This week marks 12 months since the World Meeting of Families took place in Dublin and the historic visit by Pope Francis to Ireland. With the perspective of a year, we look back on five major themes of the World Meeting of Families and the message Pope Francis brought to us.
On 26th August last, before he departed Ireland, Pope Francis spoke to the Irish Bishops and through them to all the people of Ireland. He said:
‘I am close to you: keep moving ahead with courage. The light of faith will show the way to the renewal of the Christian life in Ireland in the years ahead’.
With these words, the Pope was leaving us a foundation on which to build renewal for the Irish Church in the future – upon the bedrock of faith. Faith is what makes us Christian. It is the glue that keeps the Church together as a ‘family of families’. It is what we assume to be already there in all aspects of Church life, be it prayer, sacraments, missionary initiatives or charitable events. Very often we take this gift of faith for granted. We think it is always there and will always be there. But in the sceptical world in which we live that questions everything and is less comfortable with certainties, we cannot be complacent that Christian faith is a given - especially at a time when it is not supported by popular culture as it was before. So as we look back on these words of Pope Francis on the importance of the gift of faith, let us not only treasure that gift but see it as a reasonable option that should not be dismissed. Faith in a Creator and loving God is not irrational or superstitious but is based on our experience of what we observe in the world and how we interpret that world that does not explain itself. Together may we make these words from the Gospel our own: ‘Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24). Open our ears to hear your call and to recognise your voice. May our faith in you not grow stale or diminish but be fanned by the Spirit into a flame that becomes the source of newness, light and strength.
As Pope Francis drew thousands to the Phoenix Park on the last day of his visit, hundreds more gathered in the city centre for a protest. Among them were people and their families who have been hurt by Church personnel in the past. Their hurt was and continues to be real. This hurt was acknowledged by Pope Francis himself who asked for forgiveness for past wrongs and prayed for healing and repentance. Who can forget that moment in the Phoenix Park when he lead us in the carefully worded Penitential Rite that named those specific reasons for hurt and betrayal. It was a good thing for us as Church to see this hurt out in the open and expressed - to acknowledge it and see the ongoing need for healing. One year on from that time, we continue to work for that healing and to reach out to people who have been wounded. Our mission today is to continue the work of healing and re-building trust. While acknowledging past wrongs and probing their causes, we believe that we still can treasure all that is good, true and beautiful about the Christian faith and help people explore its power that St Patrick referred to as ‘this great and salutary gift’ (Confessio, 36).
Pope Francis was here for the World Meeting of Families. He was here to deliver a message that Christian families are a joy for the world and the bedrock of any society. His message was not one of ‘this is how you should be’ but one of supportive encouragement towards an ideal that benefits everyone. In his exhortation ‘The Joy of Love’, he said that ‘families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity’. During his homily at the closing Mass, Pope Francis said that ‘each new day in the life of our families, and each new generation, brings the promise of a new Pentecost, a domestic Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, the Paraclete, whom Jesus sends as our Advocate, our Consoler and indeed our Encourager.
How much our world needs this encouragement that is God’s gift and promise! As one of the fruits of this celebration of family life, may you go back to your homes and become a source of encouragement to others, to share with them Jesus’ “words of eternal life”. For your families are both a privileged place for, and an important means of, spreading those words as “Good News” for everyone, especially those who long to leave behind the desert and the “house of bondage” (cf. Jos 24:17) for the promised land of hope and freedom’.
One year on, we commit our parishes again to be places that treasure and protect the institution of the family that the Church believes to be the seedbed for the formation of good human beings and Christians.
The theme of mercy has been prominent in the words and example of Pope Francis since his election in March 2013. He continued that theme during his visit to Ireland with his visit to the Cappuchin Centre for the homeless in Church St. To the friars he spoke: ‘You are especially attuned with people of God, and indeed, with the poor. You have the grace of contemplating the wounds of Jesus in those in need, those who suffer, those who are unfortunate or destitute, or full of vices and defects. For you this is the flesh of Christ. This is your witness and the Church needs it. Thank you’.
This is the message of the Pope to all the Church committed to the order of charity and who serve the poor. He never tires telling us that the Church does not exist for itself but to serve the poor, worship God and proclaim the Gospel. Ours is a Church that goes forth beyond itself and takes the risk of getting its hands soiled in the problems of the world. To those problems and wounds that afflict humanity, the Church brings the healing power of Christ to transform and to make new.
Church and State:
On his visit to Dublin Castle, Pope Francis addressed the Taoiseach, Members of Government and of the Diplomatic Corps. His speech was widely anticipated as was that of the Taoiseach. The speeches of both men found common ground in that both acknowledged a changed relationship between the Irish Church and State while expressing the desire to continue a mature dialogue into the future. In many ways, that dialogue was contained in the speeches themselves. Leo Varadkar’s talk affirmed the good that the Church had done throughout the years and Pope Francis acknowledged the progress the Republic has made to benefit her people and to serve the common good. Both speeches also averted to the failings of the other. On behalf of the State, the Taoiseach expressed the pain and anger over the abuse crisis and the Pope did not shy away from issues like homelessness, the throwaway culture and stripping of the right to life of the unborn, 12 weeks or younger.
So while the separation of Church and State is now accepted, it does not mean that one proceeds by ignoring the other. The issue is more complex as thousands of us have dual citizenship. What is does mean is that the Church is and remains a prophetic voice that challenges any idolisation of the State or the assumption that if the majority of people want something then it must be morally right. The State’s critique of the Church also needs to be listened to and responded to. This is because the Church doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in society and among the Irish people. In the words of the late Jeremiah Newman, former Bishop of Limerick: ‘The Church must hold on to its ideal ‘whilst leaning attentively over humankind, listening to the pulse of humanity’ (Conscience versus Law: Reflections on the Evolution of Natural Law, Talbot Press, Dublin, 1971, 279). In the words of Pope Francis, the Church must know the smell of the sheep and be close to the people she serves.
So as we mark the first anniversary this week of the World Meeting of Families, may we look back with gratitude on important memories and on a historic milestone. As we continue on our pilgrim journey as a Church, may we treasure the gift of our faith for our time; continue to bring healing to those who have been wounded; support families in every way we can; live the Gospel of Mercy and participate actively in the life of both the Church and the country we love.