1 June 2011
Homily Notes of Arcbhishop Diarmuid Martin, at Mass for the International Delegates of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul
I welcome the International Delegates who have come to Ireland for this year’s International Meeting of the Society, alongside the Irish delegate. It is a historic occasion and I am very pleased to be with you to celebrate this Eucharist.
Today in the Church we speak much about catechesis and about evangelization and we speak about new evangelization. We can learn much about evangelization by looking at the actions of Saint Paul in today’s reading, one of the most remarkable texts in the New Testament.
Paul finds himself at the Areopagus in Athens where he encounters the philosophers and intellectuals and the civil leaders who habitually gathered in that unique location. It is what in English today we would call the “market square”, that space in any society where reflection about culture and values and ideas are thrashed out in public debate.
In his encounter, Paul wishes both to defend himself and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. It is not an easy task for him. His preaching of the Good News of Jesus in Jewish communities would normally have begun with the Jewish Scriptures – as Jesus himself would have done – which he would use to indicate how this man Jesus realised in his life and in his death the promises made through the law and the prophets. Jesus had done much the same, for example, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He explained the scriptures for them and led them to come to identify who he really was.
But the hearers in Athens would not have had the same familiarity with the scriptures as a Jewish audience would have had or would be the case with an audience of Gentiles in Jerusalem who would not be unfamiliar with the Jewish scriptures
Where then is Paul’s point of entry with this Athenian audience? Listen to what he says. He tells his audience that we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver or stone. That could only be the position “of those who are ignorant”.
In today’s world and in particular in today’s Ireland in our efforts at evangelization we are facing an audience which is not necessarily hostile, but which has drifted away from and is becoming progressively ignorant of the scriptures and about true nature of our God. This is due in part to a catechesis which did not place the true nature of God at its centre. Too often our catechesis stressed matters which were not just marginal. It stressed elements which can be experienced in and are measurable in human terms. God however cannot be boxed into the categories of what is empirically measurable.
God is love and his love for us shows no boundaries. His love is one of self-giving and it is a self-giving which Jesus takes to the extremities of self-giving: he gives his life for our sakes in love.
The two characteristics of God’s love are those of gratuity and superabundance. God’s love is gratuitous in that it does not ask anything in advance. The scriptures remind us that God loved us when we were still sinners; that God loved us first. He does not set conditions. He does not ask us to fill out forms, to establish agreements and strategic plans to which we have to sign up before he reaches out to us in love.
And God’s love is superabundant. It goes not just beyond what we might have a right or an entitlement to expect; it goes way beyond anything that we are able to imagine. The reading tells us that not even the most beautiful artefacts of gold or silver or stone can mirror the beauty of the love of God, no human artefact can fully fathom the depth of love of God which is beyond our understanding.
God’s love is superabundant. It is unlike the things of the world in that it does not have a price tag. It is so generous that it whisks us off our feet. There are so many examples of this in the Gospels: leaving the ninety nine, the wine jars at Cana, the baskets collected after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the joy of the father of the prodigal son. These are all examples of the superabundance of God’s love, which defies ordinary wisdom.
The society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Ireland enjoys a remarkable reputation and is one of the organizations in the Church which has totally maintained its credibility even in the face of scandals in the Church and has continued to elicit generosity even in times of deep recession. I believe that this is due to the fact that it has retained that sense of gratuitousness and superabundance that it so often missing in today’s’ society.
Those who work in the name of the society go out asking for nothing. People know that theirs is true voluntarism. They bring not just material help but the witness of lives which mirror the generous love of Jesus Christ.
In today’s complicated world, any large organization or movement must recognise the need for effective management and for establishing a level of scale which will enable it to be more efficient. But how do we define efficiency? The danger is that if we define efficiency only measurable and calculable economic terms, we may miss the ability to bring the surprising and at times irrational generosity of Jesus into people lives.
The Church’s work with the poor must be professional, but again our understanding of professionalism must be different from a market-driven, professional-client one. To reveal the love of God to others we have to get our hands and our shoes dirty in the realities of the harsh suffering of the world. Christians cannot sit on the sidelines observing from a safe place. We are not just social commentators or lobbyists of simply advocates. Our most effective advocacy is witness rather than though slogans or mission statements or smart marketing strategies. Catechesis requires witness if it is to be turned into evangelization.
There is indeed a danger that many reforms agendas regarding the future of the Church in Ireland – on the left and on the right – may be so “Church too inward-looking” and polemical and polarised that they fail in their witness to that service in love which is an essential dimensions of the Church.
You will have seen that this Church contains the remains of a remarkable saintly man of Dublin, Matt Talbot. He lived as an ordinary worker in the midst of the daily challenge of alcohol abuse and of harsh poverty and deprivation. He was a true mystic in his life but he witnessed not through writings but through an almost unnoticed humility in poverty. It is interesting that the only written text that we have from him is a donation: he scribbled his donation to a newly formed missionary society on a small piece of paper: “two pounds, from a poor man, Matt Talbot”.
Generosity of spirit can produce fruits of holiness in everyone. Our service to the poor must go beyond professionalism but must also recognise that the poor person is a brother and a sister and just as we would wish for any brother or sister of ours: the poor deserve the best.
The poor deserve the best in the sense that they should never encounter in the Church substandard services. They deserve above all the best that is in us, the best of ourselves which share with them in selfless generosity. We pray that the Spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul may flourish in Ireland and around the world today in the generosity of its members.
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