Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Ash Wednesday, St Mary’s Church, Chapel Lane, Belfast
• There are many weaknesses in the traditional assumption that over indulgence is good, that the poor are mainly responsible for their own situation and the denial of the reality of sin – Bishop McKeown
In a culture that promotes consumption and the ultimate virtue of deserving to be pampered, Ash Wednesday, Lent and the idea of penance, fasting and repentance can seem meaningless. But, despite the cultural bias against self-denial, we have chosen to gather here to be marked with ashes on our faces at the start of a period of 45 days – one eighth of the year – when we commit to practice fasting, almsgiving and a prayerful acknowledgement of our sinfulness. Are we mad?
However, despite the cultural bias against self-denial, this Lent is coming at a time when our society is actually coming to recognise that there are many weaknesses in the traditional assumption that over indulgence is good, that the poor are mainly responsible for their own situation and the denial of the reality of sin. We have recognised how a culture of greed and self-interest has done huge damage to our economy. But this Lent also comes at a time when we in Church know that we too have been very blind to the need for repentance in how we have been Church. There is no merit in us preaching about the faults of others until we have humbly acknowledged our own individual and communal guilt and done penance for that. As Jesus said, we have to take the log out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of someone else’s.
That is where our Lent has to start. It is first and foremost a divine call to us for personal repentance and an increased commitment to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But this is not some sort of individual guilt trip nor is it just a spiritual self-help course. It is based on the belief that God wants to renew us – and that we have to at least make space for his healing grace. Lent is me saying, “Lord, I’m ready to walk with you through Calvary to Resurrection. In my penance and prayer, prepare my heart to walk with you through Calvary to Resurrection for there is no other way to salvation.” So Lent is not about the miserable face but about the search for life. It is a protest against the depressing consumerist philosophy that tells me that I am only what I eat, wear and achieve. Our call as disciples is to pilgrim together in prayer through the uncomfortable desert of our liberating weakness – and to let the Lord do the leading. Our plans for Church renewal in his name are guaranteed to be pathetic besides God’s dream for us. Just as Jesus was laughed at for His lifestyle, so too his followers will be mocked for taking on the board the challenge of Lent yet again. But, in doing so, we are in good company.
And Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of the Trócaire Lenten campaign. It is by far the most successful annual campaign in Ireland and that is due to the great energy and generosity of so many people. I am particularly happy to be at this year’s launch as the focus is on Trócarie’s work to rebuild communities and specifically in Northern Uganda, which – like ourselves – is trying to build a future after a terrible period of violence and death. My particular interest lies in the fact that I had the chance to visit the Barlonyo district of Uganda where Daniel – the face of this year’s Trócaire box – lives with his family. Barlonyo is a remote area near Lira in Northern Uganda which faces many challenges. And it suffered in a particularly terrible way eight years and one day ago when, on 21 February 2004, the refugee camp in their village was attacked by the LRA rebels and over 200 civilians shot, burnt and hacked to death. They are still trying to recover.
Trócaire in Barlonyo – under the leadership of Sean Farrell, who will speak to us briefly after Communion – is seeking to help this and other communities to rebuild the past on the ruins of their past. That means supporting farmers, schools and communities in generating hope, despite so much pain and trauma. Trócaire is not one of the big disaster agencies who specialise in coming in after floods or earthquakes, helping the injured and then moving on to the next disaster area. Trócaire is focused on on-going quiet work with local people to enable them to take responsibility for making things better for all the young Daniels who deserve dignity and a future. That is how Barlonyo will get back on its feet again.
Yes, the Irish are generous. But we need to look at how generous we actually are. I saw figures recently that the Irish beer market is worth about €2.5bn – and that is part of a total alcohol market of about €6.9bn. That means that, while Trócaire would be very glad to achieve last year’s Lenten collection figures of €8.2million, in the six and half weeks till next Easter, the Irish will have spent €800 million on alcohol. The 2011 Lenten Trócaire campaign for the world’s neediest parts took in the equivalent one half of one day’s drinking money in Ireland. That does not seem to me to be an awful lot. Per head of the population the five million Irish spend more on drink that the Ugandan economy has to spend on everything – health, education, roads etc. There is something wrong there.
So much of the Trócaire money is collected in schools and in families, thanks to the generosity of young people and their families. But can we as a national Church ensure that the Lenten collection is never seen as just something that the children do, pestering parents, grannies and neighbours – but rather become a time when the whole Irish Church actively takes seriously the need to redistribute wealth from the excesses of the developed countries to the desperate needs of the developing world? They do not ask for charity, just support and encouragement. They do not ask for pity, just for solidarity. If the Irish could cut just 10% their drinks bill for Lent that would increase Trócaire’s collection nearly 10 fold. If every Irish family could cut back on the €1,000’s worth of food that we throw out each year, that would be both a boon for our pockets and a blessing on the 20,000 who die of hunger, disease and violence around the world. And the Lord knows that it takes prayer and fasting to generate the energy to break our self-indulgent habits.
So, this year, as we approach the International Eucharistic Congress in June with its theme of Communion with God and Communion with one another, this seems an ideal opportunity to pray that our Lenten observance will make us not just slimmer but more compassionate. And we ask the Lord that he will use us to respond to the hundreds of millions around the world who still beg in vain for crumbs from the rich people’s table – and use the superb channels of Trócaire to ensure that the wonderful people of Barlonyo know that the world of tomorrow can be so much better than the terrible one that they have known in recent years. A divinely-inspired growth in our capacity for love, compassion and generosity will be a benefit both for us and to Barlonyo.
• Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, and is chair of the Council for Vocations of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
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