Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., offered this homily at Mass with the diocesan Haitian community at Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park
Memories are part of our lives as human beings. They bring us back to experiences that have formed and shaped us into the people we have become now … today. Christmas is one of those experiences that create many happy memories from our earliest years. We relive those memories every year as we celebrate Christmas again and again.
Memories, however, are not always happy. Sometimes the things we remember make us sad. Some memories we might rather forget. But, whether memories are happy or sad, good or bad, they serve a purpose: we can learn from them. And what we learn can change the way we look at things … can even change our lives.
It is a fact of life that, as we grow older, we begin to forget parts of our lives, even good things. Old age and some diseases steal our memories. I watched that happen to my own mother in her later life. It was sad to watch.
Our Gospel today contains a sentence that stands out about “memories.” St. Luke tells us that, after her experience of the first Christmas, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
For all of her life, Mary kept her memories of Jesus: his birth, his boyhood, his travels, his preaching, his miracles; his death on the cross. After all, Jesus was born for that moment.
2000 years later, we Christians hold the same memories of Jesus, “reflecting on them” in our hearts. We celebrate the memory of every event in Jesus’ life as we relive those memories through the scriptures and the Church’s teachings. But, for Christians, Jesus is not simply a memory. He is alive. His words and teachings are alive. He continues to live in us and that is what brings us together as a community of faith.
Today, New Year’s Day, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrates the solemn feast of Mary the Mother of God. It is also the “World Day of Peace.” The combination of these two events makes perfect sense because it was Mary who gave birth to the Prince of Peace.
Today, at the start of the New Year, what better way to seek peace than to pray to Mary, Mother of God, to ask her Son to bring peace to our tense and troubled world. There can be no peace in the world, however, until there is peace in the human heart. And there can be no peace in the human heart until the Son of Mary is welcomed there.
For the Haitian community, there is still another reason to celebrate today, one that brings us together: the memory of your native land and the celebration of your national day of independence from France in 1804.
Your beautiful island in the Caribbean, shared with the Dominican Republic, has a long and complex history. The Spanish claimed the island for Spain in 1492, the first European colony established in the New World. Two hundred years later, the French took control of St. Domingue which would become Haiti while the Spanish retained possession of neighboring Santo Domingo.
Yours was the source of great resources for French exploitation: sugar, spices, coffee, cotton, rum. Much of the native population was exterminated. It was not long until a half-million slaves were brought to the island from Western Africa by France. For the 13 years before your independence was declared, a slave rebellion fought against France and her allies until the liberation succeeded in 1804.
Haiti, the new name of your portion of the island, became the first Black Republic and the second independent country in this hemisphere.
In the 214 years that have passed since then, the story of Haiti is one of both struggle and resilience, of natural beauty and natural disasters, of heartbreak and hope. But you know that story well. It is your national memory and you must keep that memory alive along with all of the incredible contributions your people and culture have made to the country in which you now live.
Speaking to many members of the Haitian community here in the Diocese of Trenton, I know that the past few months have become a time of fear and anxiety, especially for those who immigrated to this country following the devastating earthquake of 2010.
You have made your home here. You have created and raised your families here. You have worked hard to support yourselves and to contribute to American society here. You have made new memories which you cherish and hope will continue.
The recent announcement by the U.S. State Department that the Temporary Protected Status of some 50-60,000 Haitian nationals will expire in 18 months has filled the Haitian community with a crippling sense of uncertainty both here and in Haiti.
While I cannot predict the future, I can lift up today, as we begin a new year, the memory we share as Christians, as Catholics, in the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Mary and Prince of Peace. I can lift up his call that we love our neighbor, that we welcome the stranger, that we never lose our trust and confidence in him. I can lift up the faith and hope his presence among us brings --- not simply as a memory --- but as a force for good to change human hearts.
And, so, my sisters and brothers, we must pray for one another in the New Year, in the days and months ahead of us, “keeping so many things and reflecting on them in our heart,” that God who sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts might touch those who are responsible for our future and fill them with a wisdom that discerns what is true and right and just; with a compassion that loves the neighbor as ourselves; and with a mercy that welcomes the neediest among us.
May his Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!