MASS OF SAINT CHARLES OF MOUNT ARGUS
Homily notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
Basilica of Saint John and Saint Paul, Rome, 4th June 2007
Yesterday was a wonderful occasion for all of us, whether from the Netherlands where Father Charles was born or from Ireland where he ministered and where he died or indeed from any part of the world. We thank God that we were privileged to witness such a magnificent setting in which Pope Benedict raised to the honours of the altar a man of humble origins, a priest whose ministry was carried out in the simplicity of the Passionist tradition. I think of the many people in whose lives and spirituality Father Charles played a part and who would have been so happy to have been among us. We unite all their intentions and their prayers of thanks with ours on this occasion.
Perhaps the only person who would have felt out of place at such a solemn spectacle would have been Father Charles himself.
The words of the Letter to the Romans which we heard in the second reading say: “I want to urge each of you not to exaggerate your own importance”. Holiness has little to do with success or celebrity status. Holiness is not about advancing our own viewpoint or our own agenda. Holiness is allowing the power of Jesus Christ to work through us, recognising our own limitations, accepting to be instruments of God’s will.
If we look closely at the early years of John Andrew Houben we have to dig deep to find any outward signs of the truly remarkable life that was to follow. He was a happy child raised in a large family; he was an undistinguished student and something of a failure as a soldier. Yet it was the simplicity of his family upbringing that gave him a deep sense of faith and his own love of the Mass lead to a desire to become a priest. His military career may have been unremarkable but it was during his time in the army that he encountered the Passionists and was drawn to their way of life.
Father Charles’s path to religious life and priesthood was not that simple either. The death of his uncle, the employer of his family, and of his mother meant that his father was initially reluctant to allow him to leave the family and join the Passionists. Even when it came to his time for Ordination, his joy was overshadowed by the death of his father. The resultant financial difficulties of his family tragically meant that none of them could be with him for that celebration. During his time of studies, it would seem that his family must have felt his separation from them strongly; his brother expressed this sense in a simple yet beautiful letter with words that have proved to be prophetic – time destroys monuments, but your memory will never be erased from our hearts.
These words express something of the extraordinary devotion that Father Charles of Mount Argus, as he would become known, was to inspire among the people of Ireland and of Dublin in particular. His funeral we are told attracted more people than that of Parnell two years previously. For five days notwithstanding snow-storms thousands of people made their way past his coffin. Within a short time his grave became a place of pilgrimage. How are we to account for the extra-ordinary impact he had on so many?
We should not look for answers in some romanticized image of a saintly people. Dublin at that time was beset by very many social problems – it was a garrison city with a reputation for violence, drunkenness and immorality. The level of religious practice was very low. As Charles wrote to his brother: here in the city of Dublin and in the surrounding districts there are also thousands of people who neither go to confession nor make their Easter communion – I shudder when I think of how often our Lord is offended in this large city, crucified by serious sins.
Neither is the answer to be found in a superficial consideration of the person of Charles. It is recorded that he was no great preacher, in fact it is suggested that he never achieved fluency in English. For the last years of his life he was plagued by ill health and misfortune – the photographs that have survived reveal a very frail and unimposing figure. In his own lifetime, there were those who questioned his authenticity and those who mistrusted his management skills had him distanced from “his people” for a number of years.
It seems to me that the only explanation of the extraordinary impact that Father Charles had in Dublin and well beyond must have something to do with his direct encounters with individuals in the sacrament of Repentance, in his healing ministry and even, although we may not like to highlight it, in his fundraising activities. History does not record, and in any event could never do justice to, the personal nature of these encounters.
The encounter with this priest was experienced as an encounter with the Lord. Sinners found peace in the forgiveness that was offered in the name of Jesus; the sick found strength in the healing they experienced. Even those who were being asked for financial support for the mission of the Passionists must obviously have had reason to trust this priest and responded generously to his requests.
It is only because of the intensity of his own relationship to Christ that Saint Charles could bring the grace and love of Jesus to others. His own life of prayer, so obviously and unaffectedly witnessed to in his letters, was where he forged this relationship. He was a man of profound faith, as was said by one of the witnesses during the early stages of the process of his cause: when you spoke to him, you had the impression that you were talking to someone who was an intimate friend of God.
Can Saint Charles act as a model for all who are involved in pastoral care in Ireland in a changed world, a world which at times considers itself too sophisticated to find time for God and for the Church of Jesus Christ? Is he really a twenty-first century model?
The Ireland of today may not have the same problems as those at the time of Father Charles. But the Church in Ireland needs renewal:
– it needs renewal in prayer and intimacy with the Lord;
– it needs renewal in its discernment of where sinfulness is present in our lives and in our society;
– it needs renewal in its appreciation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation;
– it needs renewal in witnessing to a Jesus whose life was marked by humility and service;
– it needs renewal through placing the mercy and loving-kindness of God at the centre of its witness in society;
– it needs renewal in the way it mediates God’s healing to those are who sick or troubled, anxious or distressed;
– it needs renewal in its mission of “bringing the Good News to all creation”, as the Gospel reminded us, to individuals, groupings, to society and indeed to creation and the cosmos as a whole.
Father Charles teaches us that we should never allow the seemingly difficult circumstances in which we minister or witness to lead us to give up on the proclamation of the Gospel – the Dublin of the second half of the 19th century was no Garden of Eden yet Charles touched the hearts of thousands.
We should never allow our awareness of personal and institutional limitations to become an excuse for resignation or withdrawal – we are not asked to proclaim ourselves but a God who is infinitely merciful and whose message of unlimited and unconditional love still has the capacity to inflame hearts and to lift spirits. Ultimately our capacity to bring Christ to others requires that we give ourselves fully to him. We live in a world that values authenticity and is unmerciful towards anything that smacks of hypocrisy. It is only when we allow the gospel and sacraments of Jesus to transform us and make us more like him that we can hope to enable others to encounter him in our ministry.
That was Father Charles charism. Crowds flocked to Saint Charles because they saw in him a friend of God. Renewal in the Church will take place when the Church becomes more clearly a space where friendship with God becomes a possibility, through Word and Sacrament, and where that friendship becomes evident in authentic witness.
May we return to our homes not just with the memories and the digital photos of our visit, but commitment to deepen our own friendship with God through the same style of simple unaffected prayer life that made a remarkable Saint of Father Charles, a man whose humility and lack of affectation allowed him to hear the call of the Lord that was within him.