29TH April 2007
Fourth Sunday of Easter – Vocations Sunday
April 29th 2007
Mass in Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard, Belfast
For delegates to National Convention of the Irish League of Credit Unions
Bishop Donal McKeown
The Easter season tends to come at what is often a very pleasant time of the year. The warmth and the longer evenings have normally arrived. The flowers and the birds brighten up the whole atmosphere and people have started planning for their summer migration to places from Irish beaches to the most bizarre and exotic corners of the globe. And that reinforces the Easter message of hope and healing.
Whether in the Easter season or throughout the year, the Liturgy is the place people of faith and of searching gather to be nourished by the Lord so that we can and blossom. We come together at weekends, not just to fulfil some basic sense of obligation, but to provide a place where God’s dream for the world can be glimpsed in his Word and where people can actually come to believe that Jesus won a victory over sin and death. In a world where glitz and shallow glamour often dominate, we gather to proclaim the shocking message that we can actually hope for more in life that to win a million on a lottery or meet some bizarre celebrity who made a fool of themselves in their life or on some so called reality TV show. In a world where – at least in the North – we are told that the key bread and butter issues are to do with things like water rates charges, it is so often people of faith and conviction who are the people to point out that, for increasing numbers of parents, the big concern is whether their children will get to the age of 20 alive, or at least without them doing serious damage to themselves or to others. In fact, one of our parish priests in Belfast recently told me – and I am sure that this could be repeated in many urban areas throughout Ireland – that, on the basis of totalling up the ages at which men have been dying in his parish, male life expectancy there is now about 55 and falling. To paraphrase the Gospel, man does not live on satellite TV, 250 sorts of biscuits and sun dried tomatoes alone. It was Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who said that our society tends to give people plenty to live by but little to live for. When our economy can give them the means for living but not the meaning, then we risk a destructive harvest.
And that is the real world into which God speaks. Our Gospel image of God today is one of the very popular ones for Christian imagery. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He refused to accept many of the titles that some people wanted to label him with – titles such as king, Messiah, prophet. This is one title that he not only accepted but used about himself. He was echoing the imagery of the OT psalm that God was the shepherd of his people – and that they therefore would want nothing. But he moved it from the image of God as shepherd of the whole people to a much more intimate one – he knows and calls each of us by name, and his followers recognise not only his voice, but the love with which they are called.
Now I know that some people can look down on such rural imagery and outmoded, or point out that people nowadays don’t want to be sheep. They want to be individuals, making their own decisions and leaving their own mark. I was a teacher for long enough and have seen more than a few assertions of individuality, which later lead to cringes of embarrassment. But the image of the Good Shepherd does not seek to crush individuality. It is simply an assertion that, despite – or because of – each person’s uniqueness, the Lord still knows them by name and loves them in their individuality. That is a powerful assertion about the value of the individual and of the value of my life, of what I do, of how each one can contribute to the whole, and of how nothing done in love is wasted. It is that which gives meaning, not just to the glamorous events that win publicity but to everything good that is done quietly – for which the Father will reward you.
So this image is counter-cultural at its very heart. And I am sure that many of you will be conscious of how counter-cultural – and wise – your own ILCU vision is. Our culture tends to exalt the individual, the novel and the freakish. Economically, it seems to be based on actually making people feel unhappy with something they are and have – so that they will acquire something else which promises to make them happy and fulfilled. And we never learn that those promises do not come true. Your philosophy is based on mutuality, volunteerism, self-help and a not-for- profit vision, while respecting the individual’s rights and dignity. You recognise that people have enormous resources within themselves and their community and you seek to harness that energy. You give outlets where people can invest their efforts as well as their cash and where people can discover quietly that none of us is as smart as all of us. Our culture tends to suggest that the only possible focal points for being together are sport, music or alcohol. You quietly propose that people can actually build communities and support one another, have relationships, and take both personal and communal responsibility for creating the future. For almost 50 years now, you have made space for people, rather than just for organisations and powerful interests. You have put people at the heart of the economic process, and not just profit. You have sought to empower and liberate people, supporting them to maximise a realistic use of their resources. You will never know just how many people here – in Belfast and other areas – were supported through terrible years and maintained their dignity. That is a wonderful Irish incarnation of the philosophy of Wilhelm Raiffeisen that has stood the test of time, despite huge changes in economic realities. That leaves you in a position to continue to take a critical and prophetic look at how many people are suffering impoverishment despite the economic boom in Ireland, North and South. With the widening gap between rich and poor and the growth of some really very vulgar displays of wealth, your commitment to self-help, human dignity and equality can continue to be a key element in rescuing the soul of the people of this country. When one more person can discover their dignity and worth, that contributes so much more to the wealth of the country than any rise in the Stock Market. Those who help to build our social capital do more for human beings that those who can offer us only coins in our pocket. But the forces that want to move us all towards a new mono-culture are uneasy with any movement that sees beyond self-fulfilment through choosing, and speaks of self-transcendence through being chosen.
This Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is the annual day of prayer for Vocations. The tendency has normally been to emphasise the vocations to priesthood and religious life – and after 30 happy years of ordained ministry, I still believe that the world can be enormously enriched by those people who commit their loves formally to bearing witness to the Gospel. We have only to look at the enormous contribution made by the Redemptorists in this Monastery to life at all levels on this island. But the Church in this country – and by that I mean all the men, women and children who seek to follow Jesus – needs to first of all rediscover a very important counter-cultural Christian theme. Our culture tends to suggest that when we have lots of choice we will all live happy every after. I propose and I dispose. The Gospel message emphasises that God is the primary one who chooses. We are loved into life and the challenge of life is not just to choose what I want to do today or tomorrow, but to discover what God is calling me to be and do. The big question is not just ‘what do I want to do this summer?’ but ‘what is God calling me to become in my life?’. Christian faith starts with the belief that, by being baptised, we belong to God and are called to develop our individuality and talents within that context of being chosen. That sense of being called is not meant to be a prison but a liberty to discover who I am and what gives value to my ordinary little life. Your spirit of volunteerism and respect for human dignity tie in with God’s call for all of us to have life and have it to the full, respecting our wonderful individuality as well as the essential social nature of who we are. The shepherd wants the individual sheep to grow and assures it that the safest place for growth is not on it own but under the protective shelter of the flock.
Indeed Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for today, the 44th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, has taken as his theme – the vocation to the service of the Church as communion. In a remarkably lonely world, we are reminded that the Church is not just some sort of private self-indulgent journey with Jesus – but a call to develop a growing relationship with God in Jesus and with one another. The Good Shepherd still calls people to build the communion that we celebrate in the Eucharist, the sacrament of love. The Good Shepherd still needs those who will dedicate their lives and all of their being to the self-sacrificing service of building up the Body of Christ amidst the realities of our world.
On this Vocations Sunday, the Lord invites you – as Catholic members of what proudly remains a non-denominational organisation – to be renewed in your convictions about the wisdom of the Credit Union philosophy. For so many of you, your work with ILCU is not just a job but fulfilling a sense of a calling. This is right for me, in harmony with my gifts and my vision for who we can be together as people made in God’s image and likeness. We pray that people everywhere – especially those most on the fringes of society – will be enabled to rediscover their dignity, despite the enormous pain of being human. And as we move towards our participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I will finish with some radical words from Pope Benedict XVI’s recent document on the Eucharist – Sacramentum Caritatis – “our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world.” (para 88) We rededicate ourselves to listen for the voice of the Lord who calls us and thus enter into his peace.
Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down & Connor and Chair of the Commission on Vocations and Pastoral Outreach to Youth of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.