Martha and Mary neatly fall into an elite genre of scripture pairings. When you hear of one, the other is never far behind. Very much like the brothers in the Book of Genesis, Cain and Abel or the first occupants in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve or indeed the sons of Zebedee, James and John. We all remember their efforts at procuring promotion!
Today we come to Knock as part of a family, many of us have siblings. We’re familiar with Martha’s impatience, maybe we’re there ourselves, the crown of martyrdom weighs heavily on our shoulders – we’re left at home to mind the parents; we’re the ones out working; we’re burdened with exhaustion, while those who have flown the nest return home always to a hero’s welcome.
In life pairings come very easily. How often when one spouse dies, the second follows quite quickly. One was really the shadow, the reflection of the other. Teachers find it difficult to distinguish sometimes between two brothers or two sisters. They look alike, but of course no matter how alike they are, they, like Martha and Mary are never the same.
The Pioneer Pilgrimage dovetails beautifully with the Matt Talbot Pilgrimage as we become the very first pilgrimage to visit Knock, since yesterday’s official ceremony of rededication of this beautiful shrine, dedicated to Our Lady. I led our own Diocesan Pilgrimage here on the first Sunday of June and referred then to the moment, you know it well, when we place our hand on the section of stones coming from the original gable wall over at the Apparition Chapel. I always like that moment as the decade or mystery is interrupted, and sometimes the pause can lead to confusion, was it the third or the fourth decade, is it the eighth or ninth Hail Mary?
The stones that make up this panel were the same stones that were there, at the time of the fifteen witnesses whose story is told in the magnificent mosaic right behind me. This mosaic, is perhaps one of the centre-pieces of the tremendous restoration project that has been undertaken here at Knock over the past couple of years. I’m told there are about 1.5million smaller mosaic pieces making up the larger panorama. Of course no matter how well it looks, it is only a shadow of the beauty that confronted those same witnesses 137 years ago.
And of course the greatest beauty of all in Knock are we the pilgrims, as we bring with us to Knock the worrying and fretting of Martha and here at the Shrine take time to sit like Mary at His feet, maybe its once again that quiet moment at the Gable End wall or in the Adoration Chapel here in the busy Basilica or in the Confessional Room as we go through the Jubilee Door of Mercy, but it’s our time and this is what we have come to Knock for. I’ve spoken about scripture pairings and how quickly they resonate with us; today on pilgrimage I’m going to offer you another pairing that I think gives substance and life to our two pilgrimages, traveling as one today. I speak of Fr. James Cullen and Venerable Matt Talbot. Both men I have a deep affection for – the former in more recent years, since my appointment to Kildare & Leighlin Diocese, living now in Carlow and the latter, for close to twenty-eight years when I organized the very first Matt Talbot Mission in Mullingar.
James Cullen was born in New Ross in 1841. A comfortable background, allowing the family to send young James off to boarding school at Clongowes Wood College. That was in 1856, the year when Fr. Theobald Matthew of the great Temperance Crusade died. The Father Matthew Medal is still a very much revered possession amongst Pioneers. Returning to James Cullen, he was determined not to become a Jesuit, so he signed on for his native Ferns Diocese and studied for the priesthood in Carlow College.
The story goes that two years before his ordination, while home on holidays he had a chance encounter with a priest who certainly wasn’t a teetotaler, an encounter which set his mind firmly in the direction of temperance and in the founding of the PTAA. He was ordained in the Cathedral in Carlow. His early years of parish work brought him up front with the harsh reality of poverty and homelessness and identifying alcohol as the root cause then of both. His yearning towards the Jesuits never left him and he succumbed in 1881. The rest is history.
The Pioneers owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Jesuits for spiritually guiding the association from its inception and how wonderful to have Fr. Barney McGuckian with us this day. In the coming year the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association will become a lay association of the faithful. I don’t think we should fear this development, because the earliest collaborators with Fr. Cullen were four lay women, unheard of in his generation – a Mrs. Egan, Mrs. Bury, Mrs. Sullivan and a Ms. Power. In the early days the movement was seen very much as an all-female movement. The way to a man’s heart was through a woman, his wife, his mother, his sister. I was interested in the early commentary around the recent spate of horrendous violence in the inner city of Dublin, when it was said, the only ones who could get through to the perpetrators were the mothers or grandmothers.
The inner city of Dublin brings me beautifully to the second part of the pairing on this double pilgrimage day – Venerable Matt Talbot. I’m not sure what sparked my initial interest in this man to begin organizing missions around promoting his cause in Mullingar. It might stem from the account of his death, found bundled in a heap on Granby Lane – June 7th 1925. On that same date, thirty-eight years later I was born. The newspaper account of Matt’s death talked of the body being taken to Jervis Street hospital. Staff at the hospital would later discover three chains on his body – a heavier one around his waist; a lighter one around his arm and another below his knee. Matt, apparently was on his way to his third Mass that day and it was still early morning. An eight year-old attended that Mass accompanying a hard of hearing aunt, who liked to get up front, in case she missed what the priest was saying, remembered well the announcement at the end of Mass: ‘A poor old man has been found dead on Granby Lane, we’ll pray for him’. That eight year-old later became a priest Fr. Dominic Crilly. I spoke with him shortly before he died – he always believed too much was made of Matt’s excessive drinking; for forty years of his life he was a fervent Pioneer.
These are the days when great interest is taken of the early figures emanating from the Irish Census taken last April. CSO figures for 2014 suggest €6.5billion was spent on alcohol in Ireland; alcohol accounts for 7.4% of our total spend on goods and services. The age when drink is taken regularly can be as young as thirteen and sometimes even in pre-confirmation years. While we may in some dioceses have separated the pledge from the sacrament; perhaps this needs a fresh look at? Indeed, reimagining the pledge may be necessary so that young people can be reassured that as cool as they may think it is to drink, it’s also cool, in fact very cool not to imbibe.
A growing number of young people today are tempted to take sport enhancing drugs – they may not drink, but these drugs are doing irrefutable and irretrible damage to the development of their young bodies. It’s all about body perfect – tone, abs and biceps – but in doing so how much of the heart and the soul has been damaged? Our pledge must speak to these drugs as much as it speaks to the horrors of underage drinking. Some people, who know my interest in Venerable Matt Talbot wonder why hasn’t he been raised the realm of the beatified or better still canonized. The miracle of a saint must be unexplainable; the miracle of overcoming addiction, like Matt Talbot once did, is even harder to prove or classify. You can be cured of a tumor; you can be cured of cancer but an addiction can linger. And that’s why for me the Saints are those who attend AA meetings up and down the country and overcome addiction through the step programme of prayer and mutual support. They will never be canonized on this earth; but like Venerable Matt Talbot, their behavior will be richly rewarded in eternity. The heart is at the center of the Pioneer Pin. The Sacred Heart beats for us all this day in Knock as with Martha and Mary we pray:
“Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I’ve not time to be.
A saint by doing lovely things or
Watching late with thee.
Or dreaming in the dawn light or
Storming Heaven’s gates.
Make me a saint by getting meals and
Washing up the plates.
Although I must have Martha’s hands,
I have a Mary mind
And when I black the boots and shoes,
Thy sandals Lord I find.
I think of how they trod the earth,
Each time I scrub the floor
Accept this meditation Lord,
I haven’t time for more.
Warm all the kitchen with thy love,
And light it with thy peace.
Forgive me all my worrying and make
My grumbling cease.
Thou who did’st love to give men food,
In room or by the sea
Accept this service that I do,
I do it unto thee”.