World Meeting of Families offers chance of renewal
Meeting and possible visit of Pope offer Irish Catholic Church chance to revive
Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass at the Knock Basilica in 1979.
The year of preparation for the World Meeting of Families(WMoF) in 2018 was officially launched in Knock last week, a curiously appropriate venue.
Knock has undergone a renaissance. It was always a place central to Irish Catholicism, underlined by the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II.
The pope entered a basilica built in 1976 when the redoubtable Msgr James Horan was in full social entrepreneur mode.
However, the basilica was typical of a 1970s church-building aesthetic that might be described as “concrete aircraft hangar”.
When Fr Richard Gibbons was appointed parish priest in 2012, succeeding the much-loved Msgr Joe Quinn, he and a team of advisers embarked on an extensive consultation process.
Three things came back loud and clear: refurbish the basilica, provide spiritual nourishment for people in innovative ways, and spread the message of Knock at home and internationally.
The basilica’s refurbishment is stunning. The concrete has all been clad in warm, welcoming Irish oak and granite.
Behind the altar is one of largest, most beautiful mosaicsin Europe, designed by Irish artist PJ Lynch, depicting the Knock apparition along with all the witnesses. It has 1.5 million individual pieces and was crafted by the internationally celebrated Italian artisan mosaic makers Travisanutto.
Photos cannot capture the mosaic adequately, not least because it is 14m square. Lynch said he tried to capture how baffled and awestruck the villagers who witnessed the apparition in 1879 must have felt. Just looking at the mosaic provides a spiritual uplift.
The team at Knock are also working hard on providing spiritual nourishment for people, not just the famous August novena, but quiet days for busy people, thriving youth initiatives, and courses on the environment.
So under energetic leadership from Fr Gibbons, curate Fr Nigel Woollen and many laypeople, Knock, far from fading into irrelevance, is thriving.
Ireland in 1979 was utterly charmed though not terribly surprised that we were the second place Pope John Paul II decided to visit. Sure, weren’t we the most Catholic country in Europe aside from Poland?
Ireland today is a much more jaded and cynical place. The church has endured two decades of scandals, and while it now has robust child-safeguarding procedures, only a fool would be complacent or think that the damage done to children and their families will not have consequences for decades yet.
And yes, the BBC and British soccer clubs have been devastated by abuse crises too, but abuse perpetrated by those who claim to preach the message of Jesus Christ is particularly shocking.
But a humbler, chastened church with virtually no political power has the potential to do much more good.
On a social level, the church is still to the forefront. St Vincent de Paul, Ireland’s biggest charity with its 11,000 volunteers, is an important lifeline for so many families.
Trócaire is one of the few organisations with the credibility to raise awareness and money for East Africa, while its development work had an impact on an astonishing 2.6 million people last year.
The church is also at its best when it works with unpopular causes, such as asylum seekers.
But a church is more than a charitable organisation, even though a church with no concern for the poor is ignoring the message of its founder.
However, unless you provide spiritual nourishment and challenge based on the gospel, a church might as well cease to exist.
Families are central to us all, a reality often cynically exploited by advertisers trying to create loyal consumers of their goods and services.
Families are also central to spiritual growth and are simultaneously the source of some our greatest joy and our greatest pain.
Pope Francis shows real understanding of the messiness and potential hurt of family life, and real compassion for those who, in his memorable phrase, “have made a shipwreck of their lives”.
For some reason, he thought Ireland was a good place for the next WMoF, a gathering of families from around the globe, the first such meeting after the publication of his document on family, Amoris Laetitia.
The WMoF represents an opportunity for the church in Ireland to undergo a process of renewal, which could last long beyond it but only if people engage with the preparation process launched this week on amoris.ie.
Otherwise, it will be a very enjoyable six-day festival, but not much else.
There are lots of innovative approaches, such as the family picnic sponsored by the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin at Punchestown racecourse this Sunday, which includes a special invitation to people in direct provision.
It’s not that individual Christians think they are so great. They are all too aware that they are weak, are often terrible witnesses to an amazing message and are sometimes downright stupid.
But the message is incredibly life-giving, including mercy for all the weak, terrible and downright stupid things we do, and encouragement to try to do better.
In a world where mercy is in short supply, that message is surely good news.