St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
In most years, we can begin January 1st by wishing everyone a happy New Year. That is easy to say - and we all did that twelve months ago, having no idea what lay just around the corner. Today, many of us are much more timid about our New Year wishes for 2021. Uncertainty, fear and even anger are in the air. For many, just getting through this next calendar year will be seen as an achievement.
Thus, it is not surprising that Pope Francis, in his message for the World Day of Peace, offers a simple message – it is possible, despite all the tensions and fears, to build a path to peace. In a world that is frightened by the pandemic and by governments' response to it, people of faith need to be the voices that speak of something other than narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and confrontation. These latter are counsels of despair. They come from hearts that believe that evil might win the day. People of faith generate hope, not fear. Despite everything, they build relationships, not resentments.
Pope Francis says that the antidote to confrontation is not final victory over the others but is a culture of care where concern for others is the default position and not occasional feel-good altruistic tokenism. That means challenging leaders at all levels to talk a language of care and concern rather than of confrontation and victory. It means policies that prioritise those who are hurting. In fact, the Christmas period celebrates the God who loved this hurting world so much that he sent his only Son to carry our crosses for us. Jesus practiced that culture of care for us. He has made peace by his death on the Cross. His disciples have to tread the same path.
Pope Francis talks about a path to peace. In this country we have known how twisting and tortuous this path can be. That is beautifully symbolised in our twisting Peace Bridge here in Derry. We still have a lot of work to do for, as Pope John Paul II said, Peace is not just the absence of war. It involves mutual respect and confidence between peoples and nations. It involves collaboration and binding agreements.
This year in this city and beyond we have a special opportunity to work on that peace-building journey. We have just begun to mark the centenary of the birth of St Columba or Colmcille. His name is the Latin word for a dove, the symbol of peace, ever since the dove returned with an olive branch to Noah and the Ark. He can have something to say to us all about the path to peace.
According to some of the stories about Columba, he had to seek a way forward in a post-conflict situation and he dealt with that by carrying some of the burden as he went on mission to Scotland. He took personal responsibility for his role in whatever had happened. He went to Iona, not in anger, but because he chose to live and spread the Gospel in the west of Scotland. He chose to let Christ make his life into good news rather than labouring under hurts and spreading infectious bad news. That was part of his difficult path to peace-making.
We still have many bridges to build between communities and within communities. The pandemic risks increasing gaps between those who are doing well and those who feel left behind. We also have gaps between generations. As the Churches look back on the Troubles, we have to ask where there are people who feel that they lost their connection with the local Church. There is still a job of rebuilding bridges in other areas where hurt has damaged trust and relationships. All of this culture of care will involve listening.
A culture of care cannot be carried on in a culture of blame. We have to find ways of dealing with the past and its legacy. Forgetting may be a temptation for the strong but it is not an option for those who carry the pain of loss every day. Many of these are little people without a voice for, in every war, most victims are not combatants but innocent men, women and children. They need a culture of care and not to be swept under the carpet. Their pain is real, not a battle ground for ongoing ideological conflict. Simplistic slogans serve little purpose. Peace comes from prioritising the victims rather than through the heartless search for victory. Nothing grows in the muddy battlefield of a divided past.
We enter this new year with the hopeful words of Pope Francis to encourage us. Locally, we have a remarkably caring and resilient society. Our parishes and schools have shown energy and resilience in responding to the pandemic. I pay tribute to all those who have risen to challenge and sought to offer spiritual and human nourishment to others in these last difficult months. This city, with all its own challenges, has been nominated as the most generous city in the UK. Christ asks us to face the future with trust and confidence. Just as in Columba's time, there is work to be done here in taking the next steps on the path to peace – and we should not be daunted by the size of the task in hand.
The Gospel today speaks of Mary treasuring many things in her heart. The shepherds, too, were grateful for what they had heard and seen. Mary invites us to ponder the strange experiences of last year as we journey on in hope, believing that God's grace is at work, even in our darkest times. And we ask the intercession of St Columba as we face the uncertainties of 2021. Who knows, by the end of his centenary year, we might even have celebrated feast of St Columba and the 10th anniversary of our Peace Bridge by renaming it the Columba Peace Bridge. Such a celebration of our shared past could be a great next step on our shared path to peace – wherever the Prince of Peace leads us in 2021.