25 September 2011
Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at Knock Shrine to celebrate the annual pilgrimage of the Legion of Mary
Each of us will have his or her favourite paintings and images of Jesus from the history of art. I have to admit that personally I am not particularly attached to images which one might call “sweet”. Yes, I know that such images attempt to present a Jesus who comforts and consoles. I know indeed that in my own difficulties and anxieties I often turn to Jesus to provide comfort and consolation knowing that he will reach out to me and reassure me. We all know that even when we sin, Jesus is still gentle and kind to us when we return to him.
Yet it would be wrong to think of Jesus just in such terms. His words in today’s Gospel are anything but sweet. They are sharp words and not even in the politest of language: “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. This is strong language. The tax collectors and the prostitutes were despised. Among the upright, the prostitutes were symbols of sexual immorality; the tax collectors were symbols of dishonesty, especially due to the high level of corruption that existed among them.
“Tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. This is indeed strong language for those who considered themselves upright. And this strong language is not to be looked on as just a momentary lapse of composure on the part of Jesus. Jesus considers this language not just a comment on the margins of his teaching, but be part of his solemn teaching: “I tell you solemnly”.
Of even greater concern should be the fact that this phrase is not directed against the totally wayward, but against those who were held in the highest respectability in the Synagogue. Jesus is speaking in this harsh almost crude language to the establishment, to the respectable, to the learned and to the pious.
The problem is that those to whom Jesus was speaking thought that they were respectable, learned and pious, but in their hearts they were not. Jesus judges us by the integrity of our lives, not by outward signs of piety and outward professions of orthodoxy. The parable talks to us of those who in their words profess themselves disciples and yet when they are out of the public gaze, revert to living anything but a life in integrity with what they profess.
Jesus points out to these who in their own arrogance determine for themselves and on their own terms that they are just, that they will be overtaken on the journey to the kingdom by those who are weak and apparently caught in the trap of their own fragility. Like the son in today’s Gospel who first says no, but who then thinks it over and does his fathers wishes, people whom respectable society scorn and deride become the honest ones, who respond to the call to conversion. In the midst of the struggle of life, while feeling trapped in their evil ways, they hear the call to conversion and accept it. Sinners know well that on their own they will never reach righteousness. The arrogant feel that the can reach righteousness entirely on their own terms.
Jesus speaks this in the context of the reaction of the Pharisees to John the Baptist, to the prophet who came to prepare his ways. The Baptist’s call was to conversion, but those who considered themselves – and liked to be considered by others – as already righteous felt no need for conversion. They hide their sinfulness even from themselves. Jesus prefers to be in the company of wretched sinners than to with those who consider themselves righteous on their own terms.
Jesus knows that those who live with this false type of self righteousness will not only fail to recognise their need for conversion but in their arrogance will despise even those who have the humility to admit their struggle with their own sinfulness. The Pharisees reject the call of John the Baptist to conversion, even after they see the unrighteous repent.
Jesus is merciful to those who recognise their sinfulness even if they fall back again and again in their sin. The Christian life is a life of conversion. The self-satisfied of any generation see no need to repent and no need for redemption.
As the body of Christ, the Church is holy. Each and every one of us, however, is a sinner and through our sins we damage and wound the body of Christ which is the Church. All of us though our own sinfulness share in the damage to the body of Christ done by sin. Not to acknowledge our sinfulness is indeed to damage the Church even further. Through our unrepentant living we compromise the authenticity of our own witness to Jesus. And we compromise the witness of the Church.
As believers and disciples of Jesus we are all called to holiness. That is one of the fundamental teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The call to holiness is universal; it is a call to all Christians. Holiness can be attained by all, by men and women, by clergy and by laity, by all strands within the Church. No one vocation is called to be less holy than any other. Women can be holier than men, laity holier than clergy. No individual or no group can self-claim holiness for themselves or look down the holiness of others. Holiness is not measured by wanting to be called conservative or progressive in Church matters.
The fundamental equality within God’s people is about the call to be holy, which is sown in the gift of baptism and addressed to each one of us. The call to holiness is not achieved through meetings and conferences, through votes and consultations. It is attained through conversion and authenticity in our Christian life. Reform and renewal in the Church come first of all through responding to the Lord’s call to repentance. The Church will not be reformed from the outside. Anyone, inside or outside the Church, has the right to criticize the Church; reform and renewal will only come through those who truly live the life and holiness of the Church.
Mary is the model of discipleship. She is the Mother of God, but she is also the first disciple of her son. From the first moment when she is told that she is to be the mother of the saviour, she responds by affirming her desire that her heart be aligned with God’s will. In all the trails of her life, she ponders the word of God in order to ensure that her life is aligned to God’s will. At the end of the life of her Son, Mary is there near the foot of the Cross, with just a few faithful disciples. The other disciples have either fled or watch from a distance. Arrogance is totally absent from her life, which is marked by humility and faithfulness.
Mary’s humility and faithfulness is summed up in a special way in the prayer of the Magnificat. That is also the spirit given by Frank Duff to the Legion of Mary. Each year the Legion of Mary comes here to Knock to pray for an increase in the holiness of its members, for its apostolic work and to pray for the Church which the Legion serves. I welcome Legionaries from all over Ireland and I thank you for inviting me to speak here.
The history of this annual pilgrimage interestingly goes back to the year of the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II. The Legion of Mary has within it a special bond with the See of Peter. Frank Duff, as we read in the recent biography by Finola Kennedy, when he encountered misunderstanding on the part of the Church authorities in Ireland and especially in Dublin, received support from the then Apostolic Nuncio in Dublin and from the Pope. Frank took part in the Second Vatican Council as a lay expert. His bonds with the Apostolic See strengthened his understanding of the universality of the Church and the Legion of Mary in its own way is truly a manifestation of that universality. The Catholic Church is universal. There is no such thing, as some say to me, as an Irish Church separated from Rome.
The Church needs reform and renewal. Renewal of the Church is not about media strategies or structural reform. It is about having the same mind within us that was within Christ Jesus himself. There are many indications in Ireland that people, of various ages, no longer really know Jesus Christ. They have no real sense of need to be saved and to convert. This is because the Church has in mnay ways failed to teach them adequately who Jesus is and what he means for our lives.
I ask all of you herein Knock this afternoon to pray for the Church. Pray for Pope Benedict. Pray for me. Pray for the communiuty of all believers. Pray for all who live the Christian life in the coimmunion of the Church that, through the intercession of Mary, they will be blseed with humility and fidelity and may grow in holiness.
Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications, Archdiocese of Dublin