This Year of Saint Joseph, which Pope Francis announced last December, will soon be over. It has passed by relatively quickly and quietly; but then, Saint Joseph has always been the quiet saint, characteristically modest, preferring to be in the background – just as he was when he appeared with our Blessed Mother Mary here in Knock.
I remember praying, “To thee o blessed Joseph” at the end of our family rosary, a prayer dating back to 1889 which confidently calls on Saint Joseph, a “powerful protector”, to “help us in our necessities”.
Last December Pope Francis wrote:
“Every poor person, every needy, suffering or dying person; every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person is ‘the child’ whom Joseph continues to protect”. Gathered today in Knock, before the beautiful new statue commissioned to mark the Year of Saint Joseph, we ask him to “shield each one of us” from danger and enable us “to live a good life, die a holy death, and secure everlasting happiness in Heaven”.
There is a long-standing tradition of praying to Saint Joseph for the grace of a “happy death”. In the catechism, the Church “encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death”, and just as we often turn to our Heavenly Mother to pray for us in that hour, so also we “entrust ourselves to Saint Joseph, the patron of a happy death (CCC #1014).”
The Gospels are silent about Saint Joseph’s own death, but centuries of spiritual tradition have pictured him going to his rest at home in Nazareth, in the arms of Jesus and Mary – surrounded by love.
To pray every day for a “happy death” is not something morbid or frightening – it is simply to ask God to help us prepare for that moment that comes to us all. Even though today’s readings remind us that “we do not know the day or the hour”, we pray in hope that when that hour does come, we will be reconciled and strengthened by the power of the sacraments, and “breathe forth our souls in peace”, surrounded by our family and loved ones, and in the company of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
We are gathering today to remember all those who died during the Covid-19 pandemic. What a cruel time it has been for the dying and the bereaved.
Here in Ireland we traditionally wrap those who are dying, and families who are bereaved, in a blanket of love and care. We accompany our relatives and friends in their suffering, and surround them with love and prayer and gently assist them in body, in mind, and in spirit. All human life remains precious until the moment of natural death. That is why we tend to their pain, while always assuring them that they remain loved and valued in those final moments – and especially so, because they are so completely vulnerable and dependent on others.
Sadly, in many cases during the Covid pandemic, those precious, final moments saw increased heartbreak. At a time when physical closeness is so important, and our caring instinct is to hug someone, or hold their hand, it was distressing that often the final words of love and prayer had to be spoken over a telephone, or from behind windows and screens, or masks or visors.
Many families over these past nineteen months have walked the Way of the Cross with Jesus. Thankfully, along that Way, they were able to meet kindly ‘Veronicas’ – in the shape of our amazing and dedicated health workers and carers who put themselves out to wipe the brow and dry the tears of our suffering and dying brothers and sisters. And there were many ‘Simons’ and ‘Good Samaritans’ helping others to shoulder their burden; offering messages of hope and encouragement to say, “you are not forgotten” and “even if we cannot hold your hands or give you a hug, we still care deeply for you”, and, “we hold you close in our prayers and in our hearts.”
In a special way today in Knock we remember, with deep gratitude and prayer, the ‘heroes’ who kept our health, emergency, chaplaincy and other essential services going during the pandemic, often denying themselves in the cause of compassion, charity and love. And they are still doing it, today and every day. Even if the stories and statistics of Covid slip down the main news headlines, these heroes remain at their posts – dedicated, often exhausted, under huge pressures and staff shortages, but always deeply committed to their vocation of love and care and mercy.
Let society never forget them, and always ensure that our carers and health workers are appreciated, fully resourced and rewarded for their goodness.
The Church describes tending to the sick and dying, and caring and praying for the dead, as corporal and spiritual “works of mercy”. Again, during the pandemic, many of our normal funeral customs and rituals had to be curtailed in order to protect health and life. We missed important opportunities to pay our respects and offer comfort to the bereaved. Close relatives and friends were often unable to travel home for funerals; “month’s mind” Masses, anniversaries and blessings of the graves were also impacted. But still, the people of Ireland instinctively reached out to those in need of care and consolation – lining the streets in solidarity, sending cards or leaving digital messages of sympathy, and setting up webcams in parish churches so that family members could connect in from faraway places.
The Christian faith insists that the last word never belongs to sickness, or pain, or even death itself. Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
“We want you to be quite certain, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, to make sure that you do not grieve for them, as others do who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and that in the same way, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
During these weeks of November, many parishes around the country are gathering like this to express solidarity and hope in these difficult times. We have come today on pilgrimage to Knock, to pray with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for those who have died during Covid and for all who continue to grieve them. I thank the families who have traveled from around Ireland to be with us and to represent the recently bereaved. What draws us all is the powerful message of Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life.
The Covid-19 virus may have struck at the very heart of our outreach and ministry to the sick, the dying, and the bereaved; but, it could not, and did not, and will not destroy our hope and our conviction that God remains especially near to people who suffer, and God is close to those who are broken-hearted. Amen.