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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

World Day of Peace -1 January 2015 - Redemptorist Church of Mount St. Alphonsus, Limerick


The first day of a new year is a time for making new resolutions. To help us make good resolutions, the Church presents us today with the person of Mary, Mother of God. It’s as if to remind us that here we have summarised all the message of the Christian life, the Gospel incarnated in daily life – it is to her we can look if we want to discover how to best live out our Christian life and it is in her we find inspiration for resolutions.

The Church also marks this day as the World Day of Prayer for Peace. We begin a new year grateful for achievements reached along the way of peace. Archbishop Eamon Martin, in his Christmas homily, said he was heartened by the news from Stormont that politicians “have made progress in removing some of the stumbling blocks obstructing the path to lasting peace.” Yet, we also know we need to step up our efforts for peace. In his Urbi et Orbi message Pope Francis mentioned areas where war still rages: Iraq, Syria, the Middle East, Ukraine, Nigeria other parts of the African continent, thinking especially of Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and various regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Let us bring our intentions for peace into this Mass with renewed confidence in God’s mercy and love.

Each year the Pope offers a message for the World Day of Peace. This year Pope Francis draws our attention to the theme of slavery that still exists in our world in many forms. He invites us to make a New Year’s resolution together to really try and end the many forms of slavery that still exist in our world. As he puts it, why not this year work to “globalize fraternity, not slavery or indifference”.

The point is simply made. God has a plan for the unity of all humanity; we are born to be people in relationship with one another – we are, after all, created as a gift to one another. We are to be sisters and brothers of one another, recognising and promoting each other’s dignity, freedom and autonomy. The Son of God was born from Mary precisely to clarify this and make it possible. 

The first Christians understood the implications of what Jesus had done when he freed us from sin to make us live for one another. Slavery existed during the Roman empire but we see from Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon that among Christians even master-slave relationships had to change.  Onesimus had been a slave of a man called Philemon. But now both of them were Christians. Therefore, Paul reminded them, they were to consider themselves brothers. It seems that Onesimus had been away for a while. Paul writes to Philemon: “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (vv. 15-16). Onesimus became Philemon’s brother when he became a Christian.

Followers of Jesus Christ are called to build up relationships of fraternity in this world. We all know that officially slavery more or less no longer exists. There are all kinds of official agreements and strategies in place in the world to end slavery. But Pope Francis points out, tragically, there are all kinds of things happen that are akin to slavery: migrants detained in inhumane conditions; people forced into prostitution; minors and adults alike, who are made objects of trafficking for the sale of organs, for recruitment as soldiers, for begging, for illegal activities such as the production and sale of narcotics, or for disguised forms of cross-border adoption; and then there are all those kidnapped and held captive by terrorist groups, subjected to their purposes as combatants, or, above all in the case of young girls and women, to be used as sex slaves.

The root of this problem of modern forms of slavery is that the human person is treated as an object, treated as a means to an end. But human persons are never means to an end. They are created in the image and likeness of God and should never be sold and reduced to being the property of others.

It is estimated that between 12 and 27 million people worldwide are enslaved into forced labour and sexual exploitation. Each year, about 2 million people are victims of sexual trafficking, 60% of whom are girls. Human organ trafficking is rife: annually around 20,000 people are forced or deceived into giving up an organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, cornea, lung, even the heart). I read recently that in Ireland there was a 133 percent rise in human trafficking offences in this country between June 2013 and June 2014.

Here in Limerick it was also reported that there was  an increase of migrant women involved in street prostitution in Limerick city, many of whom are from disadvantaged areas of Central and Eastern Europe. It has also been reported that there has been an increase in the abuse of vulnerable migrants on work permits who are paid less than minimum wage and forced to work excessive work hours as they are tied to a particular employer or risk becoming undocumented. More recently there have been cases of young and vulnerable men from Eastern Europe being trafficked into Ireland to engage in narcotics distribution.

The issue of human trafficking is one that really engages Pope Francis. He notes the great and often silent work of religious congregations, especially women’s congregations in providing support to victims, helping them in all kinds of ways. And yet he knows more is needed if we are to combat this global phenomenon. There needs to be a shared commitment at the institutional level. As Francis puts it, “moreover, since criminal organizations employ global networks to achieve their goals, efforts to eliminate this phenomenon also demand a common and, indeed, a global effort on the part of various sectors of society.”

He himself has promoted high level conferences to draw attention to the issue. I visited Rome a few months ago and while there I went to the Anglican Centre and they told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wells and Pope Francis have worked together on a new Global Freedom Network created to join the struggle against modern slavery and human trafficking from a faith base, so that together they might witness to God's compassion and act for the benefit of those who are abducted, enslaved and abused in this terrible crime.

But it is not just the big people, as it were, that can make a difference.  We are all involved in the daily choices we make in work and in our purchases.  Francis reminds us that “there is also the social responsibility of consumers. Every person ought to have the awareness that “purchasing is always a moral – and not simply an economic – act”. We need to make sure our purchases are also reflecting good choices that do not exploit people.  Others can get involved in helping people through organisations that do good work. I think of Doras Luimni here in Limerick.

Christians are called to take this issue seriously for simple the reason that the theme of freedom is profoundly rooted in the Gospel.  Mary’s Magnificat is a hymn that celebrates the freedom that has come into our world through Jesus Christ. We see this too in the story of Josephine Bakhita, the saint originally from the Darfur region in Sudan who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was kidnapped by slave-traffickers and sold to brutal masters when she was nine years old. Subsequently through faith she experienced a new freedom as a “free daughter of God” and entered a religious consecration and served others, especially the most lowly and helpless, and went around telling her experience in order to help people realise the gift of freedom.

At the end of our lives, we know that God will ask each of us: What did you do for your brother and sister? (cf. Gen 4:9-10 and Mt 25). Let’s be among those who, like Mary, didn’t remain indifferent to the sufferings of others. And let’s give a hand to Pope Francis who needs you and me to do our part.