Earlier this week I had the joy of making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of one of my spiritual heroes – Pope Saint John XXIII. Standing in the humble surroundings of his family home in Sotto Il Monte, I gave thanks to God for this good shepherd who was the pope when I was born.
Angelo Roncalli was seventy six years old when he was elected as successor to Saint Peter and he lived only a further five years. At the time they said he would simply be a ‘caretaker pope’, a ‘stopgap’ until the next man – but they were wrong! Within months Pope John called the Second Vatican Council which began its work in 1962 and ended in 1965, fifty years ago this year. Pope John had the courage to call for renewal in the Church; he spoke about the importance of reading ‘the signs of the times’ and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In my prayers at Sotto Il Monte this week I reflected on some of the signs of our times. I was conscious that I was coming to Knock today for the pilgrimage of the Pioneer and Total Abstinence Association, so naturally I reflected on the witness of your Association at this time in Ireland as excessive drinking and other addictions continue to cause so much hurt and destruction in many Irish homes and families.
I found myself asking God: “Why is that despite all our efforts to read ‘the signs of the times’ and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, we always seem to be fighting an uphill battle against the darkness of evil in our world? So many people are in need; so many people are searching for meaning and hope in their lives; so many seem lost or astray. What can we do to help them?”
It strikes me that that is precisely how the disciples felt in today’s Gospel reading when they returned to Jesus. Remember, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus summoned the twelve and sent them out to all the towns and villages. This week they’re back and they’re exhausted! So many people are coming and looking for them that they don’t even have time to eat. Jesus invites them to come away with Him to a lonely place to rest for a while. When Jesus notices that the people have found them and keep coming, He takes pity on them, because they are “like sheep without a shepherd”.
It is a description which might apply to many Irish people today – indeed perhaps we all at times feel “like sheep without a shepherd”.
So what did Jesus do for His troubled people? The Gospel tells us He sat down and talked to them at some length, and then, as we will find out next Sunday, He fed them. He nourished them with His word; He fed their hunger; then, He sent them to seek out His others who were lost or astray, to reach out in love and mercy to those who were harassed and overwhelmed by the problems of life.
Thank God that here today in Knock, and at every celebration of the Eucharist, we are nourished at the table of His Word, and fed at the table of His Body and Blood. In sharing this ‘banquet’ we open our own lives up to His love and mercy. We come to know better that He, the Lord, is our Shepherd too; if we can only allow Him fully into our lives then there is nothing we shall want, and even if we sometimes find ourselves walking through life in the valley of darkness or the shadow of death, we need not fear because He is there with us with his staff, to bring us comfort and guide us again along the right path. At the end of Mass, we are sent out from here to touch the lives of others with the loving presence and tender mercy of Christ, particularly those who are weak and struggling.
Recently I met a man in his mid-forties who told me that a few months ago he took the Pioneer pledge on behalf of his son who is alcoholic. He said “I want my son to know I am with him in his struggle and he’s not on his own”. He went on to tell me that he used to enjoy a drink himself: “For me” he said, “this is just a little sacrifice for God; but for my son it’s a life or death issue.” I thought: What a wonderful way this man has chosen to put his faith into practice – to make a personal sacrifice which gives glory to God, which offers a powerful witness to others, and at the same time asks God’s grace and help for someone else in their struggle with addiction.
Today, my brothers and sisters in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, I want to affirm the heroic self-sacrifice and offering that you and thousands of others in the Association have been making for almost one hundred and twenty years. When Father James Cullen founded your Association back in 1898, he wanted you to be ‘pioneers’ in the sense of going out and leading the way from the slavery of addiction towards the freedom of sobriety.
Father Cullen wanted the Association to be rooted in devotion to the Sacred Heart, because he knew that it is only through the unconditional love and mercy of the Heart of Jesus that we can be truly set free from selfishness and anything that is imprisoning us.
Father Cullen had no illusions about the damage that excessive drinking was doing in his time. Sadly, that remains the case today. According to the charity Alcohol Action Ireland, research tells us that half of all adults who drink in Ireland are “harmful high risk drinkers” and 15% of our 18-24 year olds who drink are already dependent. Alcohol is a factor in half of the suicides in Ireland and more people die each day from alcohol-related problems than on our roads. Increasingly nowadays more women and young people are presenting for help with alcohol dependency. I imagine there are few Irish families that have not been impacted in some way by the problems of addiction, whether it be to alcohol, tablets or other drugs, online gambling, pornography or some other dependent behaviour.
How can we read these signs of our times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel? What is it in our culture that has left us so prone to addictive behaviours? Why are so many people today being caught up in dependency on alcohol, drugs or some other compulsion? Could it be that we are trying to live our lives without a true openness to God and his loving mercy and as a result we end up like sheep without a shepherd? Have our lives become so empty of meaning or true purpose, so lacking in true love or intimacy that we feel the need to escape into the false comfort of addictive behaviours? Perhaps all of us can identify behaviours in our personal lives which we know deep down are not good for us – like overuse of alcohol, drugs or the internet, an unhealthy relationship, obsession with work, the need to gamble or risk, compulsive consumerism, or a fixation with someone or something which dominates our lives to the exclusion of those who are most dear to us.
Being honest with ourselves like this, and recognising our weaknesses, can help open us up to the unconditional love and mercy of God. It also prevents us from becoming self-righteous or ‘holier than thou’, and looking down on those who are dependent as if it was their fault, rather than recognising that they are people who have lost power and control over their lives and who simply cannot stop without humbly and honestly admitting their need for help.
I think of the Venerable Matt Talbot who recognised his weakness and then quietly undertook daily sacrifice and penance while reaching out humbly in love and charity to others. In preparation for the Jubilee Year of Mercy Pope Francis has been speaking about the need for “missionaries of mercy” in the world. Last Advent he said “there is a need for people who are witnesses of the mercy and tenderness of the Lord, which shakes up those who are resigned, revives the discouraged, (and) ignites the fire of hope.” Matt Talbot was such a “missionary of mercy”, and so also should be every member of the Pioneer Association.
I would like to thank God today for the many missionaries of mercy around this country who unselfishly reach out to help those who are addicted by offering prayer, providing counselling and therapy, recovery programmes and pathways of mentoring and support for addicts and their families.
Father Cullen genuinely believed that lives can be changed by openness to the love and mercy of the Sacred Heart and by prayer, fasting and self-denial. His secret was to encourage even those people who did not have a problem with drink to make a generous self-offering on behalf of those who could not control their addiction. Today I encourage you to continue this positive witness in Ireland which speaks with such compassion to the signs of our times in the heart of the Church and the community. May God continue to bless the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. May our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland and Mother of Mercy, touch the lives of those who are struggling with addictions of any kind and point them to the tender love of her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Pioneer Prayer
For thy greater Glory and consolation, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus, for Thy sake, to give good example, to practice self-denial, to make reparation to Thee for the sins of intemperance and for the conversion of excessive drinkers, I will abstain for life from all intoxicating drinks, Amen."