On this first day of 2012, World Day of Peace, we come together as a believing community to invoke the gift of God’s peace for our own hearts and lives, for our communities, for our nation and for our world.
We enter 2012 with many doubts and anxieties. As believers we also enter into this New Year with a spirit of indomitable hope and with renewed commitment to work together to build up what is good.
We pray especially this morning for our nation, its leaders and all its citizens and all those who live among us. We pray that our spirit of realistic Christian hope will contribute to build in 2012 a renewed sense of national purpose and of solidarity with all those who suffer.
We place our lives before the God of mercy praying for the gift of healing of our brokenness and forgiveness of our sins.
The year that has just ended was a remarkable one in many parts of the world. Leaders and regimes which appeared strong and unassailable fell. Economies which seemed strong showed their internal fault-lines. Men and women and families who felt that their livelihoods and savings were sustainable to support their desire for a better life encountered the drama of a new precariousness.
2011 was a year of change. In many parts of the world change was the fruit of expressions of the desire of ordinary citizens to attain a more just and truthful world, a world respectful of their aspirations and the hopes of their children, which the traditional structures of power had failed to achieve. In many parts of the world huge non-violent movements emerged and provoked unforeseen change.
Certainly the power of modern communications contributed to enable true power to be exercised by those who had been systematically and deliberately excluded from power. Mass movements, very often of the young, brought to the forefront of political reflection the values that are needed to initiate change and sustain the longing of people worldwide for change. It is a lesson for all of us that the fundamental aspirations of people for justice and truth can never be suppressed.
Curiously the Christmas season reminds us of an earlier such movement: that initiated by John the Baptist. Secular history records the impact that the movement John established had. Huge masses went to see this extraordinary figure in the wilderness who prophesied that something extraordinary was about to take place in history and to ask of the prophet: “what are we to do”.
The Jewish historian Josephus describes John as “a good man, [who] commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God”. Josephus notes that “[many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words”.
But, as with many who freely call for change in how power is exercised, John met with another reaction also. Josephus again notes: “Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late”.
Certainly Josephus wrote his history from a political point of view. But it still remains that the coming event to which John pointed would be one in which the values of justice and truth, love and peace would dominate and that those who base their lives and power-base on other values only place their own future and security in jeopardy despite whatever power they have.
Pope Paul VI initiated the World Day of Peace to be celebrated on the first day of each civic year as a reminder to all of us that the peace which is desired by so many for their own hearts, their own communities and indeed for their world will only come when a logic of sheer power or interest or protection of personal or institutional position is replaced by a logic of integrity, honesty and truthfulness.
Pope Paul VI choose the first day of the civic year as a way of opening a dialogue between the message which comes from the Gospel of Jesus and the structures of the world It was not an attempt to impose a religious point of view but to show how the content of the message of Jesus is one which can be understood by men and women of any worldview and be made real for the good of the world.
Our society needs such dialogue between faith and life, between reason and faith. This is particularly the case for our own Irish society in which there has been a radical change in the way in which we base and root the values which underlie our peaceful living together as a pluralist society.
The Catholic Church, the faith of the majority of the citizens of the nation, had a dominant influence on the values which keep our social interaction intact. A new situation now exists and this requires a change in the manner of interaction between Church and State. Faith in Jesus Christ cannot be imposed on any individual. When attempts are made to impose faith on a society then the originality of faith is inevitably damaged.
However this does not mean that faith has no contribution to the political or even the economic life of a society. There have been dark moments in the history of the Catholic Church which have been unveiled in recent years. Church leaders have over the years overstepped the boundaries of their legitimate mandate. Yet the contribution of individual believers and of the Church as an institution to Ireland’s development and social culture has overall been positive. A mature future-oriented dialogue between Church and Irish culture should build on those positive aspects of our past.
Certainly criticism or even rejection of the Catholic Church and what it represents is legitimate. But criticism is different from negative and cynical caricature of faith or spin. Caricature of faith does little to build up in society the values that endure. By its very nature spin can turn into perpetual motion in which there remain few anchors around which to base values. A society which seeks only quick answers is the least apt to identify the values that endure.
John the Baptist announced something that was to be truly significant for human history. His movement created great interest and expectation among people of true faith and created anxiety in those who comprised the religious and political establishment of his day.
Yet the epochal event that takes place, as is recorded in today’s Gospel reading, seems to be anything but world shattering. The story of Jesus’ birth and his mission strangely does not make the chronicles of secular history. His birth goes unnoticed. It is not just the simplicity and lack of any link with power that strikes us, but the very isolation of the event. In Jesus, God takes up abode within our human history and history continues without even taking notice, except within a very small group of those who were on the margins of society. When the shepherds reach Bethlehem even those gathered around this child are puzzled by the news the shepherds bring. Jesus’ identity can only be discovered through the eyes of faith. Mary is the one who shows what must be the reaction of the person of faith of any time in history regarding the identity of Jesus and his place in our lives and in our history. She treasured what she heard but she also pondered what she had heard and seen in the light of faith. Renewal of the Church always involves deepening and renewal of our faith and its relevance to our lives. Renewal of the Church must also enable its prophetic voice to stand out uncompromised by the culture of any day.
A mature dialogue between Church and society in Ireland requires renewal in the Church. The International Eucharistic Congress, which will be held here in Dublin this year, must become a moment in which Catholic Christians reflect on what their faith in Jesus Christ means in today’s society. It must be a moment in which all of us attempt to ponder on who Jesus is and on his significance for our lives in our century.
Eucharist is central to the Christian message. For the Christian, Eucharist is not an optional extra to leading a good life. Eucharist is the focal point for establishing what the good life means: it is a life of communion with Christ and communion with one another. A Eucharistic life-style is not just about outward piety; it is about the fundamental communion of love of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and how that communion of love should be the mark of the Christian community. In the Eucharist we are called to be sharers with the very life of God and then to be uncompromising witnesses to that love in our society. Like the shepherds as they return from Bethlehem we should go out from each celebration of the Eucharist glorifying and praising God through the way we live.
We celebrate the Eucharist here today on this first day of the new civic year as a community of believers open to work with men and women of different views confident from our faith that the God revealed in the humble birth of Jesus Christ is a God who cares day by day for the world he created.
This morning we commend all those who are called to leadership in our world, all those suffer and are alienated in any part of the world, all those groups who courageously work for justice and solidarity even in the face of violent opposition, to the God of whom we heard in our first reading: the God who will bless and keep us, who will allow his face shine on us, who is gracious to us in our needs who alone brings us his peace that endures.
The Homily for World Day of Peace, January 1st 2012, from Archbishop Martin at Mass in St. Mary’s Church, Haddington Road.