paul’s had to endure mockery, disinterest and rejection of life in Christ in his day.

Ten years ago it was my privilege to attend a Synod of European Bishops in Rome.  The subject for discussions was:  Jesus Christ, alive in His Church, the Source of Hope for Europe.  It was a terrific experience.  For me it did two things:

1.    It gave me the joy of a living encounter with Christ – who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
2.    It set before us the same Jesus Christ as the one unshaken foundation of authentic hope.

The theme chosen for that Synod showed that there is great need to announce this message of hope.   The reason is that Europe seems to have lost sight of it in recent times.  It was great to hear people from Eastern Europe – from the former communist countries.  They had suffered hard and long persecution on account of their faith. 
The end of the Synod came to this conclusion: 

Possibly the most urgent matter facing Europe, in both East and West, is a growing need for hope.  Yes, we need jobs and security and better health care and education but first of all, we need hope.  Not any old hope but a hope that will give meaning to life and history; A hope that will enable us to continue on our way together. 

The Synod recognised that today in Europe, even the Churches are often tempted by a dimming of hope.  Many people are bewildered – disoriented – uncertain, without hope. 

What are the signs that this is so you may ask.  Well the first sign is that Europe seems to be losing it Christian memory and heritage.  Many give the impression of living without spiritual roots.  They live as if God did not exist.  They are somewhat like heirs who have squandered an inheritance entrusted to them by history. 

Cut off from our roots, which give us hope, we are challenged by the twin temptation of despair and presumption.  There seems to be, in our society a certain despair for finding meaning, purpose and ultimate satisfaction in life.  This is exemplified in the abuse of drugs, for example, street violence and an alarming diminishing of respect for human life.

Christian hope requires that we meet this challenge by cultivating a creative imagination.  That imagination would be based on the larger vision of a future that is at once a gift and an invitation of God to genuine fullness of life.

Not alone despair but presumption also involves a big challenge to hope today.   Many proclaim confidence in one’s own achievements of wealth, status and power as the way to total happiness. This is contrary to Christian hope.  Christian hope is focussed on the Kingdom of God.  It recognises that we human being are essentially inter-dependent.  We depend on each other and because we depend on each other, we are called to love and care for one another.  We are to achieve our own personal happiness by looking beyond ourselves and thinking of others as well as ourselves.

That is why St. Paul is not afraid to tell us that the beginning of hope is facing reality.  The joyful reality is that sustained economic growth brought considerable gain to this country over the last 10 years.  It put an end to mass unemployment and emigration.  It created jobs for young people leaving school and college.  Economic growth gave employment to tens of thousands of migrants.  It brought new and improved programmes of health and social care.  Our economic prosperity gave us a new pride and confidence.  And yet the sad reality is that the fruits of that boom were very unequally divided.  They were often directed more towards individual consumption and gain rather than towards improving the overall infrastructure of public services. 

Ireland remained a country with a much more unequal distribution of income than many other European States.  40% of the wealth of the country was held by 5% of the population.  People met rising expectations regarding living standards by entering into high levels of personal debt.  Many times more houses were built for second, or holiday homes, or for investment, than were built for social housing.  Significant increases in public expenditure on health services failed to make up for the deficits of years of under investment.

A theme which runs through the life and writings of St. Paul is the need for solidarity, for individuals and communities to think and live with a sense of responsibility for others. This is a time for social solidarity, fairness and compassion.  We all need to see ourselves as interdependent citizens with a shared responsibility for the common good.  It would give immense hope to everybody if those who are better off showed that they are aware that there are others who have a greater moral claim to be insulated from the impact of recession. 

Everyone fears the effects of the down-turn and would prefer not to have to endure it.  The responses which are difficult and unpopular, but which are just and in the interest of the common good, are the only ones which will ultimately provide real hope.  It would be an immense source of hope if steps were taken to ensure that those who gained least from the boom will not be asked to pay most in the down-turn.  Those who are better off need to be aware that there are others who have a greater moral claim to be helped right now; otherwise the climate necessary for policy responses, which may be difficult and unpopular but which are just in the interest of the common good, will not exist. 

