Pentecost Homily by Bishop Donal McKeown at Knock Shrine
11 June 2011
Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the annual diocesan pilgrimage to the Marian of Shrine of Knock
- Pentecost is rarely a comfortable day for the disciples of Jesus … People of self-pity are poor messengers of a God who has enormous faith in us
- The publication of Spread the Good News, the National Directory of Catechesis for Ireland, can be a major asset in planning and structuring catechesis for a very new 21st century
- Our job is to love, to grow together in the Body of Christ and to be moulded by the power of God in Word and Sacrament
- Today in Ireland we have exactly 52 weeks to prepare for the opening of the International Eucharistic Congress as a gift from the Lord on that path of renewal
Pentecost is the last of the great rollercoaster of liturgical celebration s that, during the last 56 days, have brought the apostles – and us – from Jesus’ apparent triumph on Palm Sunday, through the horrors of Holy Week, the unimaginable event of the Resurrection, and the perceived abandonment of the Ascension to the startling events of Pentecost.
The God of surprises, who had challenged the early disciples by Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, kept opening their eyes and their hearts to a new divine vision for the world. The full revelation of Jesus’ identity included the startling mission to make disciples of all nations. No wonder it took the early Church a long time to realise just what Jesus had done – and what they were expected to do. So the Holy Spirit may be referred to as the Comforter – but Pentecost is rarely a comfortable day for the disciples of Jesus.
This mission of Jesus was to bring the healing grace of the Good News to all people and all times. Like Jesus, the Church has to be focused, not on itself, but on serving its Lord by seeking to bring the peace of Christ to every human heart and context and by building communities of faith, hope and love where that dream can be realised through God’s grace.
This country has had a long tradition of speaking the Gospel at home and proclaiming the Gospel in other countries. Right from the time of the great missionaries like Columbanus, Colmcille, Killian up to the enormous energy that fired thousands of young men and women in the 19th and 20th centuries, that call to evangelise has been heard in many hearts. The failings of some should never overshadow the incredible generosity of the many.
But as an Irish church we now seem uncertain as to how we should proclaim the Gospel in our own time and our own country. We can be afraid to speak of Christ, or afraid that signs of Christian faith will bring only mockery and disdain. And many have lost energy because they feel angry or bereaved at how the Irish church has fallen from its position of integrity and leadership in Irish society.
But in that situation, I’d suggest that today’s feast points out at least two things:
Firstly, that sense of loss and of disorientation can lead to an assumption that people of faith are being persecuted or treated worse than others. They will point to the perceived campaign to attack all things Catholic. Last week’s Congress of Atheists may have been seen as giving more material for a relentless media campaign to denigrate religion and spirituality in all of its forms. They see Church condemned and mocked no matter what it does.
But the picture that we get from the scripture readings for Pentecost suggests that the early Church has of such sense of self pity. Even though the New Testament books were written by a church facing harsh persecution, they reflect no hint of ‘poor wee us’. That attitude is not one that should find room in the Church of Jesus Christ today either.
Indeed, even outside of Church, victimhood is not a pretty sight. There were those who encouraged the Irish to wallow in it for decades. But a sense of victimhood may be quite comfortable – but it actually demeans people. Somebody else outside ought to do something or punish my oppressors – and then I’ll be all right. Victimhood encourages depression and lack of hope. And the exploitation of victimhood has figured in so many wars and conflicts – from Cain and Abel to the Middle East, via the Twin Towers and Osama bin Laden. The Spirit of Jesus tells us that we need to be sorry for what others have suffered, not wallow in feeling sorry for ourselves.
And Pentecost explains why the New Testament church did not feel sorry for its plight. Jesus offered the disciples his gift of peace. Because of that, the early disciples knew the frailty of the apostles but still believed in the continuing presence among us of the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit prevented the apostles from wanting to get their own back on those who had killed Jesus. That Spirit pushed them away from pride in their individual gifts to the great things that God could do through the giftedness of the whole Body of Christ. The Spirit of Jesus pushed them to breach the human barriers between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men and women. For they were called to proclaim not just faith in God, but faith in a God who had faith in people. They set out to speak, not just about God – but about what God believed about people. People of self-pity are poor messengers of a God who has enormous faith in us.
Secondly, I suggest that – as well as pushing us to avoid self-pity and a sense of persecution – the Holy Spirit in 2011 is calling us beyond both any dreams of returning to some imagined glorious past or moving to some simplistic picture of the future. The future will not be like anything we had in the past nor like what we might dream currently of it being in the future.
Thus, Ireland is increasing secular. But for the Spirit of Jesus, that is a fact, not a problem and the facts of modern Ireland are not so much a threat as an invitation to restructure and re-energise how we are Church and how we proclaim the Good News. The death of an older model of the church is not the death of the church! `
And those new ways of being church have to be focussed, not mainly on how we preserve as much of the past as possible but on how we can proclaim the Gospel by word, sacrament and action, while staying faithful to the truth and love of God. The structures of the past served the mission and the country of the past. But the structures are there only to serve the mission. The mission is not there to serve any fossilisation of the structures. It is God’s Church, not ours. If, like the potter that the prophet Jeremiah saw, God wants to reshape us, then our own response is to let God be God in our midst.
