5 July 2009
Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for the Festival Day of St Oliver Plunkett
I can imagine that he reflected on the call to be a good shepherd as he journeyed through Europe to Armagh after his nomination as Archbishop.
Oliver Plunkett’s ministry was to be marked by many unknowns and surprises. He was consecrated Bishop in Belgium almost in secrecy. It was not for him to be consecrated in a solemn ceremony in Rome where he had lived or in Ireland where he was called to minister. The harsh situation of the Church and of the Catholic community in Ireland turned any plans for such celebrations upside down.
Responding to the call of Jesus Christ, as a bishop, or as a church community or as an individual Christian is not something that can be pre-packaged and that will run exactly according to plan, then or in our days.
Our reflections on Saint Oliver inevitability take us right into the reality of the Church in Ireland today. When someone talks about the Church in Ireland today then we are almost inevitably programmed to think about what people call “the institutional Church” and the challenges which the Church as a structure has to face within contemporary culture and the inevitable way its institutional structures change.
But the Church in Ireland is always the same Church with the same mission, with the same Good News which it is called to celebrate, live-out and transmit anywhere in the world and at any time in history.
It is the Eucharist which gives structure to the Church. Saint Oliver’s ministry was one in which the normal day-to-day celebration of the Eucharist and his communion with his priests and faithful was celebration in secret and in the face of great risk. He responded to that challenge head on. He animated a community experiencing persecution and trauma, both as regards their religious faith but also their life in society. His own courage gave his flock courage and encouragement. He persevered in that task until the end, celebrating the Mass and living the reality of the Eucharist – the mystery of Christ’s saving death and resurrection – in his own body, even to the point of imprisonment and experiencing, as Jesus did, the humiliation of a criminal’s death.
Saint Oliver had to exercise his ministry in the context of the severe limitations of the repressive penal laws and the harsh prejudice which the Catholic community endured. But Oliver did not exercise his ministry in a limited way; in the face of all the external limitations he experienced, he exercised his ministry to the full. He led but also took example from the members of the Catholic community who in their turn exercised their Christian vocation within the same limitations and exercised it to the full.
Oliver returned to lead a community in difficult times. The history of the Church is a history of encountering difficulties and ambivalence. The Church is always a community of dedicated believers who pray and celebrate the mysteries of our redemption, who are supported by the sacraments, who prayerfully meditate the Word of God, who teach the faith from one generation to the next, who witness to the love of Jesus in hidden yet remarkable ways. But the Church is also a community of the weak, of those who betray their faith and the trust that is placed in them, who divide the community, who are compromised through human weakness, who take the easier way, who seek their own notoriety.
In the face of his challenge, Saint Oliver took the only path that is open to a true Pastor, that of renewal in the faith. Whenever the Church faces challenges either from the outward culture or through the inward weakness of its own members, the only reaction that is open is that of renewal, or re-finding in an authentic way what is demanded by the message of Jesus Christ.
Renewal in the Church does not consist in creating new structures, but in returning to the very roots of the Christian faith and allowing the perennial newness of the Gospel to set aside in our hearts what is not essential or what is even harmful and to re-find that hope which the second reading mentioned as the driving force of our Christian lives and our witness.
The renewal that the Church needs today could not be better expressed than in the words of our second reading: “having the answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”. Renewal must come from within. A Church which thinks it might impose a message on individuals or on a society has lost its understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. On so many occasions Jesus, after working some powerful miraculous sign expressing the love and the care of God or after some manifestation of his glory, tells his disciples not to speak about what they had witnessed.
Faith requires a basic disposition and openness to the action of God. God’s action always surprises and is always counter conventional. A faith which seeks to align itself with a culture which is not open to understanding the true nature and the activity of God ends up just as an ideology or a veneer.
Renewal is opening ourselves to living that hope which our faith brings and seeking to understand what that hope says about our own lives. Faith cannot be lived superficially. Faith is not routine. Unless we daily seek a genuine understanding of the reasons for our hope we run the risk of simply transmitting formulae and norms which have no roots in the realities of our lives.
This is not to say that we should simply hide our faith within our own hearts or that faith should be sent into retirement from the public arena and be totally privatised. No, we are called and cannot but share the hope that we experience when we open our lives to the love of God. Our society needs a dialogue about hope, about meaning and as believers and as a believing community we have no alternative but to witness in the concrete realities of society to the hope that is within us and thus to bring our concrete contribution, as believers in Jesus Christ, to the way in which society understands itself.
How do we do that? What are the instruments at our disposal? The answers of our second reading surprise us. The first instrument which the text indicates is suffering. The path of renewal in the Church is not a path of celebrity or popularity or triumphalism; it is not a media plan; it is not simply a pastoral strategy. The path of renewal is a path of suffering, the suffering of renouncing within our hearts and our lives many attitudes dear to us and purifying our understanding of God from the many cultural accretions which would tend to create a comfortable Christianity, a smug Christianity, a domineering or patronising Christianity, all of which are founded on a false sense of what brings certainty to faith. Renewal demands conversion and conversion is always painful. It requires the pain of recognising errors and misconduct.
The second instrument which the reading indicates is that of an absolute focus on the good. “No one can hurt you”, the text tells us, “if you are determined to do only what is right”. The renewal of the Church requires an authenticity in living out the true and the good.
The early Christians saw that it was impossible for the Christian community simply to identify itself with the pagan society in which they lived. This did not cause them to retreat from the realities of the day. They knew that they had however to witness to the faith and the hope it brings in a particular way. Their attitude towards others, the lesson reminds us, was always to be one of “courtesy and respect” and one which was to be lived with a clear conscience that would enable them even to suffer for doing what are right and good.
The Church today is called to renewal so that it can witness authentically to Jesus in our world. This makes some fearful. But it is not something we do on our own through our pastoral strategies and plans. The Gospel text of the Good Shepherd has certainly been an inspiration to many good priests and bishops and leaders in the Church. But it is always necessary to remember that, no matter how many times we speak of saints of the past or of good priests of today as good shepherds, the one Good Shepherd is Jesus himself and that it is he who is with the Church and who unites us and calls us to be one with him.
As we celebrate the Feast of Saint Oliver Plunkett we pray for the Church in Ireland and especially for our young people that they will encounter through our witness a Jesus who brings them hope and who redefines hope for them, away from what is superficial to what is deepest in their search for the meaning of life.
We pray that we will come to know the figure of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of all our lives, through prayerful reading of the Word of God. Renewal and change in the Church must come from that personal relationship with Jesus Christ which knowledge of the scriptures can give in a unique way.
We pray to Jesus the Good Shepherd that he will fill our lives with his love and that we will bring that love anywhere where harshness and indifference dominate. We pray today that all those for whom we pray at this Festive Mass will experience God’s loving and healing kindness in their lives.
We pray, through the intercession of Saint Oliver, reformer and renewer of the Church in his time though his ministry and his martyrdom, that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, may accompany the Church in Ireland on the painful yet liberating path of real renewal and true hope.