Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford

31 May 2013

Homily of  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford

“This day one year ago, I was a very nervous man.  It was just a little over a week before the opening of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and I had just paid my first visit to the RDS grounds in Ballsbridge where the Congress was to take place.  There was so much still to do.  It was not just that there were so many things to do; there was the deeper question of whether, after so much preparation, the event would be a success or not.

The first thing I did each morning in those final days before the Congress was to reach for my cell-phone and go to the ten-day weather forecast and see what the weather was likely to be like.  Being responsible for an event, much of which was to take place outdoors, you can well imagine my anxiety.   And to make things worse the ten-day weather forecast kept changing each day leaving me confused as well as anxious and concerned.

Looking back now, I can see that the first thing I should have been doing each morning was saying my prayers and placing much more trust in the Lord than in the meteorologists.   It was only at the closing ceremony of the Congress, in fact, that I came to see things correctly and I could say:

“One week ago we set out on a journey of prayer and reflection, of song and silence, of renewal of our hearts and renewal of our Church.   In these eight days the Eucharist has awakened in our hearts something which went way beyond our plans and expectations”.

We all get over concerned about things that we cannot really ever achieve on our own.  We get concerned about the Church, about the challenge of evangelisation, about reaching out to young people.  We must learn to trust more in the Lord rather than in our own abilities.   We must learn to trust in the Lord even when we do not see his activity.

Pope Francis has a unique ability to find simple examples to express profound realities.  After his election as Bishop of Rome, he reminded the Cardinals who had chosen him that they were all elderly.  He noted that age brought with it a certain wisdom and then he added:  “We have to transmit that wisdom to the younger generation like the good wine which matures with age”.  Good wine gets put into caskets and oak barrels and is left there.  No one see what is happening and there is almost nothing you can do from the outside.   If we have put into our work of evangelisation the effort of good ingredients and we foster the proper environment around the cask which is the Church, all we can do then is wait, knowing that the Lord is working in a hidden way to produce wine which can mature even way beyond our expectations.

It is Jesus himself who leads our young people to maturity in faith.  Our effort must be in creating the good wine, the good wine of our own example, of our own enthusiasm and of our witness. Witness to what faith means to us and of the integrity of our lives both as individuals and as community and then to trust in the Lord that he will bring our efforts to maturity.

Our expectations and those of the Lord are often not the same.  Jesus surprises us and Jesus challenges us.   The Gospel reading from Saint John we have just heard is the Gospel reading used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, a Mass which commemorates the institution of the Eucharist. The Gospel of Saint John however does not contain a narrative of the institution of the Eucharist as the other Gospels do.  Why chose the reading about the washing of the feet on that occasion or this evening?  Is it simply because the washing of the feet took place during the Last Supper?

The washing of the feet explains the Eucharist; it tells us something of what celebrating and receiving and indeed living the Eucharist means.  The story of the washing of the feet tells us how those who share at the Lord’s Table and who are nourished by his body and blood should live their lives in the world.

The story of the washing of the feet explains the meaning of the Eucharist as the Mystery of Jesus who humbles himself so that we can have life.  Precisely at that moment when Jesus becomes aware that he is about to be betrayed, Jesus does not react by protesting, or by trying to change the will of his Father, or of trying to postpone reality.    The Gospel tells us that precisely at that moment of rejection Jesus got up from the table and gave his disciples a witness of what love means which took them totally by surprise.   At that most dramatic moment for himself, Jesus does not think of himself but turns to others and allows them to experience his love.

There is a first lesson here for the Church today.  The Church should not be inward looking.  One of the most trenchant criticisms of Church life which is constantly being made by Pope Francis is the danger of the Church becoming closed-in on itself, of being “self-referential”.  He notes: “The evils which, as time passes, afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”.

Often our discussions on renewal in the Church can drift into being introverted and focused on inner-Church quarrels and become narcissistic and narcissism is not the way to win minds and hearts for the message of Jesus.  Theological and ecclesial narcissism will never reach out to heal wounds and will never offer the men and women of our time a sense of meaning and peace, of hope and purpose in life.  A closed, inward-looking, self-referential Church will never be missionary and in any case it will attract no one.

