Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for closing Mass of Knock Youth Festival

28 Jul 2009

26 July 2009

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the closing Mass of the Knock Youth Festival
“You are the light of the world”

  • Unless we are asking the right questions we will always get the wrong answers … The strange lesson from history is that in times of change and crisis, the Holy Spirit produces … radical Gospel responses – Bishop McKeown

Like communities all around the world today we have listened to the same word of God.  It will mean different things for each person and each community because the word of God is addressed to individuals and groups wherever they are.  It is up to each of us – on our own and with others – to let the Word of God touch our hearts and our heads. That is how we seek to learn what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

I know that with Gospel passages such as this, we can get caught up in questions about what happened and how it happened.  I’d be more concerned this Sunday, as every Sunday, with asking what the themes are that seem to strike me in the readings. I find reference:
·        to hunger and to food;
·        to how Jesus suggests that Philip and Andrew don’t just see the problem but believe there are always un-thought of solutions; and,
·        to the possibility of unity and selflessness in the midst of the implied disunity and lack of hope.

When I look at the Scriptures in terms like this, then I hear echoes, not of an alien culture from thousands of year ago but of the perennial questions and challenges that the human community faces in every generation.  Thus, taking the above themes, I read last week:
·       about hunger destitution on the streets of Dublin (while we throw out about 30% of the food that we buy after much of it has been transported half way round the world, at enormous cost to us and to the environment);
·       about the assumed only possible responses to the credit crunch that involve cutting money on hospitals and education – but not affecting the obscene amounts of money spent on armed forces or aggressive wars around the world; and,
·        about the breakdown of relationships and community and the assumption that long term faithfulness or generous service are impossible.

Unless our society engages with these realities, we risk living in a world of soap-opera politics.  Unless we are asking the right questions we will always get the wrong answers.

If the Lord has invited you here this weekend, He is asking us to read and hear today’s scriptures in the light of our world but also within the theme for this year’s Knock Youth Festival – you are the light of the world. A few questions that spring to my mind are:
·       Are we aware of what are the hidden hungers in ourselves and in modern Ireland that we are need to acknowledge and how do we believe that they can be satisfied?
·        Do we ask who is framing the questions that we ask about our society, its past and its future and does Jesus suggest that we ought to be asking different questions?
·       Where do we find hope and community in the midst of the often depressing news that we hear?

Firstly, where are the hidden hungers?  For most people, it is not for food.  We are a nation that suffers more from over indulgence than from starvation.  Irish people are dying from too much food and drink rather than from a lack of either.  But people are dying from a lack of love, a lack of identity and from a sense that the world is meaningless – or, at least, that their lives have no real meaning.  We have parts of our wealthy country where male life expectancy is little over 50.  Too many people are dying for want of a reason for living.   

The crowds who followed Jesus in today’s Gospel were not the starving masses that we see in times of famine.  They might have been peckish when they had followed Jesus in this passage.  But it was not a picnic that they came looking for.  People didn’t go to the recent Oxegen musical festival for the accommodation and the cuisine!  You yourselves didn’t come here this weekend for the comfortable en suite tents and the à la carte menus!

But people followed Jesus and Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol, Blur and The Killers this weekend because they were seeking something that would nourish their hearts, make life’s journey easier and create memories.  And Jesus was not just keen to give them a good feed – because we do not live on bread alone.  He was looking to feed their hearts rather than just their stomachs, to create offer healing and not just food.  The Lord is more aware of our deep hungers than we are ourselves.

But in response to our perceived hungers, Western society tends to tell us that:
·    We have a right to passing fun but shouldn’t expect to find deep-seated happiness;
·    We are entitled to enjoy any sort of relationship, however transient, but shouldn’t expect most people to be able for commitment or faithfulness;
·    Someone else is to blame when things go wrong for me and I shouldn’t have to shoulder too much responsibility for my past or present.

Current ideology suggests that religious faith is inherently childish.  Spirituality is okay but religion is bad news and restrictive.  But people followed Jesus – then and now – because He presents a much more adult view of life.  He says that we are capable of huge levels of loving, serving, believing and trusting.  He says that we have unlimited resources to draw on and that – like the five loaves and the couple of fish – an awful lot can be done with remarkable little.  He tells us that we can accept responsibility for our mistakes and sins because we believe that forgiveness and a fresh start are always available.  And this is not a guru God who parachutes into Punchestown racecourse or Croke Park for three days and vanishes – but one who walks with people and shared their lot, even to the point of being killed for his solidarity with them.  This is a God for grown-ups, not a ghostbuster for kids.

So it is important, in these difficult times for people in Church, that we don’t go down the road of presenting a mass-produced Messiah, a spiritual junk-food Jesus, the very sort of phoney saviour role that Jesus was tempted to play but which He refused to accept.  The strange lesson from history is that in times of change and crisis, the Holy Spirit produces not a dumbed-down deliverer but radical Gospel responses.  The great renewal movements came at the difficult times in Church history.  The most depressing  periods produced great energy in movements such as those started by Francis, Dominic, Catherine of Siena and Ignatius and by heroic men and women in 18th, 19th and 20th century Ireland.  Auschwitz produced Maximilian Kolbe while it was in the apparent hopelessness of Calcutta that Mother Teresa discovered God’s calling. 

