Homily of Bishop Kevin at the Legion of Mary Pilgrimage to Knock
Our Little Brother at the Gate
Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at Knock Shrine
Pilgrimage of the Legion of Mary, Sept 25th 2016
As I read the words of the prophet Amos during the week, I was reminded of something Pope Francis said to the young pilgrims at World Youth Day in Krakow. He encouraged them to avoid a kind of paralysis which turns people into “couch-potatoes”. “I like to describe it” he said “as the paralysis that comes from confusing happiness with a sofa. In other words, to think that in order to be happy all we need is a good sofa. A sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe. A sofa like one of those we have nowadays with a built-in massage unit to put us to sleep.” “The times we live in do not call for young “couch potatoes”, but for young people with shoes, or better, boots laced. The times we live in require only active players on the field, and there is no room for those who sit on the bench.”
It is good to celebrate with you this afternoon because I know that members of the Legion of Mary, by-definition, are not couch-potatoes but people with shoes. I give thanks to God for the impact that the Legion has had in so many countries around the world. That kind of commitment is just as necessary today in our own country. I welcome in particular the pilgrims from the Diocese of Killaloe and I invite you all today to keep Bishop Fintan in your prayers as we celebrate this Mass together, coinciding with the celebration of his episcopal ordination in Ennis.
The image of people sprawling on couches, drinking wine from bowls, eating stall-fattened veal and being massaged with the finest oil are images from nearly three thousand years ago, but they are easily translated into the experience of the twenty first century. There is nothing wrong with watching television for a while, or going to a restaurant for a good meal, or indeed going to have your hair done. What the prophet Amos seems to criticise is a life-style which is unduly focussed on oneself and which seems to have no real purpose or direction.
It would be very easy for us to miss the most important part of this reading. Speaking of the people to whom he refers as the “sprawlers”, Amos comments that they do not care at all “about the ruin of Joseph”. That might not make sense at all unless we understand who “Joseph” is. You might remember the story from the Old Testament of Jacob who had twelve sons. The youngest, who was the apple of his father’s eye, was Joseph and he had a coat of many colours. His brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. Joseph is the “little brother”. In this reading, I think, he symbolises all those who are vulnerable among the people of Israel.
Our Gospel reading today continues on a similar theme. The rich man has no name in the Gospel according to Luke. This may be because he is not just any one concrete individual. He is, you could say, an attitude. He is a “liufe-style”. Once again, the problem is not that he is enjoying himself with his friends, but that there is this huge gap between them and the poor man, Lazarus, lying at the gate of his house. We are told that Lazarus “was covered with sores” and that “he longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table”. Usually it is the dogs who eat the scraps that fall from the table. They would probably snarl and snap at a beggar who came anywhere near the gate.
I used to be horrified at the idea of the dogs licking the sores of Lazarus. But, if you happen to have a dog, you will know that licking wounds – unpleasant thought it may seem – is about healing. So it seems that “even the dogs in the street” recognised the need of Lazarus and were ready to look after him in their own fashion, while the rich man ignored him. There was more “humanity” in the dogs, than there was in the rich man. What an indictment!
In the second part of the Gospel, when both Lazarus and the rich man have died, the rich man who is feeling the heat of hell appeals to Abraham the send Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water” and to come and cool his tongue. Abraham explains that there is a great gulf between heaven and hell which has been put in place to stop anyone crossing from one side to the other. One cannot help thinking that, this gulf between the rich man and Lazarus began during their life on earth and there was a time when it could have been bridged, if only the rich man had taken the trouble to look at Lazarus as a fellow human being, rather than treating him as one of the dogs. The message is clear; the time for thinking about outreach to those on the margins is not in the next life. The time is now,
Some of you may be familiar with the hymn “All things bright and beautiful”. As the title suggests, it is a bright and joyful hymn and very easy to sing. The Chorus goes:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
In one of the many verses we find what seems to be a somewhat distorted reference to the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
These days, that particular verse is usually left out, which suggests that we are at least aware that God intended the good things of the earth to be at the disposal of all. I mention it here because I think there are many Christians today, who profession to believe in the cross and in the Resurrection, but who have a deep sense of their own entitlement. They still don’t get the message of the Gospel. The poor man at the gate is our little brother. God never intended people to live in destitution. He intended the good things of the earth to be shared.
This is what many of the Popes have taught over the past 120 years of Catholic Social Teaching and Pope Francis has repeated it once again in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, on the care of the earth, our common home. I quote it at length, because I think it is worth hearing:
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone. (Laudato Si 93)
I am aware that the relief of poverty is not the particular mission of the Legion of Mary. The legion handbook does say, however, that Legionaries cannot ignore the particular material challenges that people face and should bring them to the attention of those whose mission it is. As Legionaries, you frequently pray the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise to God who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly”. In the course of your Legion work, in communion with Mary, you will be aware of the potential that you have to present the social teaching of the Church as a radical call to conversion, so that all of us may not only experience the mercy of God, but also imitate him in his mercy towards one another. Finally of course, as the handbook reminds us, it is possible for any legionary (or indeed any bishop), acting in a personal capacity, to make a discrete contribution through one of the many agencies whose mission it is to care for the “poor man at the gate”.
Finally, I thought I might reflect with you briefly on the image of the “gate”. The gate can be a barrier, or it can be an opening in the wall. It can symbolise exclusion and rejection or refuge and salvation. The poor man at the gate may be simply that; someone in our town who lacks the material resources to care for himself or herself; the homeless man or woman; the child coming hungry to school.
But we need to ask ourselves constantly: “who is Lazarus today, and what are his needs?” The challenge of social justice is constantly changing. Today, I think of the unborn, lying at the gate of life, just as surely as Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. They depend on each one of you here today and on our whole society for a clear response which ensures that they continue to be recognised as our little brothers and sisters. Nobody here today, or among the thousands who come to Knock every Sunday, can afford to be complacent about this urgent need.
I think too of the asylum seekers, lying just inside the gate. Many of them are condemned by circumstances beyond their control to live a kind of a half-life for years on end, almost as if they did not exist, as they await a response to their request for asylum.
It is good that we are able to gather here today. The word Legion is a military term and there is indeed a battle to be fought today on many fronts. The Lord is with you and he depends on you to be with Him. I leave you with the encouragement of St. Paul, in our second reading today. “Fight the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called”.