At the end of August, just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis visited Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. I was privileged to share in much of that event.
It was remarkable, unlike any other Papal Visit in my knowledge.
As is customary, the days before the arrival of the Holy Father were full of negative reporting in the media, about the problems facing the Church, about the hostility awaiting the Pope, about the fall away from the practice of the faith which characterises Western Europe. In my experience of other papal visits, as with Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, these negative voices give way to a positive and warm expression of welcome to the Pope and joy in the faith of the Church.
In Ireland this did not happen. The angry voice of survivors of childhood abuse and cruelty continued to be heard. The media continued its concentration on past wrongs and the criticism of the Church, especially of us bishops, was sustained. The news from Pennsylvania added to the dismay and criticism, as did the unfolding of the events surrounding Cardinal McCarrick. It was unsettling, to say the least.
“Voices of joy and voices of anger – both must be heard”
Slowly, one important truth became clear to me: I was wrong to hope that the voice of joy and welcome would overcome the voices of anger and condemnation. Both voices have to be heard. Both voices must find an echo in our hearts. Both voices are the voice of Jesus, crying out in his Church and in the world today. In a most remarkable way, Pope Francis embraced both voices. Somehow, in his person, he held them together, attending to each, responding to each, being true to each. His was a remarkable witness and a testimony to the deep peace of his soul which surely rests profoundly in the Lord.
For our part, we readily recognise the voice of the Lord in those who proclaim their joy in the gift of faith and in the Church. Their wonderful welcome for the Successor of St Peter, in the person of the Holy Father, is an expression of their faith in Our Blessed Lord, whom they know is always with His Church. In Him they put their trust. Through Him, with Him and in Him, they praise their Heavenly Father and strive to live their faith each day.
In all this, the voice of the faithful is always a great witness, not only to the world but also to us their pastors.
But the second voice must also be heard. It is the voice of suffering, of anger, of condemnation. It is the voice of those who have suffered abuse and mistreatment within the community of the Church, the voice of those whom we, the pastors, have let down for we have failed to protect them from the wolves in our midst. It is the voice of many who suffer, whose need we recognise and in the spirit of solidarity we wish to help. This, too, is the voice of Jesus. If we shy away from this voice, refuse to listen with an open heart, then we are closing our hearts to the Lord himself. When that voice is truly heard within the family of the Church, we too begin to know that suffering, trying to grasp a little of its burden, and now carrying ourselves the weight of our shame and sorrow.
In all this, and for all who suffer, Mary is our Mother of Sorrows. Today we hear how she stood at the foot of the cross, in that place of enormous sorrow. She did not flinch. She wanted to be close to Him who was bearing the pain of all sin. She opened her heart which was pierced through. And, remarkably, it is in this place of such pain and suffering that the Church is born: ‘Woman, this is your son.’ ‘This is your mother!’
Yet John was not the son of Mary; nor Mary his mother. Not in the order of nature, of flesh and blood. But here, at the foot of the cross, new bonds are being forged, new relationships that go beyond flesh and blood. Now, truly, in Christ, Mary is our mother, and John is our brother. Indeed, in Jesus we are one family and a family fashioned in pain, in the face of sin, in the overcoming of that evil, a family in which the voice of suffering is heard alongside, mingled with, the voice of joy and gladness.
The Letter to the Hebrews, too, takes us to that same place: new life emerging from standing face to face with the evil that has been done, that we have done. There is only one who has power to save us, and He has come into our midst as the Christ, the one who, on our behalf, offers up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears.
Today, on this Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, let us remember all those in our communities, all those in our societies, who cry out in pain, in anger and in frustration. The list is long. Their dismay intense. But it is neither too long nor too intense for Christ’s work of salvation.
Today let us resolve to open our hearts not only to the joyful voice of the faithful but also to the pained anger of those who want us to hear, to listen; to hear again, to listen again, with great discernment; to heed and to learn. Then we will know how best to respond. Theirs is the voice of Christ, crying to us out of a wilderness. To you, O Lord, we open open our hearts. Let our cry come unto you. Amen.
Homily given at CCEE Meeting in Poznan
Saturday 15 September, Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows
Following Pope Francis’ letter to all Catholics on the subject on 20 August, Cardinal Nichols also wrote to the priests of the Archdiocese of Westminster expressing his own sorrow and shame. You can read that letter here: Cardinal Nichols’ letter to clergy.
To read the Pope’s letter go to: http://catholicnews.org.uk/Home/News/Papal-Letter