It appears to me that an immediate test of the country’s willingness to place solidarity and fairness top of the agenda will come with the forthcoming budget.  I think we should pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of knowledge for those whose job it is to achieve the balance between national income and expenditure. 

Hard choices will have to be made.  Responsible choices will have to be made.  Well informed choices will have to be made.  We will have to choose as a country what it is we want and accept the fact that we will have to pay for what we want.  It is accepted that there will be tax increases.  The question is:  will they be direct or indirect?  Indirect taxes sometimes fall most heavily on those with low incomes.  So if more indirect taxes are to be introduced they should be put on non-essential goods and services. 

It will take courage to reverse the trend of the past ten years – to cut income tax.  But without the courage to make those serious choices to reverse that trend, there will be a reduction in real income of the poorest of the people. There will be cuts in services provided for those in need of care and support.  Unfortunately, that is already happening with some very worthy projects facing closure, postponement or reduction.  Which is better, health or wealth?

Choices will have to be made, sacrifices will have to made.  Those sacrifices will be more readily made by people of generosity, committed to the good of the community.  They will be made by people of hope for hope finds expression in fortitude in the face of risk and suffering.  Living by hope involves suffering.  We are all called to be people of hope, that is, people ready and willing to endure suffering patiently and cheerfully. We are called to be people of courage, ready to take risks.  We are meant to be people of generosity, willing to live lives more frugally and more simply for the sake of the common good and for the sake of others. 

It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the gift of knowledge, wisdom and courage to find reasons for hope in these challenging times. Only the Spirit can inspire people to pursue policies of fairness.  Only the Spirit can change hearts and move people to moderate their self-interest and to promote the common good and to protect the weakest instead of seeking their own selfish interests.

The good news we will celebrate on Easter Sunday is that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is working now in us to bring about a new creation. This is the ultimate source of our hope in challenging times. In the words of St. Paul – God can do do infinitely more in us than we can ever pray for or imagine.

Our challenge, during the final days of lent, is to open ourselves up to the full potential of God’s Spirit working within us, to become, like St Paul, people of deep conviction about Christ and passionate intensity about the Gospel. This would bring to our homes, our Parishes and our country, a real reason to hope for a better future.

At the request of Pope John Paul II, the Synod on Europe turned our attention to Mary – Mother of Hope.  It noted that, thanks to the countless Marian Shrines dotting the nations of Europe, devotion to Mary is very strong and widespread among the peoples of Europe.  Certainly one of the joys of my life is to come to Knock.  I always meet lots of Sligo people there. 

“The Church in Europe continue to contemplate Mary”, the Pope said – “in the knowledge that she is present as our mother.  Mary shares in the many problems which today beset us.  Mary, our Mother, is helping the Christian people in the constant struggle between good and evil, to ensure that it doesn’t fall or, if it has fallen, that it rises again”.

Here in Sligo I am reminded of the Late Bishop Dominic Conway.  He was our Spiritual Director in the Irish College in the 1960s.  I think he would want me to end this talk to you, his beloved people of his beloved Elphin, with this prayer of Pope John Paul II to Mary, Mother of Hope.

Mary, Mother of hope,
Accompany us on our journey!
Teach us to proclaim the living God;
Help us to bear witness to Jesus the one Saviour;
Make us kindly towards our neighbours,
Welcoming to the needy,
Concerned for justice
Impassioned builders of a more just world;
Intercede for us as we carry out our work in history,
Certain that the Father’s plan will be fulfilled.

Dawn of a new world,
Show yourself the Mother of hope
And watch over us!
Watch over the Church in Europe:
May she be transparently open to the Gospel;
May she be an authentic place of communion;
May she carry out fully her mission of proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of hope
For the peace and joy of all.

Queen of Peace,
Watch over all Christians
May they advance confidently on the path of unity,
As a leaven of harmony for the continent.
Watch over young people: the hope of the future,
May they respond with generosity to the call of Jesus.
Watch over the leaders of nations:
May they be committed to building a common housed which respects the dignity and rights of every person.

Mary give us Jesus!
Grant that we may follow him and love him!
He is the hope of the Church of Europe and of all humanity!
He lives with us, in our midst, in his Church!
With you we say:  “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20)
May the hope of glory which he has poured into our hearts bear fruits of justice and peace!