22 June 2008
Homily of Bishop John Fleming, Bishop of Killala
at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin
Fear, in varying degrees, is a constant in our lives and in every life on earth. It can act as a stimulant for positive action but it can also be one of the most debilitating aspects of our human experience. It saps our energy, limits our vision and undermines our confidence. It can become a preoccupation in our lives, damage our mental health and it often results in inactivity which borders on paralysis. And the list of the reasons for being afraid is as long as a piece of string.
Let me put the search light on a few areas of our Christian lives where fear is an important factor nowadays. The first of these is the fear of lifelong commitment. I think it is fair to say that this fear has grown considerably in the past three or four decades. It now results in some couples, who are truly suitable for each other and committed to one another, postponing participation in the grace of the sacrament of marriage for many years, if not forever. Economic reasons sometimes force other couples to postpone the birth of children because of financial fears. Fear is also a factor in the lack of encouragement which some parents show when a son or daughter thinks of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. This fear, the fear that a commitment for life is virtually impossible in today’s world, has resulted, I believe, in depriving our society of much that we have always valued. During the year when the Catholic Church in Ireland has placed its focus on Vocation, on the vocation of all the baptized, it is important for all of us to encourage lifelong commitment and to reassure everyone that, despite its acknowledged problems, this is both possible and life sustaining.
The fears which surround lifelong commitments are paralleled with those attending voluntary activities. I think it is fair to say that the level of participation in voluntary activity for charitable and humanitarian purposes, while still quite high, has declined in recent years. It is now more difficult to recruit new and younger members to many of the organizations which have given sterling service in our country in the past. There are many reasons for this, including greater work commitments, stronger recreational attractions, the decline in vocations to the religious life, together with a lesser attraction to causes which in some cases have outlived their usefulness.
Fear, however, may also be an element in this. For some people, who are very private in their personal lives, there is the fear in particular of public scrutiny and accountability in areas of voluntary action. For some there is the fear of personal wrong doing, especially in areas which involve moral issues. Thus, for example, despite reassurances, some people still fear membership of boards of management. Others have fears around the ministries of the Church which, nowadays, must be regulated by concerns for health and safety as well as by the human touch and the caring presence. And in the grey areas which surround the application of moral principles to issues of deep concern, as in the work of the agencies of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference such as Trocaire, Accord and Cura, of which I am President, this is particularly true. In these grey areas it is very easy to have a fear of those who question motives, make judgments and apportion blame when in fact the only wish is to uphold Catholic principles, apply these principles in new, challenging circumstances, serve the cause of right in a voluntary capacity and offer Christian service in areas of great need. In this area in particular, the fear of being accused of wrong doing runs very deep.
And yet the ability to overcome fear, wrestle with the issues and remain loyal must also be acknowledged. Thus recurring controversies, as in the recent Cura controversy for example, have shown the loyalty, dedication and commitment of volunteers, even in the face of protracted discussions and criticism in the media.
If fear is the golden thread running through our readings today, then we must also look at the Prophet Jeremiah, who takes a brief respite from his experience of fear and difficulty and is given a glimpse of God’s providential care for him. “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has delivered the soul of the needy from the hands of evil men” he says during an interval in a life which experienced fear at every level. His courageous spirit reflects the optimism of the Julien of Norwich whose mantra “All will be well” finds an echo in every human heart.
“Do not be afraid” is the message of Christ today and it was also one of his final admonitions on earth. In the days before the Ascension, when he appeared to his disciples in the upper room, he transformed their fear into courage and gave them two gifts, his peace and the strength of the Holy Spirit. In a real sense, therefore, the Church, which began behind closed doors in a room filled with fear, has grappled with the issue of fear ever since. History has shown us that the circumstances which surrounded its birth have remained with it, in varying degrees, also. On the one hand there is fear of a world which is often indifferent and sometimes hostile to the message of faith which we preach. Then there is and always has been the temptation to seek refuge behind the security of closed doors and a closed system. On the other hand, however, the presence of the Risen Lord is still always in the room, offering peace, giving the strength of the Holy Spirit and opening doors for those ready to walk out into the light of freedom. Therefore, we take to heart this morning from the opening words of the Gospel “Do not be afraid”.
Bishop of Killala
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer (087 233 7797)