Each of us is called to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  We should therefore live as Jesus lived.  We should care for others as Jesus did.  It is only if I mirror that love of Jesus in my life that I can call myself a true follower of Jesus.  It is only if the Church appears as a mirror of the Jesus who cares, that people will be attracted to it.  In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus teaches us that being “Lord and Master” is not about power or money or popularity, or the ability to exploit or control people. Being a Christian means that through our lives we proclaim that “God is love”.  In the face of a consumerist-driven world Christians are called to witness concretely to the fact that sharing and caring are as important as having and hoarding and possessing. In the face of a consumerist-driven world where men and women and children can often be treated as commodities, the Christian is called to witness to the unique dignity of each person as someone to be cherished, protected and loved.  Being a Christian, to use once again the consistent images of Pope Francis, means reaching out to those who are most marginalised, to those on the outskirts of place and to the frontiers of human existence.

Let us come back to our Gospel reading.  The Gospel narrative of the washing of the feet is set within the farewell discourse of Jesus, his final encounter with his disciples at the Last Supper. It is a complex narrative which refers to realities in different contexts.  During this farewell discourse Jesus – as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel – had told his disciples “I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now”.  He tells them that they will begin to understand some of these realities only after he has risen from the dead and when the Holy Spirit would lead them into the fullness to truth.

So we have to look at the meaning of the washing of the feet in different lights:  there is the reality of what actually occurred and there is the deeper understanding of the event which the disciples would acquire after the resurrection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The event itself of the washing of the feet was an unexpected and a perplexing event for the disciples.   Peter expressed his own surprise; he cannot accept that Jesus would wash his feet.   To understand the shock of Peter and the other disciples we have to look at some of the detail that Saint John uses in the narrative.

We read that: “Jesus laid aside his garment and taking a towel he tied it around him”.  This was not simply a matter of convenience, like us putting on an apron in order keep our clothes clean.  What Jesus did was much more radical.  He places himself exactly in the form of dress that a slave would have worn at the entrance to the house, ready to wash the feet of the guests.  It was not just what he did that upset the disciples, but what he wished to say in his gestures.  Jesus became a slave and was telling them to want to do likewise.

The task of washing the feet was considered beneath the dignity of any Jew; it was left to slaves.  It was not just a sanitised ritual washing of the feet as many of our Holy Thursday liturgies portray. It was a truly dirty job of cleaning the dusty and dirty and sweaty feet of people who had come in from dusty and dirty streets.  The disciples could not understand why Jesus would want to reduce himself to doing such a task. They could not understand; they refused to understand.  The gesture of washing the feet really surprised and puzzled Jesus’ hearers; it was incomprehensible to their way of thinking.

Here we encounter a second lesson about being the Church in our times. We want to be a Church of service, but if we are going to be the Church of service then we have first of all to strip ourselves of all garments that are inappropriate.  We have to exchange the garments of power and authority for those of service and we may well perhaps scandalise some along the path.  The change needed in the way the Church witnesses to service is not simply a matter of tweaking.  It is much more radical and requires a much greater change than we are often prepared to accept.  If we start out from any other pattern then what we think is a witness of service will be compromised and become incomprehensible even hypocritical to others; we will end up being self-referential – witnessing to  ourselves and not to Jesus Christ.

It is not that the Church should change appearance according to the fashions of the day and of each generation.  It is more the case of the Church finding itself today wearing garments which were made to measure when we were a different shape and which are today no longer as we say “fit for purpose” or indeed have become an obstacle to achieving our mission.    Pope Francis is giving many examples of the need to leave aside what is no longer made to the measure of our contemporary challenge and returning to what is consonant with our mission of service.  This can be painful.  We have not just to admire the measure of Pope Francis but to find the true measure that fits us for our mission.  We could easily admire Pope Francis and keep going on as we were.  Change is painful.  We are attached to old ways.  We find it hard to move outside our own comfort zone, even when intellectually we can see that we ought to.