But openness to the future does not mean taking on board every apparently sensible notion that someone thinks might be a good idea. The New Testament church was consistently shocked by the God who was not trapped by limited human assumptions. They were shaken from their complacency about what they thought might be a good way to go, or a change to make. The Church in 50 years time will not merely be like what strident voices insist it should be like. It will be what and where God’s Holy Spirit wants it to be. And Pentecost says that the Spirit’s call to generosity, self-sacrifice and courage remains much smarter than our loudest campaigners, our cleverest brains and our most popular passing shibboleths.
That also means that, as a church – and along with all those in Ireland who profess to be disciples of Jesus – have to go beyond wondering why many people are not listening to the answers we are giving to the questions that we think have to be asked. In a new world, where the former status and language of church is gone, we also have to be asking – as the apostles did in the Acts of the Apostles – what questions modernity is teaching us to ask and then seeking for Spirit-led answers. That is new territory and it makes sure we don’t seek refuge on the thrones of glib answers or self-righteousness. In this context, the bishops’ publication earlier this year of Spread the Good News – The National Directory of Catechesis for Ireland, can be a major asset in planning and structuring catechesis for a very new 21st century.
So there is continuity and discontinuity with the past. We have a great wealth of spiritual wisdom, a cultural and religious patrimony that has produced great art and idealism. The Irish have a deep sense of the spiritual. But while the structures of the past suited the past, they also included the seeds of their own destruction. Religious conformity without evangelisation was destructive. Excessive attachment to our own power leads to terrible abuses of that power and deadly blindness. We are invited both to be humble about the past – and to be humble enough to know that our particular hobby horses about the future will be of God only if they are the fruit of deep prayer, an openness to be surprised by the Spirit and a realisation that this is God’s Church. The Church is not a business set up by us to impress God by how wise we are in His service. It is God who has promised to do great things for, with and despite us in His church. Our job is to love, to grow together in the Body of Christ and to be moulded by the power of God in Word and Sacrament.
Yes, we are at a critical time for the Irish Church. But, so what? Like all generations before us who faced crises we turn to the grace of the Spirit for comfort and uncomfortable guidance. The startling Holy Spirit may be saying to us this Pentecost: “Don’t mourn for the glories of the past. It is dead. Do not try to bring it back to life again. But do mourn for the sins of the past. Learn from its wisdom and its mistakes. But allow openness to the Spirit’s dream for the future – and not just some human agenda – to mould our hearts.”
That means having divine courage as we face the need for a re-evangelisation of this country and of much of Western Europe. Like the best of Irish missionaries, we seek never to promote our power but to make space for God’s power. That will mean humbly setting out, like the early Church, into a sceptical and often hostile environment. It will mean learning to try and try again. It will mean making mistakes, and knowing that God can use mistakes as well. It will entail having strategies and plans – even if we then have to laugh at them in retrospect. It will mean us remembering our own frailty before we ask anyone else to repent. It will seek risky generous service rather than comfortable security. For when we feel in control, we leave less space for the Spirit.
But all renewal will come only through prayer and through the mystery of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, both central to this holy place in Knock. Today in Ireland we have exactly 52 weeks to prepare for the opening of the International Eucharistic Congress as a gift from the Lord on that path of renewal that will make us better able to serve the God of tenderness who wants to heal His people. I hope that the Congress and the new translation of the missal will be taken by all as a divine chance to renew our celebration of the liturgy and renew ourselves as a Eucharistic community. After all, the words are there only to help us celebrate the death and Resurrection of the Word made flesh. We will be renewed only if we pray the Mass and not just say it. We will be renewed only if we open to the power of the Liturgy and not just watching our watch. We will be renewed only if we become the praying pilgrim people of God and not just a gathering of individuals trying to ‘get Mass’.
We gather at Mary’s shrine to gaze silently on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. With Mary’s Spirit-filled heart we remember that we are called to proclaim God’s Kingdom and never our dominance.
And because we have the reassurance of the Holy Spirit, we recommit ourselves to work with grace that we might allow Spirit to renew the face of the earth.
Glóir don Athair….
Notes to Editors
- Bishop Donal McKeown is an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor. Mass tomorrow which will be celebrated from 3:00pm in the Basilica in Knock. Music will be provided by the Derriaghy Parish Folk Group from Lisburn.
- Archbishop Michael Neary is the Archbishop of Tuam and Knock is part of the Archdiocese. The story of Knock began 132 years ago on the 21 August 1879 when Our Lady, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist appeared at the south gable of Knock Parish Church. This miraculous apparition was witnessed by fifteen people, young and old.
- Knock is an internationally recognised Marian Shrine and was visited by Blessed John Paul II as part of his 1979 papal pilgrimage to Ireland. The late pope celebrated Mass at the Shrine; addressed the sick and, separately, the helpers and pilgrimage directors on 30 September 1979 – the Shrine’s centenary year.
- The late Pope John Paul II visited Ireland on 29, 30 September and 1 October 1979. Ireland was the third pilgrimage of his Pontificate. John Paul II died after the celebration of the vigil Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday on 2 April 2005 and was beatified by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI on Divine Mercy Sunday 1 May 2011. Live audio recordings of John Paul II’s homilies and addresses in Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnois, Galway, Knock, Maynooth, Limerick and Shannon are now available on www.catholicbishops.ie.
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