Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary
Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick July 2021
We are in a season of transition, watching the collapse of the world as we have known it. Our recent experience of the Pandemic has confronted us with our limitations, our frailty and mortality. The control which we enjoyed in so many areas of our life and world, regarding travel, work, recreation, was perhaps illusory. Our dependence on God and others has been a sober reminder. Change can be traumatic, disorientating and threatening. Nothing seems certain any more. The value system and its supports, and the knowledge through which we have up to now interpreted the world and life itself no longer feel secure and are now being called into question.
When the known world is shattered a new historical reality becomes a possibility. For people of faith God indeed can work in newness against all the odds. In this context hope does not consist of losing control, but of relinquishing it in trust. Hope underlines the importance of not allowing the present to determine our standards. Many writers have reminded us that if you marry the spirit of the age you will be a widow in the next. Facing the challenge of the present situation rather than succumbing to its seductive dimension will generate energy.
In a competitive world the media will tend to focus on the dramatic or even sensational as extreme positions vie with each other. Consensus and collaboration are frequently overlooked. This has an impact on the way in which religion is presented. Of its very nature, religion is intended to bind people together and to God, rather than to divide and conquer. Religion as a counter-cultural force has today become marginalised. It is not uncommon to find the coverage of religion per se and religious affairs generally viewed through a political prism and treated in political terms. The great organs of news and information in society are, it seems, being managed to serve distorted and sometimes questionable ends, which are calculated to deprive us of our critical faculties. Forces are endeavouring to reshape our values, fears and dreams in ways that are quite literally opposed to the joy of the Gospel.
It has become standard today to adopt and embrace a form of ‘group-think’ which allows some to believe they can determine our outlook and reactions to various situations and realities, and not least, our attitude to religion and matters of faith and morals. This is not to deny the value of informed criticism of the Church or religious values. Theology involves “faith seeking understanding” and it is legitimate and healthy to foster a courageous and robust engagement with the Church and what the Church believes and teaches. While the sins and shortcomings of people of faith have been legitimately highlighted, and the wrongs of the Church have been justly exposed, it is
convenient to be dismissive of the Church and faith in a rather uninformed and prejudicial manner. For people to whom faith is important and who have a great love for and appreciation of the Church – in spite of its shortcomings – this is a very challenging time. In a society enslaved by the tyranny of “relevance”, the truth of the Gospel can easily be dismissed because it is too challenging to hear, or, because it is perceived to be unsuitable in an open, modern and progressive society. People may generally fear to voice public support for a perceived unpopular opinion so it requires great courage to uphold a contrary view.
At a time of confusion and crisis, pilgrimage provides an opportunity to get a sense of perspective and purpose, clarification and meaning. In this situation, mountains have a message for us. Mountains are symbols of stability but also of hope and encouragement calling for perseverance. Not surprisingly, Jesus chose mountains as the location for significant teachings and events in his life. In a world of aggressive and misleading presentations there is something refreshing about mountains which are a metaphor for life itself. To climb, they are energy-sapping but also energy-giving and life-sustaining.
The Reek, majestic and awesome, has a magnetic attraction. The summit may be in view from the base but the mountain has to be climbed with persistence one step at a time. Mountains, and particularly the Reek, are a source of inspiration, rejuvenation
and provide a different perspective on life itself. No one can ‘conquer’ a mountain. It remains there, unbowed and ever-majestic. Patience is slowly developed. Climbing the peak helps to sort out what is important in life. In that sense mountains are a source of blessing.
Mountains symbolise progress and call for the mental strength to overcome the challenge. They point towards heaven and are appropriate places of pilgrimage. Mountains also speak of hope and encouragement. Just as the mountain copes with the storms, the driving rain and the winter frost as well as the warm sunshine, so in life today, we too are faced with a challenge to remain undaunted, whether confronted by icy comments, a cold and frosty reaction, or the warm welcome of one really in search of the truth.
A man who delighted to photograph the Reek whether at sunrise or sunset, whether on a bright summer’s day or snow-capped in mid-winter, on one occasion told me: “to look at the Reek is to pray”. Mountains in general, and the Reek in particular, have an unusual capacity to awaken a sense of the sacred. It has an aura of mystery and sanctity. It appeals to people of various backgrounds, of different faiths and none. On the Reek there is an experience of deep peacefulness and a unique feeling of calm and tranquillity which helps us gain a perspective on life. The Reek is not a stadium where we satisfy our ambition to achieve;
rather it is a Cathedral where we give expression to our faith in the creator and redeeming God.