Each year, on the first Sunday in October, we, the priests and people of the diocese of Killala, together with pilgrims from other parts of Ireland, come to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. We come here to ask God’s blessing and Mary’s protection on us as a diocese, as members of a parish community, as members of a family and as individuals. As Pope Francis said at a shrine of Our Lady in Paraguy; ‘Being here with you makes me feel at home, at the feet of our Mother. In every shrine we, her children, encounter our Mother and are reminded that we are brothers and sisters. Shrines are places of festival, of encounter, of family. We come to present our needs. We come to give thanks, to ask forgiveness and to begin again. We come bringing our lives, because here we are at home and it is wonderful to know there is someone waiting for us. Today we gather as the People of God, at the feet of our Mother, to offer her our love and our faith.’
Pope Francis, in his own unique way, coined the phrase; Mary, the Mother of Yes. She was the one who said Yes to God’s dream, yes to God’s care, yes to God’s will. It was a yes that, as we know, was not easy to live; a yes that bestowed no privileges or distinctions. Simeon told her in his prophecy: “a sword will pierce your heart” (Lk 2:35), and indeed it did. That is why we love her so much. We find in her a true Mother, one who helps us to keep faith and hope alive in the midst of complicated situations; for her life was full of complications; she was homeless when her child was born, in exile while her child was still in her arms and she faced apparent tragedy when she saw him die on a cross. Therefore, when we look at her life, we begin to understand and we feel understood; we reflect and we feel sure of a listening ear. We feel we can sit down to pray with her and use a common language in the face of the countless situations she met with in her day and we encounter each day. Because we can identify with many situations in her own life, we can tell her what is happening in our lives, because we know that she understands. We know all this from the Gospel, but we also know this from the fact that in this country of ours she is the Mother who has stood beside us, her people, in so many difficult situations in the past, especially here in Knock. This shrine preserves and treasures the memory of a people who know that Mary is their Mother, and that she has always been at the side of her children.
I think it is particularly important to reflect today on Mary, the Mother of Yes in the light of today’s Gospel and also as the representatives of the Catholic world gather with the Bishop of Rome to spend three weeks thinking and praying about marriage and the family in the world in which we live. Because it was the ‘yes’ spoken by Mary when she was surprised by the Angel Gabriel that gave rise to her ‘yes’ in marriage to Joseph and the ‘yes’ of Mary in marriage repeats itself every time a man and a woman say ‘yes, I do’ in the sacrament of marriage today. And the pattern of Mary’s living out the consequences of her ‘yes’ in marriage continues in all Christian marriages today; the everyday complications, the ups and the downs, the joys and the sorrows, the good times and the bad. And family life for the Christian also follows the pattern of the family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in its complications; functional and dis-functional, as when Jesus went missing after his parents left him out of their sight for a minute; understanding and mysterious, as when he replied, ‘did you not know that I must be about my father’s business’; secure and yet not lasting forever, as when he lived with his parents for years and yet ending when he took up his public ministry at the age of thirty.
For the fact of the matter is this; our Christian understanding of family life today is under greater pressure now than ever before. Despite this, I believe that the family unit as we have known it, therefore, was never more needed than at present if we are to hand on to future generations a sane, safe and civilised Christian society. The marriage of Mary and Joseph never promised that marriage would be easy but what it does affirm is that the family unit as we know it is the best setting in which we can live, grow and develop and in which children can be reared. On this Sunday, as the Synod begins in Rome we pray; Mary, the Mother of Yes, support all that is positive in family life today and heal everything that is painful.
Finally, the Church in Ireland celebrates today the Day for Life. It takes as its theme ‘Cherishing Life, accepting Death’. In its message the bishops encourage us to love life, no matter how difficult the circumstances which face us and to never give up or give in. They also remind us that we must face and accept death, no matter how much we recoil from this. Let me end with a reflection given by Pope Francis on life and death; ‘This life cannot be the standard for eternity: it is eternity, on the contrary, that illuminates our life on earth, and gives each of us hope. If we only look through human eyes, the Pope continued, we tend to say that the path of man goes from life towards death. But Jesus turns this perspective on its head, and affirms that our pilgrimage goes from death towards a fuller life. So, the Pope concluded, death is behind us, not in front of us. In front of us is the God of the living, the definitive defeat of sin and death, the start of a new time of joy and endless light. But already on this earth – in prayers, in Sacraments, in fraternity – we encounter Jesus and his love, and so we can get a small taste of the risen life.’
On this Day for Life 2015 I invite each of you to turn your thinking round to the way of Pope Francis and find hope. ‘In front of us is the God of the living, the definitive defeat of sin and death, the start of a new time of joy and endless light.’