HOMILY FOR CROAGH PATRICK PILGRIMAGE 2009.
Climbing a mountain with a heavy heart slows you down. Throughout the years of this pilgrimage God only knows the pain people carried to the summit. Some struggled with extreme poverty, some grew weak in days of famine. Many had watched their sons and daughters leave their birthplace and go into years of lonely exile. Bereavement was the burden of many and there were those in great physical pain and terminal sickness who limped their way to the summit we share this July morning. The miracle of the mountain was that they never lost hope.
The words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans they had taken to heart “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”. (Romans 5: 2-5).
This may have been an easier climb a few years ago when the economic picture was brighter, when employment was widely available, when optimism was tangible and people experienced a certain security with regard to the future. On many occasions perhaps material attainments rather than human relationships tended to determine the standards of our society. Property and possessions in many cases took precedence over people and principles. We were invited to invest our hopes in the quest for endless economic growth, while selfishness was rewarded and responsibilities evaded.
Older people had a saying “there is always enough in the world for the needy, but never enough for the greedy”. As a result today we are witnessing increasing disaffection, dislocation and disintegration within society. Did we deceive ourselves into thinking that we could solve our problems without reference to God? We were being encouraged, it seemed, only to think politically and economically. Today, however, economic uncertainty, rising unemployment, cut backs in health, education and many other areas are leaving families very vulnerable, anxious and worried about their futures. Many are searching desperately for hope in this menacing desert.
The current economic crisis presents an opportunity to all of us to reassess our values and priorities, focusing in particular, on our responsibilities to the common good, to our fellow human beings and to God’s creation. In these difficult times it will be incumbent on all of us to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected.
In the Church too the revelations of the past few months have pained us beyond words. We have had highlighted the most terrible brutality, cruelty and abuse on the part of some of those who ought to have been ministers of gentleness, compassion and understanding. Children were left to carry crosses which they should never have been burdened with in the first place. Too many young people had their lives blighted by shame and fear and their trust in the Church was shattered. These days we, as a Church, stumble our way in the dark valley of the shadow of death. We need to rediscover hope and learn to think spiritually.
All of this however demands acceptance of our failures, repentance, contrition and forgiveness, which will express itself in a humble unselfish lifestyle which would enable us to become striking witnesses to the truth and compassion of the Gospel. The architecture of the future will be that of the contrite heart rather than ornate church buildings. This is something that cannot be achieved without hope in God. We need our God to guide our feet in the way of peace, not just peace for ourselves, but peace of mind for all and especially victims who, down the years, have suffered greatly from the cruelty and selfishness of those who strayed from the ideals of their noble calling.
We must begin with complete trust in the God who accepts us for what we are. He is a God who does not make empty promises for the hereafter nor trivialises the present darkness, futility and meaninglessness but who, himself in the midst of darkness and pain, invites us to the venture of hope: “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full”, a God who invites us to deep trust and promises never to abandon us but to fulfil the deepest desires of the human heart.
Optimism is faith in our own efforts, in human potentiality. It is in God however we place our hope. Hope does not deny the pain and suffering of the present. Rather it courageously faces up to this, stays with the pain but refuses to be enslaved by it and, at the appropriate time, is prepared to move forward. In many ways we can identify with the Good Friday-Holy Saturday experience of human pain and suffering, of abandonment and loss of hope, when the absence of God was tangible.
Yet, God was truly present in the one who suffered, who was forsaken and discredited. There is no God other than the one who became incarnate and is one with men and women in their suffering, questioning and complaint. This demands that the Church again die to itself, be crucified to popularity and trendiness and live as a community with radical courage, with faith and hope in the power of the crucified Christ. Because God has learned to weep the tears of fear and loneliness and has identified with god-forsakenness, there is hope and healing for the broken and forgiveness for all. The God of hope gives us courage not to be engulfed in despair, but to acknowledge and challenge the existence of evil and to trust in Him who has been there, has conquered and is victorious: “do not be afraid, for I am with you”.
From this mountain we return to our lives in the valleys with hope. A Chinese proverb reminds us: “if you don’t scale the mountain, you cannot view the plain”. Hope spreads its wings to the full only over the abyss. Hope is the expectation that the present, despite its fragility, its failures and unfathomability, can give birth to new life. In this sense Christian hope proves to be a strength that enables us courageously and perseveringly to accept the present with all its imperfections, its sufferings, sin and selfishness and, even in spite of them, to push forward in expectation of God’s promises which guarantees true life. Christian hope rescues us from a seemingly absurd suffering that threatens to plunge us into the gulf of our own anguish.
On Easter Sunday evening, two dispirited disciples walking towards Emmaus were joined by the risen Christ whom they didn’t recognise. The reason for their despair they said: “but we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Having recognised him however they were transformed and enabled to face rather than flee from the rugged reality of Calvary and the cross. Perhaps we do not recognise that the same Christ walks with us in these dark days. With faith, we will keep our eyes wide open.
In the words of St. Paul again; “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope”. (Romans 15:13).