World Day of Prayer for Peace

1st January 2015

Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow @7.30pm

Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis.[1]

Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.”

Maybe it is only in the performance of Handel’s Messiah and none better than by our own Carlow Choral Society on December 12th last, here in this very Cathedral, that those words from the prophet Isaiah really come alive. The past couple of days which we know as the ‘Christmas Octave’ continue to unpack this verse from the Old Testament and root that scripture verse in our lives. The Christmas Octave culminates this evening in the celebration of the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, which in recent decades has come to be known simply as ‘World Day for Peace’. It is an honour to be invited to celebrate Mass here in our Cathedral honouring the Garda Síochana, the Civil Defence, the Fire Brigade Units and Carlow County Council who so often become the first responders in bringing peace or calmness after huge disruption in life. I thank all of you, on behalf of the people of Carlow Town and its hinterland for your unstinting service in the cause of peace. For you, members of the Garda Síochana, that very word ‘síocháin’ or ‘peace’ is at the heart of your job title and description.

Let’s return to that notion of ‘first responders’. I remember in the aftermath of 9/11 and more recently after the November atrocities over in Paris, the term ‘first responder’ gained great traction – it described those first on the scene, those there to pick up the pieces, many times in a very literal sense, those first there to deal with innocent victims. The gospel writer Luke above all, puts most colour on the Christmas story. Tonight, in our Mass for World Day of Peace, we have the account of the shepherds’ response to the angels’ message. They were the ‘first responders’ to the Christmas Story. Our translation of the text, taken from Luke, Chapter 2, suggests “the shepherds hurried[2]; the literal Greek suggestion is much stronger “the shepherds made haste”. Which is exactly what you as guards, as fire-fighters, as civil defence people do – you make immediate haste once the call has been made. There cannot be any time for dallying about.

What the shepherds heard was utterly out of the ordinary. It changed the world. The Saviour was born. I imagine part of their journey was out of some idle curiosity as to why they the most unlearned, the most unimportant should be blessed with such a message, blessed with such good news. As a society we’re not great at making haste. We are too distracted. How often you will notice four people out for dinner, maybe even last evening for New Year’s Eve and all scrolling their smartphones rather than engaging in conversation. Pope Francis reminds us in his particular message for this day “today’s information explosion does not of itself lead to an increased concern for other people’s problems … the information glut can numb people’s sensibilities.[3] He is concerned that we can be so consumed by ourselves that we become incapable of feeling the other’s pain or hearing the other’s cry. The immediacy of the shepherds’ response must be mirrored in our own response to the moments when peace is completely shattered in our society. The danger now with the same hand held devices called mobile phones, is that one could spend more time filming a tragic event or snapping a prurient picture, instead of rolling up our sleeves to help. First responders are very much roll up their sleeves people!

In this Year of Mercy, we are invited to begin a conversation, a dialogue around mercy and forgiveness. If I were to ask you what was the most familiar screen take during the ‘6 – One News’ or the ‘9 o’clock News’ bulletins over 2015, I might hazard a guess and suggest I’m probably right – it is the image of people, usually running, screening their faces as they come out of the Central Criminal Court building on Parkgate Street in Dublin 8. It’s a sad comment on our news bulletins that they carry a much higher percentage of bad news rather than good news. It’s an even sadder comment on civic society that we have an insatiable appetite for bad news, the gorier the detail, the higher the tam rating. What do the shepherds do with their news? As recounted in Luke’s gospel, they return praising God “for all they had heard and seen[4]; they were changed shepherds, some might question if they ever returned back to the hills again? Mercy calls us to be a changed people – it’s not enough to forgive, we must also forget! Pope Francis in the earlier cited message for today, simply puts it – “wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy[5].

When I consider this challenge I am reminded of a former parishioner who stands shoulder high in those mercy stakes. She suffered an unspeakable loss when her husband, a serving Garda, was killed in the line of duty thirty years ago. Her understanding of God’s mercy and forgiveness shone a beacon of light into the darkest of situations at that time, and taught me more about mercy than I ever learned in seminary. She and so many more, understand completely the spirituality of loss about which Jean Vanier speaks very beautifully: “to become peacemakers, to give life, we must become familiar with the spirituality of loss, which implies anguish[6]. That former parishioner and so many more understand that loss completely. The mystery of Jesus, the mystery which the shepherds as first responders visited and saw, that mystery is a mystery of weakness. From his wounded heart, would flow blood and water. To work for unity and peace, there are things within us that must die. When we accept this death, then we allow something much deeper to grow within us – love, forgiveness and healing. My prayer on this World Day for Peace is that each of us will reach this depth in 2016.

May God make 2016 for you a happy one!

Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain,

But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes;

Not by making your path easy,

But by making you sturdy to travel any path;

Not by taking hardships from you,

But by taking fear from your heart;

Not by granting you unbroken sunshine,

But by keeping your face bright, even in the shadows;

Not by making your life always pleasant,

But by showing you when people and their causes need you most,

and by making you anxious to be there to help.

God’s love, peace, hope and joy be yours for the year ahead.

[1] Is. 9:6

[2] Lk. 2:16

[3] Pope Francis, ‘Overcome Indifference and Win Peace’, World Day of Peace 2016, pg. 7.

[4] Lk. 2:20

[5] ibid, pg. 15.

[6] Vanier, Jean: ‘The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship’, Franciscan Media, Ohio, pg. 82.