Homily of Archbishop Neary for Reek Sunday Mass on Croagh Patrick
Jesus had a reputation for taking to the mountains. For many modern people this is not actually hard to understand. He met every day with terrific and endless human need. He experienced endless demands from people in great distress looking for miracles. Day after day he would give health to the chronically ill, give sight to the blind, give life again to wasted limbs and give reassurance to those who felt broken with sin. Is it any wonder that he would go into the solitude of the mountain to put things in a proper perspective and to seek direction from the Father?
This morning, we come here with our own personal struggles – financial difficulties, the illnesses of our loved ones, and our own private pain. In the storm and stress of current controversies, and with the struggles of the Church to adjust, we come to this sacred mountain to get things in their proper perspective and seek the guidance of God. The Ireland of today is not the nation of yesterday. We are happy that the days of abject poverty have been replaced by days of sufficiency even if dole queues have recently appeared again after our days of plenty. For all that, old certainties, in the sense of broad social agreements, have gone. Many have lost faith in the Church, in political promises, in the stable institutions of the past and we are not sure where our solid ground lies. Even the God of our past is a hide and seek God who is not the centre of our lives as in days gone by; yet with the Psalmist we say: “I lift up my eyes to the mountain, from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord who made Heaven and Earth …. The Lord will guard your going and coming both now and forever”. We need that reassurance in these days of confusion, anxiety and doubt.
What is interesting is that the divisions, different lifestyles and beliefs in our society today are not unlike those at the time of Jesus. They may have different names today, but the tendencies represented by, for example, the Pharisees, Sadducees and others are still with us. These groups, however unintentionally, help us to highlight the distinctive way of life proposed by Jesus and proclaimed by his followers today.
In his teachings, and especially in his Parables, Jesus used a very effective “mirror” technique, holding up a mirror before the people, enabling them to see themselves, their reactions, their prejudices and their fears in the lives of others. For example, in depicting the Pharisees Jesus was putting his listeners on their guard against falling into a similar trap of self-righteousness, hypocrisy, harsh judgement of others and lack of compassion. He was effectively stating that these are a perennial temptation even for those in the best of faith. As individuals, as Church leaders and members of the Church we acknowledge the powerful temptation to succumb to that mentality. It is so easy to criticise and condemn rather than empower and encourage. Perhaps in the past we have been preoccupied with fault-finding, failing to appreciate the heroic struggle of men and women to make ends meet, rear their families and provide an education for them. Today, I think we listen more willingly to witnesses rather than to preachers.
We have great admiration for those who identify with others, especially the oppressed and downtrodden, those who work to remove oppressive relationships of one person or group over another. In our society, as we speak, many people are working quietly but very effectively to liberate others from any kind of fear, refusing to condemn them or imprison them in their negative experiences or their sinful past. It is always so life-giving to witness men and women who work to provide people with a new future and a hope that brings life, enabling them to oppose what is untrue and has no future. In his own day Jesus stood in stark contrast to the religious groups of the time, breaking out of the traditional legal straitjacket. In doing so he liberated people, challenged them to question the way things were and move forward to build a new society based on love, forgiveness, hope and compassion.
If we lose contact with Jesus Christ we deprive ourselves and others of the powerful source of healing and liberation. We are all familiar with books and articles which analyse what is wrong with the world, with society, with the Church. We are frequently the analysts of evils, the diagnosticians of disaster. The truth of past pain is certainly coming to the surface. But this is good news. We should embrace the truth even though this can be a painful task. However, we should also be aware of the dangers contained in what some have called a “culture of blame”. We seek out the negligence of doctors, the health service, bankers, the Church or the school. Maybe this makes it easier to deal with our own shortcomings, the neglect and indifference of others and the tyranny of blind chance. Yet, even in righteous anger, the temptations of the Pharisees present themselves again, as subtle and powerful as they were two thousand years ago. Christ did not encourage us to imprison people by their human failings. Instead he taught us the way of forgiveness.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are commissioned to announce good news, gospel. There is no gospel in simply telling people what is wrong. A major question after all is not “what is wrong”? But “what can we do to put it right”? We don’t find Jesus indulging in any prolonged analysis of the evil he saw around him. He knew the arrogance, the cruelty, the pride in the human exercise of power. He saw every day the suffering, the illness, the greed, the hostility that were to him quite contrary to the will of God. What he was concerned with was not an endless diagnostic discussion but a liberating cure. There is a world of difference between a paralysed, or even merely prurient, fascination with human evil and the insight that leads to freedom. If we omit God, then there is nothing but endless analysis of our evil and our problems. If our evil is indeed a dark and inscrutable shadow on a life we know to be full of promise and endless hope, then we can either wallow in despair or begin an active, inspired life of positive choice and direction.
