Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B, Tuam Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock on Sunday, May 5th, 2013.
‘Peace I give you, , my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, that is my gift to you’
I join with Archbishop Neary and with Bishop Lee in welcoming all of you who have come as pilgrims to Our Lady’s Shrine in Knock. I especially welcome those of you who have come here burdened in mind, body or spirit. I hope that you experience something of the peace that the gospel speaks about today, the kind of peace that so many pilgrims who have journeyed here down through the years since Our Lady appeared here on that rainy day in August 1879, have experienced. On that occasion Mary was accompanied by St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, the author of today’s gospel, along with the lamb, the altar and the angels. Down through the years many of the physical healings that people have experienced here have been well documented. What have not been as well documented however are the countless invisible miracles that are not verifiable by scientific means that people have experienced here as they came as pilgrims to this holy place.
Two decades ago I had the privilege of ministering here for two years. During that time I met many pilgrims who spoke of the peace they experienced here, the kind of peace mentioned in today’s gospel, the kind of peace indeed that people speak of when they visit any of Mary’s shrines throughout the world. It’s almost as if Mary, with her mother’s heart, has created these oases around the world where she invites us to come into the presence of her son to experience the peace he alone can give us. It is only he who can transform our poor and broken lives with the power of his presence in the same way that he transformed the water into wine at Cana.
During my time here at the Shrine I recall a group of women from Belfast who came here each year for a few days break. It was in the days before the peace process, during what have come to be known as ‘the troubles’, and some of their sons were incarcerated in the infamous Maze prison. These tough, but broken, women spoke of the peace and the joy they experienced here on their annual holiday and went away renewed and strengthened.
Another event I recall from my time here was the visit of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, when she spoke of the sanctity of human life from the womb to the tomb. In the week leading up to her visit the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary held a symposium here where representatives of the various Christian denominations came together in the Rest & Care Centre to reflect on the role of Mary in the Scriptures. One of the people present that week was a Presbyterian man from Chicago. I don’t recall him making any contribution to the discussions during the week. However on the final day he came up to me to say thanks for what were for him a few wonderful days. He said it was his first time at a Marian Shrine and went on to relate how, growing up in Chicago, some of the people in his neighbourhood were Irish emigrants and how he was put off by what he saw as an over emphasis on devotion to Mary among his Irish Catholic neighbours. He said that when coming to Knock he brought with him a lot of family problems and worries. He told of how he had experienced a peace here that was difficult to put in words. He said “the only way I can describe it is that it’s the exact opposite to the experience I had when I visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, some years ago”. Some years later I had the opportunity to visit that terrible dark place where millions perished during the holocaust and I remembered his words. The late writer and Philosopher from Kerry, John Moriarty once said that ‘to stand in Auschwitz is to feel your spine turn into a question mark about the nature of human beings’. In contrast Mary’s Shrines are places of light where we experience deep peace and healing, whether it be in the Anointing of the Sick or the Sacrament of Reconciliation where our broken and wounded humanity receive the healing touch of God’s forgiveness.
The Gospel today and in these days leading up to Ascension and Pentecost speak to us of the inner life of the Blessed Trinity as Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure. Jesus speaks of the love that exists between Father and Son and how he will continue to be present with them and us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded again that as humans we bear the imprint of the divine, we are created in the image and likeness of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are created first and foremost for relationships and from the moment we leave the comfort and security of our mother’s wombs we long for the peace and the joy that are the heart of the Blessed Trinity. To experience the unconditional love of another human being is to glimpse something of the deep peace and joy that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel. We are only too painfully aware that as humans we are all wounded in our capacity to love and so often the people we hurt most are the people we love most. It means that the greatest pain we can experience in life is the pain of loneliness, of rejection or of having our love betrayed. Indeed one of the saddest experiences is to meet somebody who has been so hurt in a relationship that they fell they can never, or will never love another human being.
During this Year of Faith we are invited to rediscover the wellsprings of our faith, to rediscover the things that bring true and lasting peace. As a nation our recent experience has taught us the futility of chasing shadows and of looking for happiness in the wrong places. I often recall the sign I saw outside a Pentecostalist Church in London many years ago which read: “If God seems far away, guess who moved?” Loss of faith is none other than a loss of an awareness of the love of God that surrounds us every moment of our lives. There is no better way of rediscovering that awareness than by making a pilgrimage, whether it’s to Mary’s Shrines or to the many places of pilgrimage in our diocese or throughout the country. Whenever we go on pilgrimage we make two journeys: the first is the outward journey that we make with our feet, the second is the inner journey to that quiet place where the spirit of God resides in each of us.
To conclude, just two weeks ago I had the opportunity, along with two friends, of walking from Siena to Rome along the ancient pilgrim path called the ‘Via Francigena’. As we walked that pilgrim path down dusty lanes across the rolling hills of Tuscany, onwards through Lazio and onto Rome, I thought of the countless pilgrims who had walked that path before us down through the centuries. And on Weds week last as I stood in St Peter’s Square along with 75000 other pilgrims to listen to the words of the 266th successor of St Peter I reflected that the reason we were there was because a simple fisherman from Galilee who was weak and cowardly, was so transformed by his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth that he was prepared to come to this city and was willing to suffer martyrdom by being crucified upside down on that spot near where we stood. It is the mother of that same Jesus of Nazareth who graced us with her presence here at a time when the spirit of our nation was crushed by famine and disease and who continues to invite us to come into the presence of her son who promises us the gift of peace, a peace that the world cannot give.