Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Ash Wednesday 2011

09 Mar 2011


9 March 2011

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Ash Wednesday 2011

  • Lent is a call to renewal, personal and communal through prayer, penance and generosity. We have all got much to repent of in terms of how we could be disciples of the Jesus who asks us to walk with Him – Bishop McKeown

The following homily was delivered today by Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, in Saint Mary’s Church, Chapel Lane, Belfast.  This Ash Wednesday Mass marked the official launch of the Trócaire Lenten campaign in the diocese.

Ash Wednesday is for many people among the most unbeloved days of the year. The six and a half weeks of Lent stretch out before us – and the prospect of extended prayer, fasting and almsgiving is not one that excites enthusiasm in the hearts of most. It most certainly doesn’t thrill me with delight! Indeed, I’d be worried if someone looked forward to Lent. The Scripture readings make it clear that the call to penance is a serious issue.

In some quarters, Lent is increasingly defended as a useful, semi-secular occasion when we can lose weight or do our bit do cut down on unsustainable consumption. And there is nothing wrong with that. But Lent is not a cheap diet plan nor is it merely one strategy to save the planet for the future. Unless it is a adult spiritual journey, it risks becoming a fad rather than fount of grace, an invitation to self-righteousness rather than to self-transcendence in Christ, a time of self-healing rather than an opening to the healing that is in God alone. If Lent remains a time for us to do things, rather than making space for God to do things in us, then we will have missed the point and failed to attune our ears and hearts so that we can actually hear the message of Holy Week and Easter.

The theme of Pope Benedict XVI for this year’s Lent is: “You have been buried with him in Baptism; by which, too, you have been raised up with him.” (Col 2:12). For people of faith, these next six and a half weeks are a specific time of the year when we are asked to die with Christ to so many of the things that can separate us from participating in Christ’s resurrection. And we are invited to die to ourselves through the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In a world that invites us to pamper ourselves and promotes self-indulgence as a virtue, the scriptures tell us that there is no rebirth without death.  Lent doesn’t ask us to focus just on the bad parts of what make us human – but it is only by mastering our most basic instincts that we can make space for God’s grace to prepare us for Resurrection.

Thus Pope Benedict says that, through the Lenten practices, “we are moved to free our hearts from the burden of material things, from a self-centred relationship with the world that impoverishes us and prevents us from being available and open to God and to our neighbour”. Lent is not about human deprivation but about human freedom and spiritual growth. Lent is not inhuman but profoundly human – because God wishes us to know life to the full.

One word which marks part of our liturgy today is ‘repentance’. For Christians, that means a heart-felt recognition of areas in our lives where we have not loved the Lord our God with our whole heart and soul and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves. Inevitably, we have all got much to repent of in terms of how we could be disciples of the Jesus who asks us to walk with Him as channels of His healing and peace in a hurting world. And the Sacrament of Reconciliation is readily available to assist us with God’s grace. As an institution, Church leadership has much to repent of regarding how we were church in the past. There are many people who have walked away from belief in God because they felt terribly hurt by those who claimed to speak of God and in God’s name.

But repentance is not just a righteous condemnation of the past. When we look back in anger, there is also a danger. There is a real risk of criticising the past for its inability to recognise some blatantly obvious truths then – but being much less able to see the faults in the present.  The world is not divided into bad past, good present, or bad them and good us. Any simplistic division of time into bad Catholic past and good liberal present is childish illusion and delusion. Leaders in church, politics, business and community have much to repent of in how we are today as well. We do that so we can learn, not just to blame others but to be wiser ourselves. Sin and failings are not located somewhere else, in the foreign country that was the past. Human weakness is an active ingredient in current circumstances as well. Repentance is a call to look at me and at today, not just at somebody else and at their past. Lent asks us to reflect on what the next generation might condemn in how we contented to be today.

Thus those of us who claim to be Christian are constantly asked to look at whether we are disciples of Jesus, prepared to walk with Him to Calvary – or happy to be a holy huddle who see faults and challenges only elsewhere. Lent is really Lent only if it challenges any sense of smugness and cosiness among those who will wear the cross of ashes today, and carry the cross with Jesus into the future. And if we can model that honesty, then we can perhaps encourage others to learn from that Gospel wisdom.

I know that the Scripture readings today insist that penance is not just an external thing. But external and physical penance has a profound value. It is empty only if there is no change of heart behind it. We do penance with our bodies so that we can hear Christ’s call in the depths of who we are. Thus, we know that as a society we are excessively addicted to alcohol, despite the cost in terms of vehicle accidents, sexual assault and casual and domestic violence. Lent may be for some people a chance to get control of their lives, heal broken hearts and rebuild self-respect. Little victories over physical cravings can develop our hunger to live in freedom and not in dependency.

Thus penance is not just ‘grin-and-bear-it’ bad news – but a divine invitation to hope. Indeed it is an act of counter-cultural courage in the face of unrelenting and unsustainable pressure to consume.  Similarly, in the quest for Church renewal, unless there is a change of heart rather than just a preoccupation with new structures, there will be no prospect of a better future. The future of Christ’s Church lies in spiritual renewal and not just in structural reform.  Lent is a time to move through the external penances to the change of heart that lies at the heart of the Gospel. And that is why there is no Lent without prayer and an engagement with the Lord in the scriptures and in silent adoration.

This Mass also marks the official launch of the Trócaire Lenten campaign in Down and Connor.  Trócaire is the Irish Catholic Church’s official development agency. It depends so much on the Advent and Lenten campaigns. I have been to Uganda with them and I know just some of what they do there.  Giving from our excess is a key scriptural way of acknowledging the pain of vast swathes of humanity around the world. The 2011 campaign focuses on how poverty leaves people open, not just to disease but also to exploitation and fear. It asks us not just to give from our excess but to work for more just structures and trading arrangements around the world. A few pounds can help an individual’s impoverished circumstances. It will take a change of heart and of structure to change the system that creates the poverty. Pope Benedict puts it clearly:

The greed of possession leads to violence, exploitation and death…. The idolatry of goods… not only causes us to drift away from others but divests us making us unhappy, deceiving us, deluding us without fulfilling its promise…. The practice of almsgiving is a reminded of God’s primacy and turns our attention towards others, so that we may rediscover how good God is and receive his mercy.

Lent is a call to generosity as a reflection of the God who seeks to heal the world from the effects of greed and brutality that so mark many countries and communities. To conclude:

·       Lent is not a call to seek pain – but an openness to divine truth.

·       Lent is not a useless exercise in masochism – but a search for God’s wisdom.

·       Lent is not about self hatred – but about liberation through grace.

Lent is a call to renewal, personal and communal through prayer, penance and generosity. In the midst of all the clamour around us, can we hear that call today and allow it to echo clearly and uncomfortably in our hearts over the next days and weeks? If we do, the ashes will have borne fruit. If we don’t, Easter will be one more empty distraction in the perpetual struggle against pain, sin and injustice.


  • See special feature on Lent 2011, including the Lenten message of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, on www.catholicbishops.ie

Further information:

Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth, Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444