Homily at the Mass for the 1981 Hunger Strikers and Peace and Reconciliation
Old St. Patrick’s Church, Pittsburgh, Pa. August 30, 2009
Today as we celebrate the Eucharist, we commemorate and pray for the Hunger Strikers of 1981, Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond Mc Cresh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Rom Mc Elwee, Kevin Lynch, Keiran Doherty, and Michael Devine. These young men were all martyrs for the sake of their Catholic faith and the freedom of all Ireland. These heroes were confined in the H-Blocks of the Maze prison, more infamously known as Long Kesh. These ten Republican prisoners went on a hunger strike with five demands, the most potent being that they refused to be treated as criminals. These ten brave Irishmen made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for what they believed in – that they had the right to be free Irishmen.
However, in addition to the Hunger Strikers, we are also mindful of many other Irish martyrs – the victims of Bloody Sunday, the victims of the Great Famine, the hundreds of other innocent people killed during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
While we pray for the happy repose of all these souls, we are mindful that they gave their lives so that one day there would be peace and reconciliation in all of Ireland. We gather today around God’s altar both to pray for peace and to celebrate in the Eucharist, that is, in thanksgiving, the peace and reconciliation that is ours as Christians in Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace; He has reconciled the whole human race to God. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate peace; the peace between God and His people that was won for us by the Cross of Christ; the peace that Christ has left to the Church; the peace that as Christians and members of his one Body we are called to give witness to the world.
Yet we constantly celebrate the Eucharist in a world torn by conflict and division. Today we are shocked by the terrible loss of life that continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and occasionally our attention is even caught by the several so called “smaller wars” which continue to destroy both hope and life in many parts of the world. We can never forget the troubles in Northern Ireland over the centuries. We live in a world where far too often the opportunities for peace have been squandered for national or economic gain, or because people cannot let go the terrible baggage of past hurt and division.
A Mass for peace is a reminder, first of all, that we never celebrate the liturgy apart from the real situations of our world. The Eucharist particularly is always a celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the fact that the Christ who took on all the realities of the human condition, except in sin, brought all human realities into a marriage with God, an unbreakable bond that is sealed by the Spirit. Christ knew war and suffering and death through his own sacrifice on the Cross. He has brought humanity into the new life and vision of God. In every liturgy, what we ultimately celebrate is this transition in Christ from human conflict and limitation to the sure and certain peace that is of God.
Music is so much a part of our Irish heritage. When our Irish ancestors played bright jigs and reels and sang ballads, they were celebrating peace. When they sang “The minstrel boy to the war has gone”, they were decrying the terrible way in which the lack of peace robs the young of both youth and life. When soldiers in the first and second World Wars sang “It’s a long way to Tipperary” their songs voiced that real yearning for peace that could only come from those who had seen war at first hand, their voices were echoing not just lovely melodies, but were protesting for peace. Our Irish National Anthem, “The Soldier’s Song” expresses the soldiers’ desire for peace even while they prepare for battle. “The Ballad of Kevin Barry’ shows how a young lad of eighteen gave his life for the cause of freedom and peace. When we think of it, almost every song we sing either celebrates the peace we feel or cries out in lament because peace is lacking.
Our church music obviously revolves around the fact that Christ is our peace and reconciliation. When we in Church proclaim “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth” or “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace” we are doing far more than simply announcing the peace that Christ has brought to our world. We are engaging not only our voices, but our hearts and our lives, and we are committing ourselves to be witnesses in the struggle for peace. As we walk out through the doors of the church we represent to the world the sacrifice and sacrament of peace that in Christ we have shared. We are called to become what we have celebrated, to be messengers of peace to the situations and the society around us.
Every single one of us, by our own attitude and words, can be a builder of justice, tolerance and understanding within the community around us. We can also do our part to work for justice in our world, for without justice there can never be peace. We can demand by our voice and our vote that our leaders have the courage to be peacemakers so that Ireland may continue to be always the nation that is so well known and respected throughout the world.
As Irish Americans, when we talk about peace and reconciliation, our thoughts immediately turn to Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its further implementation during the past several years is one step in the right direction. However, as Irish Americans we must continue to fight and hope for the day when all Ireland will be free and united, when the chains by which the British crown has strangled Northern Ireland will be broken and the six counties of the North will be united to the twenty-six counties of the South. It is our hope and prayer that one day there will be no Northern and Southern Ireland, but one Ireland, united, free, strong and independent. The target date for this final reconciliation to be completed is 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Week Rebellion of 1916. The souls of the Hunger Strikers, the souls of the Bloody Sunday Victims, the souls of those who died from the Great Famine, the souls of the many hundred of innocent victims who have died as a result of the troubles will never have true peace and eternal rest until there is One Island, One Ireland.
Father Thomas M. O’Donnell, AOH National Chaplain