Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor
SOLEMNITY OF MARY MOTHER OF GOD
MIDNIGHT MASS – NEW YEAR 2017
ST PATRICK’S, DONEGALL STREET, BELFAST
I Mary Mother of God : our role model of service
We gather here in St Patrick’s tonight on the threshold of the New Year to invoke God’s blessing on us and on humanity as we step into the New Year. Like Aaron and his children, referred to in the first reading, who had just escaped from the trials and misfortunes of captivity in Egypt, we sense and experience great uncertainty in our world and times. As Christians we know and believe that our time, the world and its peoples need God’s blessing and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Certainly the past year witnessed moments and events of blessing, reconciliation and hope ; yet war and its consequences for peoples, families and societies, the plight of migrants and refugees, the scar of child poverty, the growing tragedy of homelessness and its multiple underlying socio-economic causes, drug-related and gangland criminality and violence, the continuing efforts to liberalise abortion laws in this jurisdiction : these are issues we carry with us into 2017 and they are matters about which we must continue to care actively. As Christian citizens who make up the body politic we must continue to support work towards developing solutions to their underlying causes.
The first day of each New Year, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, celebrates the role of Mary in God’s work of salvation. This Solemnity hails Mary as the one who bore Jesus Christ, God-made-man, in her womb. It celebrates the person of Mary, a young woman, who blooded and gave human flesh to the Son of God. Our Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ of the Orthodox tradition refer beautifully to Mary as the God-bearer (theotokos).
As a personal presence in the background of the pages of the New Testament Mary, the God-bearer, stands as an icon of the active role of each person in the divine plan and work of salvation. Each baptised person is a God-bearer, grafted as we are in baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. By virtue of our baptism we are called to live, pray, worship and act as bearers of the Good News of gospel for our times and circumstances. For this very reason there is a particular aptness in the choice by Pope Paul VI to establish this Solemnity as World Day of Peace and in the name of the dignity of each person of and of human life to call to action for peace and justice.
II The fiftieth World Day of Peace Message : a new and prophetic departure
For fifty years Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have issued a World Peace Day Message for New Year’s Day. They have treated a vast array of issues related to the work of making and promoting peace in the world and in society. Grounded in the gospel and in the tradition of the social teaching and thought of the Church, these Messages offer religious and moral orientation and encouragement to political leaders and to believers in the face of the ambivalence of the human condition and the ever-present threats to justice and harmony among the peoples of the earth. They sound a siren-call to the body politic, to the elected, the voters and the citizen, to assess if we do all in our power to promote peace and understanding.
This year’s World Day of Peace Message carries the title, Nonviolence : a Style of Politics for Peace. As a message it breaks new ground in that it is calling for a new style of politics rooted in nonviolence that “breaks with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (5.2).
Notably Pope Francis pledges “the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence (6.3). As a concrete measure in this regard he points out that “[O]n 1 January 2017, the new Discastery for Promoting Integral Human Development will begin its work. It will help the Church to promote in an ever more effective way “the inestimable goods of justice, peace, and the care of creation” and concern for “migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture”. (6.3).
Some commentators have opined that the Message marks a radical departure from the just war theory. In this respect it certainly calls for a new culture of peace-making and peace-keeping and therefore for serious thought and research in sciences related to international relations, governance, security and international law.
However the text does state that “peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms” (6.1). In the tradition of the World Peace Day Messages, this year’s is a formidable example of the contribution of a faith-inspired reflection on peace and nonviolent peacebuilding to reflection on this vital subject in the public international arena.
III Nonviolence and solidarity as a way of making history
Starting from the incontrovertible assertion that “today, sadly, we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal” (2.1), Pope Francis proclaims that “violence is not the cure for our broken world” (2.2). Many of us will agree, no doubt, though we may still hold in the back of our minds to the use of force as a last resort. Francis is inviting us to leave this mind-set and attitude behind. He grounds this radical proposal in the gospel and in the example of proponents of nonviolence.
As one reads this 2017 World Day of Peace Message, some key anchor points of the text and its proposal invite thought, action and change of heart. Among them the following deserve consideration:
- A Christ-centred message : Pope Francis centres his reflection and proposal on nonviolence as a style of politics for peace in the teaching, example and life of Christ. He recalls that Jesus lived in violent times (3.1), yet he taught “that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart : for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (3.1).
- A Message rooted in Christ’s words and actions : Jesus preached God’s unconditional love, which welcomes and forgives. Scenes in the gospels show him intercepting recourse to violence. Jesus “marked out the path of nonviolence. He walked that path to the very end, to the cross, whereby he made our peace and put an end to hostility (Eph 2.14-6). Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus I sable to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by god’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation” (3.1).
- Nonviolence – an imperative for the Christian : Being a Christian today includes embracing Christ’s teaching about nonviolence. The predicament of our world where there is too much violence, too much injustice can only be addressed by more love, more goodness, as Pope Benedict XVI observed whilst adding that this “more” comes from God and that responding to evil with good breaks the chain of injustice (3.2)
- Exemplars of effective nonviolent practice: Pope Francis insists that “the decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence has produced impressive results” (4.2). Nonviolence is not an option for passivity in the face of evil and injustice. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr and the achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Ghaffar Khan in the liberation of India are adduced as exemplars of effective nonviolent agents of transformation. The role of women in particular as leaders of nonviolence is underlined (Liberia) and we know the important role played by women in forging peace and reconciliation and in institution building here in Northern Ireland.
- Family life and nonviolence: Pope Francis’ call that “nonviolence be practised before all else in families” (5.1) touches a nerve in our society. He pleads “for an end to domestic violence and to the abuse of women and children” (5.1). This call has particular pertinence for us here in Northern Ireland where according to statistics for 2014/2015 there were 28,287 incidents with domestic motivation reported to the PSNI, indeed one domestic incident every 19 minutes, 13, 426 domestic abuse crimes, effectively 13% of overall crime in Northern Ireland. Domestic abuse, the outcome of numerous causal factors, requires urgent attention, public debate and coordinated policies both for the present and the future well-being of our families and society.
- Nonviolence and leadership : As in other contexts Pope Francis signals the importance of “the competent contribution made by so many Christians to the drafting of legislation at all levels” (6.1) to peacebuilding. He describes the Sermon on the Mount as manual for nonviolent peacebuilding which “offers a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives” : to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities.… (6.2).
- A way of making history : In short Pope Francis invites humanity “to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society” (6.2).
This fiftieth World Day of Peace Message from Pope Francis cuts to the chase : all Christians are called to embrace the teaching of Jesus on nonviolence. Love of one’s enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution.
It is a prophetic Message for our times and our world where violence and war have become ever more destructive, evil and wanton.
It offers a significant and prophetic contribution to a much needed international public engagement on how to break the cycle of violence and war.
Let us pray also that nonviolence as a style of politics, a way of thought and action, a core guideline of the Good News will open, inspire and renew hearts and minds as we here in Northern Ireland continue to address the legacy of the past and the challenges of our present and future.
As we do so, let us continue to pray for peace among the peoples of the world, for a cessation of wars and for all who have suffered the ravages of war.
And finally, mindful of the pain and suffering of our own historical experience in Northern Ireland, of the horrors suffered by the people and children of Aleppo, Nice, Paris, Cairo, Berlin, Istanbul and countless other scenes of mindless violence, let us enthrone in our hearts the words of Pope Francis on 5 November 2016 to the World Meeting of Popular Movements : “no religion is terrorist … violence profanes the name of God” and at Assisi in October 2016 : “the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy. Peace alone is holy, not war ! (4.5)