Homily of Bishop John Fleming for the Chrism Mass, Saint Muredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, Tuesday 3 April 2012
“Communion with Christ and with one another”. This is the theme of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which we will celebrate in eleven weeks from now in Dublin. Communion with Christ and with one another is also the force which draws bishops, priests, religious and people to cathedrals all over the world during these days to celebrate their shared calling at the Mass of Chrism. Communion with Christ and with one another is, therefore, the call which brings all of us together this evening as the portion of God’s People who live in this diocese.
Each year the Mass of Chrism focuses not on the institution of the Eucharist but on the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the Christian life, the foundation of our communion. It is the once in a year occasion when all of us who serve the Lord in this diocese come together around the Table of the Word and of the Lord to renew our commitment, to be nourished, fed and sent out once more to continue our service of the Lord in each other.
The Book of Deuteronomy puts before us this evening certain aspects of the Levitical priesthood which I suggest are enduring features of priesthood. It reminds us: “For Yahweh your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand before Yahweh your God, to do the duties of the sacred ministry and to bless in Yahweh’s name, him and his sons for all time”. Chosen by God to do the duties of the sacred ministry and to bless in Yahweh’s name; this is the kernel of our priesthood, the golden thread which endures through the ages. It unites us in priesthood with the bishops and priests of this diocese who served in ages past and with those who will do so in the future. The foundation for the priesthood which we all share is the call by God, to do the duties of the sacred ministry and to bless in God’s name; in other words, to be in communion with Christ and with one another.
For us priests, communion with Christ is at the very heart of our ministry. Without this communion we are what T.S.Eliot calls ‘the hollow men, the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas’. Our spirituality, that of the diocesan priest, is one rooted in pastoral care, expressed in activity and lived out in the tension of wanting to be with God and needing to be with those entrusted to us. However great the call to activity, it must never destroy that delicate balance between personal prayer and pastoral care. I still recall a talk given to us students in Maynooth by a spiritual director, where he praised the priests of the early post-Vatican II era, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, for the work of renewal carried out in their churches after the Council. He complimented them in particular on the freshness of their approach to the ornamentation which they introduced at that time. However, he went on to comment that the only ornament which any church really needs was still missing in many churches at that time; that of a priest at prayer. And he then went on to point at the windows of Saint Mary’s Oratory, in which we were, saying that outside those windows, nearby, in the Dublin mountains, Saint Kevin spent his life, as Saint Paul had recommended, hidden with God in prayer. I suggest that the renewal of the church in Ireland today, which Pope Benedict encourages and which we earnestly desire, must also begin on this foundation; priestly communion with Christ in personal prayer. Structural changes, such as the re-configuration of dioceses, the clustering of parishes or changes in pastoral practice will have no pastoral effect unless they are accompanied by the growth in personal holiness of us priests.
One of the latest buzz words to run the gauntlet of media condemnation is “clericalism”. It has now become the dreaded C word. And when you see how it expressed itself in the Murphy Reports you cannot but join in that condemnation. Clericalism as we have known it was a dimension of priesthood which went seriously wrong. However, the friendship, support and inter-dependence, of which it is an expression, is an important and enduring aspect of priesthood. Communion with one another, friendship and concern for each other is as important today as it ever was. As diocesan priests we must be at the centre of the communion with our brother priests in the diocese, not on the margins. This does not mean that we live in each others pockets. It does mean that we are conscious of working together, participating fully in common initiatives and committed to supporting each another in our service of the Lord. It also means that we are prepared to sacrifice personal preferences for the good of the Church.
The priest must also be at the centre of the communion which is his parish. He is the servant of that local community, who continues to do the duties of the sacred ministry today and continues to bless in God’s name those who come to him. The Irish Church was organised on a monastic basis in the first millennium. It was organised on the diocesan system in the second millennium, following the twelfth century reform. At this, the beginning of the third millennium, we are called on once more to a renewal of the Church in our country. I cannot predict precisely how this will come about or what shape it will take. I can say, however, that communion with Christ and with one another around the Eucharist will form the basis of the church of the future. From this source the priesthood of all the baptised will take shape and all ministries will be defined.
Each year the Mass of Chrism affords me the opportunity to say a sincere thank you to the priests of this diocese for the outstanding service which you give day in and day out, in what are by any definition, difficult, uncertain and challenging times. Your work in your parishes is greatly appreciated by your people also. Your dedication to their service confirms and supports the faith of the people in the future of the Church in our country, in whatever shape that will be.
This Mass also offers me the opportunity to say a word of thanks to all the people of our parishes who support the work of the diocese. I would like to pay a particular tribute to the volunteers in all our parishes who support the work of the Church in the churches and parishes of the diocese, especially choirs, sacristans and altar servers, the Boards of Management of our schools, the child protection services in our diocese, our catechists, Readers, Ministers of the Eucharist, collectors, counters and the parish pastoral and finance councils. The work which is done on the ground at parish level and your genuine commitment will determine in no small way the renewal of the Church in Ireland.
Finally, I commend to you the 50th International Eucharistic Congress 2012 as an opportunity to share in a significant milestone on the road to renewal.
• Bishop John Fleming is Bishop of Killala. This homily was delivered on 3 April 2012.
• Media contact: Martin Long, Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth, 00 353 861727678