The Gospel of today begins with a very matter of fact statement, ‘This is how Jesus Christ came to be born,’ and it continues with the background of Mary’s pregnancy and of her relationship with Joseph and how he needed divine confirmation before believing her story. I remember one year at the close of the Pilgrimage on the 8th of September looking out from the Altar over a vast sea of faces and thinking, ‘This is about Christ being born, and this is precisely what we are about, here in this community.’ It was as if I could see Our Lady’s Island as a giant maternity ward where everyone in his or her own way was involved in a birthing process, not of the physical Christ, but of Christ’s love and consciousness in the hearts and minds of those who come here.
If we don’t take time to reflect on what we are called to here, Pilgrimage Season comes and goes, and becomes just another important event in the local calendar, even if it’s the one that the year centers around. This is where we need to step back and take a broader view and ask deeper questions that go beyond how am I involved to why do I get involved, and what is it really all about.
As a parish dedicated to Our Lady we may well ask what was her life all about? In other words why was she born and what was the purpose of her life? The answer is very simple, and we all know it, namely to bring Christ into the World, to gift God’s Son to us all. So with this beautiful place, dedicated to her, why does it exist and what is its purpose? We could say, to give her honor and devotion, but such an answer would be inadequate, since Mary never wanted to draw attention to herself, no more than she ever lived just for herself. Our purpose here has to be to manifest Christ to the thousands of pilgrims who come here. Lady’s Island, before it is ever a place of Marion devotion, has to be a maternity ward, a place where Christ is still brought to birth. It’s a maternity ward with a big staff where each play their part from the greatest to the least, fuelled by faith, coupled with a sense of privilege and excitement that something new can be born here, something that can change the world.
When Mary visited her cousin, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy with the realization that something new was about to be born. It is that same excitement that needs to sustain the army of volunteers here who give endlessly and unselfishly of their time, energy and goodwill. Its important for us all to know that we are working for something that is so much greater than ourselves, something that will outlast ourselves, and something that will bear fruit into eternity.
Last year at the Opening on the 15th of August the Bishop said something very significant: ‘that ancient places like this still hold the energies of the past that can be the seeds of hope for the future. Our energies here go back a long way when you consider that this was the first place in Ireland to be converted to Christianity over 150 years before the coming of St Patrick. Those early Christians were the first fruits of the early church who had emerged from the catacombs during a time of persecution. They had a purity of faith that became largely lost in a sea of religiosity and devotionalism throughout the following centuries. This was when life changing Christianity got divorced from its roots and became more a matter of form than of power. At institutional level this was when the love of power took over from the power of love and salvation was no longer a free gift but something that you earned by suffering and strict adherence to mostly man made rules and regulations.
I deeply believe that our essential energies here in Our Lady’s Island are deeply rooted in that early Christian period, and the more we look back and discover what was so important to them, will we be able to hold the flame of faith alive at a time when for so many in our country it has become but a faint flicker.
Over nearly 40 years no one has ever accused me of being a traditionalist but in truth I really am one. I don’t hanker back after practices from a hundred years ago, that perhaps never worked, but I am passionate about an ongoing rediscovery of the roots of our Christian faith. For that reason I have had to strip away so many historical accretions that have accumulated over the centuries in order to get back to the joy, vitality and explosive power of love that is essential to Christianity.
Those first Christians who came here were the Christians of the catacombs and not of the great basilicas, and in some strange way, I feel their energy still around, and its something that inspires me no end. If Christianity could spread from here in those early days, it can do so again. The Christ that was born in a stable was a very small beginning of something great and wonderful. Should we not be thinking much bigger as well? When we look in the crib are we not entitled to look with the eyes of faith and ponder could this not also be Our Lady’s Island and then peer into the future with far seeing eyes and think what a privilege is mine just to be around at this time, to play a part in such a great work, and to witness such a wondrous birth.