Homily for World Peace Day, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God

Homily for World Peace Day on January 1st, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God
Bishop Kevin Doran
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo, Thursday 1st January 2015 

The Italians, who are well known for their love of food, have a tradition of serving lentils just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Lentils, apparently, are the poor man’s dinner and placing them firmly in the “old year” is a symbol of prosperity in the year to come. I imagine, many bottles of Champagne were uncorked in the early hours of this morning, symbolizing the prosperity and the buzz that people hope for in a New Year. At one level it all seems very superficial. On another level, I think it reflects the desire deep down within each one of us to be able to start afresh.

If you go back 100 years, however, you will find that the, throughout December 1914 and the early months of 1915 a battle raged throughout the Champagne Region of Northern France. Historians refer to it as the “Champagne Offensive”. Like everything to do with Champagne, it was very costly, resulting in the loss of 90,000 lives. At the end of it, there was very little to celebrate. It must have dawned on people around that time that this war was not going to end anytime soon. I often ask myself how, in a world at war, people manage to hold onto their sanity and their humanity. Many do not, of course, and that is part of the tragedy of modern warfare. It is usually the civilian population who suffer the most, because they are caught in the middle and they have nowhere to go.

Where there is violence on the surface, you can be sure that there are violent attitudes beneath the surface. Hatred and bigotry are only part of the mixture. In any society, even a relatively peaceful one like ours, jealousy, suspicion, pride, and the thirst for power can very easily lead to violence. I think we tend to accept nowadays that aggressive behaviour is part of the fabric of life and it’s ok, as long as it is kept to an “acceptable level” (whatever that means) and doesn’t touch us directly. In the final analysis, however, it is not just a case of what the world brings to our door, but what we bring to the world. We are not powerless when it comes to building a truly peaceful society. The question, of course, is: on what kind of foundation will we build?

Our Old Testament reading this morning takes the form of a blessing prayer, with which God asks Aaron to bless the people of Israel. It is a reassurance that God wants to give to his people the gift of peace – Shalom – not just an external freedom from war, but an inner peace which comes from right relationship. The Feast of Mary the Mother of God is celebrated each year as the World Day of Peace. This is because, in bringing Jesus Christ into the world, Mary became the channel of God’s gift of peace. She brought into the world the one through whom we are drawn into right relationship with God and with one another. As Jesus himself reminded us, God gives us peace in a way that the world cannot give because he enters into solidarity with our broken humanity. It is his peace that, as Christians, we offer to the world. Before we can do so, however, it must take root in our own hearts.

I’m sure you are familiar with the image of someone or something taking the ground from under your feet. It means that, because of something that has happened, you feel vulnerable or insecure. The action of the Holy Spirit is the exact opposite of that. This is the Spirit that God has sent into our hearts (2nd reading) This Spirit of the love of God is what sets us free, drawing us into right relationship with God. This love becomes a power in our lives, because it gives us solid ground on which to stand. We see this first of all in the life of Jesus himself. His single minded commitment, his honesty in preaching, his generous giving of himself, were all possible because he knew he was loved. With that love as the ground beneath his feet, he could handle the criticism, and the negativity he experienced from the religious and political establishment of his time. He never wrote anyone off.

We are blessed to live in a society which, though it is by no means free of violence, is more or less peaceful. But peace can never be taken for granted. Each one of us, each day, needs to be laying the foundations of tomorrow’s peace. While it is the responsibility of us all, those of you who hold positions of leadership in civil society have a particularly important contribution to make, because you have responsibility for the common good. One of the principal conditions of peace is the recognition that the other person, whoever he or she may be, is loved by God, just as surely as I am OR, if you prefer, is equal in dignity with me, because we share a common humanity.

I think it is significant that, in St. John’s account of the giving of the Holy Spirit, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Fear does close all kinds of doors. But closed doors don’t, of themselves, make people feel secure. As history has shown again and again, segregating people and building walls only serves to reinforce the ignorance and the cycle of fear and suspicion is deepened.

Perhaps this coming year, 2015, could be a year for opening doors and taking down the barriers that keep people apart; that prevent them from participating fully in society, with all that this means in terms of access to education, healthcare, housing and employment.

This morning, I am thinking in particular of the thousands of families who each year leave their own countries in search of peace and freedom and economic security. Some of these migrants come to Ireland, just as countless Irish have gone in the past to the United States and Australia. To use the words of Pope Francis, in his Message for today’s celebration:

In a particular way, I think of those among them who, upon arriving at their destination after a gruelling journey marked by fear and insecurity, are detained in at times inhumane conditions. I think of those among them, who for different social, political and economic reasons, are forced to live clandestinely. My thoughts also turn to those who, in order to remain within the law, agree to disgraceful living and working conditions, especially in those cases where the laws of a nation create or permit a structural dependency of migrant workers on their employers, as, for example, when the legality of their residency is made dependent on their labour contract.

How well do we respond to the demands of our common humanity, when it comes to migrants and particularly asylum seekers? Have we put flesh on the words of St. Paul in our second reading today?

“The proof that you are sons is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts: the Spirit that cries, ‘Abba, Father’, and it is this that makes you a son, you are not a slave any more; and if God has made you son, then he has made you heir”.

People who seek asylum in Ireland may find themselves in a place of relative peace, but what kind of peace is it when they have to wait for five or six years for the result of their application, always fearful of what tomorrow may bring. How well does it reflect our common humanity that, during this time of waiting they are denied the dignity of work and required to live in conditions where everything is a hand-out, and where they cannot even do the ordinary things that parents everywhere do for their children.

I dare to hope that, in this coming year, as an expression of the peace which is God’s gift to us in Christ, we might commit ourselves to providing a response to asylum seekers which is more in keeping with their dignity as human beings.

In wishing you all a happy and peaceful New Year, I extend good wishes to natives of the diocese living abroad, particularly our missionaries, those involved in third world development and members of the Defence Forces and the Garda Siochána deployed on United Nations’ peace-keeping service, some of whom may even be joining us today through the medium of the internet.