Archbishop Eamon Martin thanks frontline workers for their “amazing works of mercy” during 2020

“2021 marks the centenary of a year that led to increased separation, discord and polarisation of relationships on this island … All the more reason, then, for us to commit to looking out for each other, developing greater mutual understanding and to building that culture of care.

Archbishop Eamon Martin

Homily Text 

“Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go…”

When the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote those words from In Memoriam back in 1850, he could never have imagined how appropriate they would sound to people today.  At the time he was mourning the sudden death of his closest friend and he hoped the New Year bells would, as he put it, “Ring out the grief that saps the mind”.

A century and a half later, many of us are hoping that 2021 will see the end of the pandemic that has disrupted life for almost a year now.  I remember last January encouraging a group of final-year students to have high hopes for 2020: “Have 2020 vision for yourselves and for the world”, I told them.  Little did I realise that within months their schools would be shut, their final exams cancelled and their leaving Masses forced online. Many of them have already spent a whole term of college life studying and socialising from laptops in university halls or at home.

Like those young people, many others will be happy to “ring out” the year that has been marked by upset plans, postponed celebrations, jobs and livelihoods threatened, dreams put on hold. We pray today, as Tennyson did, for a brighter future in this New Year:

“Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be”.

The Gospel Acclamation in today’s Mass, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, reminds us to be alert for God’s work in the events of history:

“At various times in the past
and in various different ways,
God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1-2).

What might the voice of the Lord be saying to us through the experience of this pandemic?  How might God be challenging our priorities, exposing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, pointing to our strengths and opening our eyes to possibilities for a fairer, safer and more fulfilled future for all?

In his message for today, the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis suggests that the COVID-19 crisis has been aggravating world crises, “like those of the climate, food, the economy and migration, and causing great suffering and hardship”. He hopes that “the coming year will enable humanity to advance on the path of fraternity, justice and peace between individuals, communities, peoples and nations”. 

For Pope Francis, the pandemic is teaching us “how important it is to care for one another and for creation”. He entitles his message for today: “A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace”.  He sees a ‘Culture of Care’ as “the way to combat the culture of indifference, waste and confrontation (that is) so prevalent in our time”.

The most positive memory I will cherish of the year 2020 is of how the power of love and care was able to overcome isolation, loneliness, suffering, despair and negativity.  I will treasure a “2020 vision” of goodness, kindness, generosity and courage shown by neighbours, volunteers, doctors, nurses, chaplains and other carers; by teachers, shop-workers, clergy and so many others who devoted themselves to keeping our essential services going.  Their amazing “works of mercy” were concrete expressions of the compassion, love and hope of Christ ringing out in our communities and world.

Pope Francis argues that to build a “culture of care” is the only way to overcome the great challenges of today.  He offers four principles, inspired by the Gospel, to act like a “compass”, pointing us in the direction of a “more humane future” for our world.  These are: commitment to promoting the dignity of each human person; solidarity with the poor and vulnerable; the pursuit of the common good; and, concern for protection of creation.

Creating a culture of care in this way means “listening for the cry of the poor and the cry of creation”.  It ensures we never reduce people to “mere statistics”, but instead we love them as our neighbours, our brothers and sisters. We are moved to showing tenderness and compassion for those in our world who suffer the worst effects of COVID-19 or climate change and yet who have least access to water and other resources, to quality health services and life-saving vaccines.

This past year we have come to realise more than ever that, as a human family sharing this planet, we are interconnected and interdependent. Building a ‘culture of care’ will encourage us to continue to make sacrifices, to wear face coverings, cancel plans and celebrations when necessary to protect life, to keep a safe distance in order to promote the Common Good.  At the height of the pandemic back in March, Pope Francis vividly described the importance of care and fraternity when he stood alone in Saint Peter’s Square and led the world in an extraordinary moment of prayer.  He said: “We are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together”, since “no one reaches salvation by themselves”.

It reminds me today of other lines from Tennyson’s poem:
“Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times…”

“Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good”.

“Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace”.

Here in Ireland the New Year Bells call us to face with faith, hope and love, what is likely to be another difficult year in tackling the coronavirus. 2021 also marks the centenary of a year that led to increased separation, discord and polarisation of relationships on this island.  2021 will bring its own new challenges to relationships and prosperity arising from the implementation of Brexit. All the more reason, then, for us to commit to looking out for each other, developing greater mutual understanding and to building that culture of care, tenderness and compassion that will be our sure compass and guide along the Path of Peace.