The uncomfortable fact for people of faith in modern Ireland is that God is asking radical and difficult decisions from us.  There is no cheap grace, there is no easy salvation for the world.  If you are here and talk about the light of the world, you have to believe that the Lord will shine His torch down some difficult paths and tell you to go there.  Like Philip and Andrew in the Gospel, you may think that God is asking something silly from you.  Then you have to make the decision as to whether you follow or not.  It will apply in questions about money and life style, about drink and sex, about values and vocation.  But Jesus believes we are capable of great things, that we can be healers and not just consumers, that we have an inner life and that our lives are of eternal beauty and value.

So I come to my second question that the Scriptures raise for me – about what the questions are that we need to be asking today.  There are lots of hungers in modern Ireland that Jesus wishes to respond to.  There are many people who need healing for they have suffered as a result of the harsh culture that pervaded parts of this country and Church over many decades.  Sometimes tough love in needed in the lives of individuals and sometimes we need to exercise it on ourselves – but toughness without love is merely brutality and bullying.  It was a shallow spirituality and a poor knowledge of Jesus that believed that harshness was part of the Gospel.  Jesus knew that nothing works unless it is suffused by love and experienced as loving.  

But it is also important to remember that, for most people, the experience of growing up in Ireland was not one that recognises the late Frank McCourt’s dismal view of a damp and heartless Ireland, nor was the experience of education one of unrelenting brutality and grimness, nor have most people experienced Irish parishes as ruled by cranky clergy and out of touch bachelors or spinsters.  Indeed in many places, it is the parish that provides one of the few sources of beauty and hope in a harsh urban landscape, and it is the likes of Fr Peter McVerry, Sr Consilio and many more that produce the generosity and love that no secular state can ever generate.

There is a risk of rejecting a myth that glamourised the past and replacing it with an equally trite myth of a merely evil past and a glorious present.  So Jesus might suggest that we both acknowledge the enormous pain caused to so many people in the name of the Church and an allegedly Catholic state – and do not fear to identify the enormous damage being done to so many young people by modern selfishness and dysfunctionality, vulgar wealth and the exploitation that will be harshly condemned by future generations. 

It is important to ask questions about past horrors – but it is equally important to learn from them and to question present horrors as well.  Letting your light shine into those areas will not make you popular – but that is where the hunger is today.  It is better to be unhappy with the right questions than happy with the wrong answers.  There is little progress in condemning clerical dominance and replacing it with a new high priesthood that claims omniscience or a bland philosophy that stands for nothing and falls for anything.  

And, thirdly, where do we find hope?  Paul is clear that the light of hope and healing will be found in Spirit-filled communities.  Even though he was in prison, he felt part of the Body of Christ.  Even though he was suffering, he believed that peace was possible.  He wasn’t so much saying that his listeners had to work hard and build community.  Rather he was proclaiming that we already have a unity in the one body and the one Spirit – and that they were being asked to discover that unity.  That is a work of grace and the fruit of prayer and engagement with the scriptures.  Thus, in modern Ireland, there is a need for commitment to our communities.  No parish is perfect but I think that Paul would still be asking us, not to be going round and seeking the allegedly perfect parish where we can flourish.  Rather he is asking us to recognise where we are and where we need to be building.  God’s solidarity with us in Jesus suggests that we need to see our vocation wherever he has planted us. Belonging and believing build hope.  Service and not selfishness build people and community.  Reconciliation and relationships are better sources of healing than confrontation and compensation alone.  Grace alone can build unity and community. Be a light to those who find it hard to believe in healing and community and forgiveness.

Soon we will all go back home again or continue on our journeys.  It is important that, as for the people in today’s Gospel, the meeting with Jesus is not just a nice occasion that we deposit in the scrapbook of memory but one that shapes the future.  Yes, we have to accept that some days we’re the pigeon, and some days we’re the statue!  But Jesus has the knack of suggesting that when everything’s coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane!  Jesus takes us seriously and takes other people seriously.  He doesn’t want people to expect little from themselves and from life.  He knows that we are capable of great things and that the broken heart of the world can be healed.  He wants you to hear that message today.

This is not a time for depression on the part of believers.  It is a time for repentance and humility – but only in the service of making space for grace.  We here do not have to beat ourselves for the faults of others, to cease believing in love, hope and community just because others failed to live up to that dream in the past.  Nor is this a time to seek to return to a model of Church that belongs to an earlier era.  But whatever our model of Church, Jesus continues to gather people to hear good news and to do what He did in our Gospel passage.  He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and distributed to His followers.  And He tells us that, if we want to work for the healing of the world, we need to be people of love and prayer and we need to build communities where God’s dream for the world can be kept alive. 

If you want to let your light shine, find time each day for prayer, engage with the Scriptures, seek to belong to communities of disciples and serve people even when that service is not reciprocated.  And the generous God of the Scriptures will ensure that there will always be some left over so that you continue to be nourished on your journey to and with Him.


Notes for Editors

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor and is Chair of the Youth Ministry subgroup of the Bishops’ Commission for Pastoral Renewal.
  • About 600 young people are attending the Knock Youth Festival and many are expected to attend the closing Mass which will be celebrated in a marquee in Knock.  See special web feature on the festival on www.catholicbishops.ie
  • The Knock Summer Youth Festival runs from 23 to 26 July for people aged 18-35 years.  The theme of the festival for 2009 is ‘You are the light of the world’. According to Knock Youth festival organiser, Helen Toner, the event offers young people the opportunity of “something real and deep … to step out of their busyness of their lives” in order to evaluate their hopes and dreams and it can help them to make room and invite God into their heart.
  • The festival programme contains talks, workshops, music, drama, mime, prayer, reflection, testimonies and lots of time to relax, meet new people and have fun.  This is the 8th year of the festival and about 600 young people are expected to attend from parishes all over the country and further afield.
Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)