The Gospels are rich in the stories of Jesus’ understanding, compassion and love for the sinner. He never turned away the man or woman immersed in sin because they might cause him embarrassment. The sense of compassion is completely immersed in the love of God. That compassion and forgiveness makes our lives and our parishes rise above the tragedies and devastation of today, transforming sadness into joy, despair into hope, and death into life. Jesus does not ask us to be hammers of judgement or seekers of condemnation but to be the leaven, the yeast in our own parish so that, in our small ways, we may make God’s love rise among us. The essence of faith is not a grim recognition of our guilt, but the reality and certainty of pardon.
For years people have said that we Catholics have gained a reputation for dwelling on sin and guilt along with the idea of a vengeful God. Yet the God of the scriptures is slow to anger and his nature is always to have mercy. History is stained with the vendettas of tribes, religions and states that nourish perpetual hatred. There is only one way to break the vicious cycle that tortures the human race – that is the way of forgiveness. Once we have seen this we know why it is that Jesus put this in the forefront of our prayers; “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The acceptance of the forgiveness of God only becomes real for those in the forgiveness of others. In the words of St Gregory of Nyssa “Lord, from you flows true and continued kindness, you have cast us off and justly so, but in your mercy you forgave us. You were at odds with us and you reconciled us.”
In all of this, we need to accept that God is independent of our limitations. When someone once said to Padré Pio “I don’t believe in God anymore”, he smiled and replied: “But God believes in you”. God has put his faith in you this morning, reminding you in the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “I have no hands but your hands, no feet but yours, no eyes but your eyes and no heart but yours”. On this morning of pilgrimage we remember the men and women who have climbed the generations before us and are with God. We ask them to guide our feet in the difficult terrain of today’s world and to bring us to a place founded on forgiveness. As you leave the mountain top today an old Irish blessing seems appropriate; “may Christ, the gathering of hope, the bringer of spring time, the brightness of the seasons be upon you as you set forth today”.
Notes to editors
* Croagh Patrick, (c.2,510ft/765m) Ireland’s holy mountain, dominates the landscape of southwest Mayo both spiritually and physically. The Croagh Patrick pilgrimage is associated with St Patrick who, in 441, spent 40 days and nights fasting on the summit, following the example of Christ and Moses. The name ‘Reek Sunday’ comes from Patrick’s ability to Christianise many pagan customs including the festival of Lughnasa, which previously had heralded the start of the harvest festival honouring the ancient pagan god Lugh, whose name is encompassed in the Irish word for August: Lughnasa. This festival’s tradition became absorbed into the new Christian beliefs and locally become known as Domhnach na Cruaiche (Reek Sunday).
* This pilgrimage has been carried out uninterrupted for over 1500 years. Croagh Patrick has over 100,000 visitors annually with up 20,000 people expected this weekend.
* In 2008 in excess of 20,000 pilgrims climbed Croagh Patrick. For the first time in the history of the Reek, Mass was televised live from the summit and broadcast on RTÉ television and on the world-wide web.
* For Reek Sunday 2006, Archbishop Neary and other pilgrims were accompanied by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. As successor to Saint Patrick, Cardinal Brady was the first Archbishop of Armagh to climb the Holy Mountain since Saint Patrick. In 2005, Archbishop Neary unveiled a plaque to mark the centenary of St Patrick’s Oratory on the summit.
* Mass will be celebrated at the summit at 8.00am and every half-hour thereafter until the last Mass at 2.00 pm. The 10.00am Mass will be celebrated in Irish and Archbishop Neary will celebrate Mass at 10.30am. Pilgrims may avail of the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the summit from 7.30am to 2.30pm.
* All those who intend to climb are asked to come prepared for the current weather conditions, to bring suitable warm/waterproof clothing, good footwear, a walking stick/staff and water, and to be mindful of the safety of themselves and other pilgrims.
* For the third year in succession the Tuam Diocesan Vocations Committee will organise a marquee at the foot of the mountain to promote vocations and distribute some of the new literature (www.onelifeonecalloneresponse.com). Some members of the Vocations Committee will be present, along with some of the seminarians and two members of the Diocesan Youth Council.
* Further information on Croagh Patrick, and a virtual tour of the mountain, can be viewed on the website of the Archdiocese of Tuam tuamarchdiocese.org
* See www.catholicbishops.ie for a special feature on Reek Sunday, including highlights from the 2008 RTÉ television broadcast, and an audio interview with Archbishop Neary about Croagh Patrick
* The website of Westport parish www.westportparish.ie also contains additional information about the Holy Mountain
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