Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Third Sunday of Easter

18 Apr 2010

18 April 2010

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor, Sunday 18 April 2010 at St John the Baptist Church, Drumcree, Archdiocese of Armagh – Year for Priests

I thank the local branch of St Joseph’s Young Priests Society for inviting me to celebrate Mass as part of your focus this weekend on vocations promotion. You were kind to contact me before Christmas in my role as Chair of the Vocations Commission in Ireland and in that role I was very happy to accept.

Next weekend is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, officially Vocations Sunday. But seven days from now will not just be one more celebration of the annual Sunday that has the Gospel of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This year we find ourselves in the Year of the Priest and for four days next week, the relics of the Cure of Ars – patron saint of parish priests – will be in Ireland, and will spend much of Wednesday in Armagh Cathedral. So I congratulate you on this initiative to build on the Year of Vocation and celebrate the Year of the Priest.

But this is a challenging time to be speaking about priests and priesthood. Most people in their parishes know their own clergy well – and have been very supportive of them over the last months. Especially in the North, clergy and parishioners alike have been through shocking and painful times during the worst of the Troubles. But the image of the saintly parish priest like the Curé of Ars, walking his garden while saying his breviary, was first of all replaced by the idea that they were all more likely to be incompetent idiots like Frs Dougal, Ted and Jack on Craggy Island. We could all laugh at that.

But today, far from this comic portrayal, the predominant cultural image now is more along the lines of: “because of celibacy, clergy and religious are all potential child abusers, some just about keeping their instincts under control. As for bishops, they are little more than a bunch of twisted, incompetent old men, well aware of evil actions among some of their colleagues, but saying nothing in order to protect their power. They laid heavy burdens on others’ back and just looked after their own dominant position and status. In that storyline of sexually frustrated clergy, child abuse was just par for the course. The corrupt church was not just the home of abuse but the cause of it. The Church doesn’t have a problem. The Church is the problem.” According to this new ideology, such a rotten body should be destroyed. No wonder that encouraging people to dedicate their lives to the service of Christ as ministers in his Church may well seem a daunting task.

But, as ever, our readings from Holy Scripture readings give us plenty to think about – if we take time to engage with them. All Scripture is an invitation to engage, not with ideas about God, but with the Lord who speaks to us in the liturgy. If we are not wiser about our faith after attending Mass regularly during the year, then it is clear that we have not been interacting with the Word of God, not allowing it to touch our hearts. Someone said that we all like sermons that went over our heads – as long as they hit the guy two rows behind! So these passages from the Bible are addressed to you and to me. Let them speak to your story, your imagination, your situation. If you don’t, you risk not recognising the Lord who came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Let’s look at the first reading. Here the early group of disciples in Jerusalem had discovered that the religious authorities did not like them talking about the Resurrection of Jesus or proposing that this wretch whom the Romans had crucified was Lord and Saviour! At the present time, it may be comfortable for some to identify with the apostles in the feeling of being under attack because of allegiance to Jesus and to the Church. But in the clamour of critical voices raised against the Church – whatever some people mean by that – it is important to recognise that there are many (including some in this congregation tonight) who – despite the goodness and generosity of so many people in church – still feel terribly hurt by the church as an organisation, by the arrogance or coldness of some individual priests, by the apparent distance of some bishops or by the cutting words of some parishioners who seem to have time for God but not for people.

So, even in the voices of those who appear just to want to criticise Church, it is vital that we listen, not for the voice of the journalist or the commentator, but the voice of God. Among Jesus’ first words in the Gospel was the call to repent and believe the Good News. They are directed, not just to the person two rows behind each of us – but to all of us, individually and together. A church that is not an expert in repentance should not dare to criticise others for their failings. Part of our vocation as the People of God is to be self-critical before we are self-righteous about anybody else. Unless we take the plank out of our own eyes, we cannot see to take the speck out of someone else’s. That means living with the truth of the past – and seeing in it, not merely as damnation, but in the light of that fact that God’s dream for each of us cannot be destroyed by the worst that humans can do. The victim and the perpetrator both have a past – but through grace they can both have a future that is not just a re-run of old nightmares. Ask the recovering alcoholic or drug addict. They will tell you that resurrection is always possible, even after the horrors of the Cross. We all have the vocation to recognise ourselves, not as self-made saints but as forgiven sinners. And we need leaders at all levels, people who will help us hear that call very clearly.  I was very encouraged to hear one of our own seminarians say recently, “we’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution.” Jesus is still calling people to be part of the solution.

In the second reading, St John has a vision of the glory of Jesus, raised to God’s right hand as leader and saviour. All praise is due to the Lamb who was sacrificed. The praise is not due to his messengers! That is why we come here to worship God and not just to be entertained. That is why we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament. The first part of the Our Father is not about asking for things. It is about glorifying God’s name, wishing that his Kingdom will come and that his will might be done.  The Preface of the Mass starts with a statement that it is right to give God thanks and praise – and finishes with a prayer that we might join with the angels and saints to proclaim that God is holy. A call to be a priest is a call to announce the holiness of God and God’s care for the least of our brothers and sisters. Those who will call others to holiness have to be holy themselves – for the vocation that we all have is not just to be nice, but to be holy through Christ’s grace and, like Jesus, loving till it hurts.

And in the Gospel, there is the clear message that those who do not fish with Jesus will catch nothing. Those who are not fishermen in their own right but in obedience to the Lord will be shocked at the wisdom of God. Jesus addresses the experienced apostles who left him and who now wanted to return to fishing. They have laboured in vain, but he call them, not idiots or traitors but friends. He helped them to hope again, to discover that the apparent failure of the Cross was not a disaster but the key work of God who can give meaning to apparent meaninglessness. The discovery of huge mistakes in the past of the Irish Church is not alone a sign of disaster but a call to cast out the nets again and to fish in a new manner, with the humility and foolishness of God and not the apparent wisdom and pride of humans to guide the way. The harvest is rich but the labourers remain comparatively few.

We are in the middle of a beautiful spring. The daffodil bulbs and the apple blossoms that have lain dormant for 11 months have reasserted themselves. But a harvest won’t come just by enjoying the daffodils. In this springtime for the church in this country, it is a time for tilling the soil, for sowing, for nourishing the frail shoots.  The ground is hard but the seeds need to be scattered on the soil before the weeds take over. Then it would be even harder. And there are many gifts to be utilised in that work of building toward the harvest.  Ministry today will involve each of us recognising our own giftedness as well as that of others. The Church of the Risen Jesus was never a place for the self-righteous Lone Ranger.

So at the beginning of this week that will be blessed by the relics of the Curé of Ars and that will finish with Vocations Sunday, we pray that we might, each of us,

listen for the voice of the Lord in time that we set aside for prayer,

be clear about our own call from God to become holy through his race,

believe that God has a dream for each of us, whether we are married, single, widowed, separated, ordained or consecrated; and

encourage young people to believe that God has a dream for what they can become if only they listen for his voice and believe in love, community and service.

And in the wisdom of Jesus’ strange ways we will all be blessed in Him and through each other.


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