Homily notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for the Annual Pilgrimage to Knock of St Joseph’s Young Priests Society
The Church in Ireland has to face many challenges, yet the Church in Ireland has in its history, distant and recent, addressed many challenges and is today a much stronger Church than many would realise.
The culture of Ireland has changed. The Church has to live within the reality of that change. The Church has to look to the future, but cannot address the future until it has addressed its past. Mistakes were made in the past, peoples’ lives have been wrecked by the manner in which the Church was governed, yet the Church has and will continue to have a vital role to play in Irish society as in any society through speaking about and witnessing to the message of Jesus Christ.
The message of Jesus Christ brings with it, if lived authentically, an enriching ability which Christians then bring to society. The message of Jesus Christ brings with it also demands of integrity in life which bear on each of us, as individual Christians, as parents, as leaders within the Christian community and indeed as Christians in society.
The Church has its role in society and the message of Jesus Christ can and must be proclaimed in an appropriate way to any society. Christians and the Christian Church have a right and an obligation to express concerns about the manner in which those who are called to exercise responsibility in politics, in the economy and in society respond to the fundamental mandate of care for citizens and the common good that is entrusted to them. This is a non-negotiable for the Church, even when that message might not meet with agreement and acceptance. The Church’s mandate is however not simply a mandate to take pot shots from the sidelines, but must always be perceivable as an expression of genuine concern for people and as a willingness to work in solidarity.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is much more than a sound byte. It affirms a distinction between Church and political life. The Church has no role or desire to replace Caesar or in substituting itself for the political forum. Pope Benedict addressed this distinction in a very clear way in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est which contains a strong emphasis on the role, responsibility and nobility of politics as a vocation and a service.
“Rendering to Caesar” also however reminds us of the limitations of politics. Caesar is not God. Politics is not just real politik. In a democratic system politicians are answerable to those who elect them, but not just that. Politicians are answerable to the challenges which affect the lives of citizens and of society and not just as potential voters, but as human beings who live and who are influenced by the concrete culture which grows up around them.
Caesar is not God, and God is not irrelevant to the world of Caesar. Listening recently to some comments which seemed to express unease at the fact the Irish Bishops would address the political community on a fundamental question affecting society, I was struck to find in my diary just one year earlier, politicians complaining that the bishops had not been speaking publicly in support of a Yes vote at the Lisbon treaty. True pluralism respects constructive voices whether they are welcome or not.
Caesar is not God. Neither are the bishops God, just as the bishops on their own are not the Church. In recent years one of the most important signs of change in the Church has been the emergence of a strong laity willing to commit themselves to renewal of the Church even in areas where they have inherited a painful past which was not of their making. It is hardly surprising that lay people today would consider a critical role as being essential to their contribution in the Church today. Criticism is vital and welcome; indeed even if criticism comes from those who do not like the Church it must be listened to. Criticism is vital and welcome: long term reform of the Church however will come above all from people who love the Church.
There are many examples of the commitment of lay people in today’s Church and that involvement will be greater in the years to come as the appreciation of the role of lay people in the Church is sharpened and as institutions and structures are refocused to recognise and facilitate that lay commitment. This is an urgent necessity.
Lay involvement is not something due to a shortage of priests, but to a different and more correct understanding of the nature of Church. It comes from an understanding of the meaning of our baptism. The changing role of lay people will, however, have an effect on the day to day life of the priest. In addition to re-establishing a more correct understanding of the Church community, greater involvement of lay people will also free the priest from many tasks which were never really his.
What does freeing-up the priest mean? In some cases it means giving the priest a little more space for himself as an individual. Priests are often really overburdened and so many priests, even young priests, live under pressure on their health and spirituality. Look after your priests. They need the support and the affection of their people. No two priests are alike; each has different talents and limitations. Welcome all of them. Through the integrity of your Christian life encourage your priests to be truly faithful to their calling.
But “freeing up the priest” means above all freeing the priest up to carry out the specific mission that has been given to the priest. Priests need to remember that doing fewer things can actually mean enhancing rather than diminishing the role of the priest. The role of the priest is not about activities, much less about power, but about witness. Pope Benedict addressed the question in a meeting with priests only two weeks ago. He stressed that we should realise “that the priest does not just do a job, with so many hours of work after which he is free and lives for himself, but that he is a man impassioned by Christ… To be filled with the joy of the Gospel with all our being is the main condition” of our priestly ministry.
A first fundamental dimension of that passion about the joy of the Gospel is that the priest be a man of prayer, especially at a moment when many people have difficulty in really understanding what prayer involves and where there is so much pressure on us not to find time to pray. The hustle and bustle and the hectic rhythms of our lives have often left us afraid to be on our own and afraid of the silence which we need to enter into communion with God. Priesthood is not about doing things, but about witness to the God of Jesus Christ. Without prayer that witness will loose its fundamental anchor.
The second fundamental dimension of that passion for Jesus which must mark the priest is the Eucharist. Faith in Jesus Christ is never just individualistic. When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see that the early Christians were known by the fact that “they gathered”: they gathered to share the prayers, the word and in the breaking of bread and their gathering developed a particular style of life, that of sharing, that of communion. For many of my generation, coming to Church was more about fulfilling an obligation and “getting communion” than about gathering as a communion, as the body of Christ. It was fulfilling an obligation which each one of us could do in our own time and in our own form, without any interaction with others.
Today we must discover the various senses of communion: Communion with Jesus, but also a life-style of communion with others at a moment when solidarity and communion were never so much needed. The Eucharist challenges individualism and self- centeredness. Through the Eucharist the priest must become a man for others, captured into the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus and thus into the love of God which is kept present throughout time through the Eucharist.
It is through a Eucharistic spirituality that the priest finds a way which will lead him beyond individualism and indeed beyond clericalism and any sense of caste. The priest who lives the Eucharist is one who is truly open to the world and its needs and who sees that the answers to the needs of humanity will never be attained just by providing material needs, but through creating a reality of communion, which will ensure that needs are met and that others can flourish though our self giving.
The third pillar of a priestly spirituality is love of the scriptures. I have had a quarter of a million copies of the Gospel of Saint Luke printed and distributed with the Archdiocese of Dublin this year. A certain type of catechesis can easily trap us in a faith of formulae and rules and norms. We need a faith which through daily reading the Scriptures will capture us into the mystery of his Jesus’ teaching but above all into the mystery of his life.
We pray here today for priests. We pray that priests will grow in the understanding that a Church of communion will enrich the ministry of the priest and free him so that he can be one who speaks to his people about God. The priest must be the one who speaks about God with words and without words, through the witness of a life which reflects that of Jesus.
The priest whose ministry is understood in this way will also be able to speak without any complex about the priestly calling itself and not be either timid much less ashamed to speak to others about the joy his ministry. Saint Joseph’s Young Priests Society has for generations dedicated its mission to providing new priests for our Church. That work of prayer and generosity is more necessary than ever. We owe all of you a debt of gratitude.
The Church’s mission began on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came on the Apostles and freed them from their own anxiousness to go out to all nations. The Apostles were gathered on that day with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. At this shrine of Mary we turn to her intercession to support all priests, especially those who feel insecure and tired in their mission, that the Holy Spirit will help them recover that fundamental priestly sense of joy at being able to speak about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.