St. Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, June 3rd 2018
An Teanga, Na Daoine agus An t-Ardeaglais
850th Anniversary Celebration of the Cathedral
Speaking Notes of Bishop Brendan Leahy
The Gospel is a great gift. It is different from other books. It has words that are eternal, universal and capable of transforming our lives. When we try to put the Gospel into practice, we’ve something to talk about. Indeed, it is often the experience of those who encounter Jesus Christ in a new way that they live something of today’s Gospel of the Visitation.
Mary had experienced the event of the Incarnation. The Word had become flesh in her. And immediately she goes out, certainly to love, but also to speak. She recounts her experience to Elizabeth: “My soul glorifies the Lord, for he has gone great things for me” She tells her story.
We can only imagine the encounter. Luke provides some details – John the Baptist leaping in the womb, Elizabeth proclaiming a beatitude that is particularly Mary’s “Blessed is she who believed”, Elizabeth experiences a fullness of the Holy Spirit. It was an amazing encounter of tongue, people and place.
A Cathedral is to be a place of such an encounter – with the Word of God proclaimed, with the Word of God made flesh, with the Word of God that forms the community, with the Word of God within each of us, indeed with that specific word of God that each of us is.
We can just imagine today how many people over the centuries came here to this great Cathedral of St. Mary’s and experienced that encounter. This building rose up at a time of renewal in the Church in Ireland. Linked initially with Canterbury, it is probable that the initial influences here with the English Benedictine monasteries – with their great focus on the word masticated, chewed, made the very fabric of life – that would have brought with them the liturgical traditions of their monasteries.
Since then, in whatever tongue the liturgy has been celebrated – Latin, Irish, English, the Word has been alive and active, speaking to the inner heart, prompting conversion.
A Cathedral, of course, is a privileged space for encounter between the People of God and the Word of God because it is linked symbolically with the Bishop who in turn is linked with the apostles. There is something of the apostolic mission in the air in a Cathedral. The Cathedral speaks of God even as an architectural space. Yes, we might have this and that monument, this and that favourite story of the building, this or that peculiar feature but, beneath all of that is a deeper base note – the event of Jesus Christ stretching two thousand years has reached here. It has been carried by so many people in communion with their Bishop from generation to generation that even the space speaks its word.
An example of how a Cathedral carries with it a grace of encounter with the Word of God even as a building. I remember being struck the first time I heard the story of Paul Claudel, a French writer. He was not particularly into faith but on Christmas Day in 1886, a gloomy winter rainy day in Paris, he went to Mass in the cathedral of Notre Dame. He was not particularly moved by the ceremony but later he came back. There was some singing going on. For the rest of his life he recalled that he “stood near the second pillar at the entrance to the chancel, to the right, on the side of the sacristy.” A fourteenth-century statue of the Virgin Mary and Child was standing there. “Then occurred the event which dominates my entire life,” he wrote. “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a strength of adherence, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with such powerful conviction, with such a certainty leaving no room for any kind of doubt, that since then all the books, all the arguments, all the incidents and accidents of a busy life have been unable to shake my faith, nor indeed to affect it in any way.”
Of course, it’s never enough simply to come to liturgy in a Cathedral – no matter how beautiful, how historical, how meaningful it is to attend a Cathedral liturgy. As I said, the “Cathedra” reminds us that this Cathedral is symbolically linked to the Bishop who is, of course, linked to the apostles and the whole missionary mandate of the Church. We come here to convert and to be sent out.
I am pleased to be here today to give witness to this sending out that is so essential today. Two years ago, Bishop Kenneth Kearon and I both took part on an ecumenical pilgrimage to Canterbury and Rome. While in Rome, we attended a ceremony in the Church of St. Gregory, the Pope who in the 6th century sent St. Augustine to England. As part of the ceremony, pairs of Bishops, one Anglican, one Catholic, from all over the world, came in procession before Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis to be commissioned to go out in mission.
A Cathedral reminds us we are a people bound by faith, hope and love beyond time and space. We don’t go to God on our own. We go together. This “home” shouts out that reality – we are a pilgrimage people. And even if we have known divisions and pain in our history, we are still a pilgrim people commissioned to convert and to go out, proclaiming like Mary did the wonderful fact that Jesus Christ has entered our lives and made a difference.
And we get the wonderful co-ordinates of mission in our readings today: do not fear or let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory…he will renew you in his love. Love one another with mutual affection. Be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them
Indeed, the readings remind us we are to strive for unity, and a Cathedral is a sign of unity. We are to strive to make ourselves one with one another. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. It is fitting then that today we mark the hidden heroes of Limerick today in the Community awards. Let’s be grateful that we can rejoice in each other’s virtues and talents because we really are a people bound together in faith, hope and love.