The washing of the feet takes place at the very same event in which Jesus institutes the priesthood.  What are the things then which the priest today is called to shed, just as Jesus did as he changed his dress into that of the slave?  In the past in Ireland priests were great doers – and indeed great doers of good.  Today the priest is called to a different type of witness.  Many of the tasks which the priest undertook in the past can and should be undertaken by others.  The priest today is called like Jesus to be the one who in word and in life style interprets and witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ.   The priest must be one rooted in the Word of God and who then, to use the words of the Rite of the Ordination of Deacons, shows that he believes what he reads, teaches what he believes and practices what he teaches. The priest today must be one who understands the Word of God and who knows how to lead the community into a lived interpretation of the word of God in the realities of the world in which we live.  People look for witnesses:  but the witness they are seeking today is one which helps them discover hope and meaning in their lives, especially within a Eucharistic spirituality reflecting the self-giving love of Jesus.    The priest, with all the weakness that each of us brings with us, must be one who can witness to others what his own faith means to him.

This is not an easy task.  We live in times where the message of Jesus seems rejected or is considered too demanding to many. We are not always good at presenting the message in the right way.  I am not suggesting that the solution is to be found just better media management or spin doctoring.  It is about the authenticity of how we witness; it is about the centrality of our witness.  We are still better at teaching what is wrong than winning men and women for the beauty of Christ’s teaching.  In many discussions around the current abortion debates something has gone wrong – with us and with the media – if the front page story turns out only to be about excluding and excommunicating.  That is not what is central to the Church’s teaching and witness.   Where do we fail in our witness to a radical and beautiful and attractive message of life and in supporting all those in our society who witness to life in its fullness: I am thinking of carers, and health care workers, of those who support the elderly and the handicapped and the disadvantaged.    I am also thinking of our lukewarm response at times in addressing those who are suffer severe disadvantage in difficult economic times and I am thinking of our silence in the face of the horrific violence that mars our streets.

But let us come back to our Gospel reading and look now at how the early Church will have understood this text and indeed may have contributed to the manner in which the Evangelist presented the washing of the feet.

The washing of the feet has as a central element water, so it is obvious that the early Church also interpreted this event in terms of baptism. At the washing of the feet Jesus surprised his disciples and forced them to think of his mission in a different way and thus established a new and definitive relationship between Jesus and his disciples.    Baptism is the moment in which today we Christians enter into that new and fundamental relationship with Jesus.  It is definitive and therefore the Christian, as the Gospel reading notes, “needs no further washing”.  In baptism we become sharers with Jesus in his sonship of the Father.   We have to once again rediscover the significance of our baptism, not as a historical once off event but as the foundation of our Christian fellowship and vocation.

And here is another lesson we can learn for being the Church today.  I have said earlier that many of the tasks which the priest undertook in the past can and should be undertaken by others.  This is not to substitute the work of fewer priests.  Being active in the Christian community is the norm for the baptised.   I do not like to use the term volunteer when I talk about lay people taking an active part in the life of the Church.  Volunteerism is generally considered as something extra that a person takes on in society.  Involvement in the life of the Church is not something extra: it is the default position of the baptised Christian.  There should be no passive Christians. Each baptised person is called to live out his or her baptismal faith within the community of believers and in the society in which they belong.  We have too many armchair Christians who do not take part in the life of the Church, but who from their armchairs can be the first and most trenchant critics of the Church.

Lay men and women will be in the front line in building the Church in Ireland in the years to come.  This is not to say that we do not need more priests.  It is not to say that we do not need many more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  Lay Christians however have their vocation in the Church which no one should attempt to usurp.  Lay Christians have a special role in bringing the Christian message into all areas of public life and culture through their witness and commitment and the mission they receive in baptism.

An overly clerical Church in Ireland in the past hindered lay people from exercising their full role in society.  Lay people became fearful of the crozier, even in areas where the crozier should never have been.  The crozier drifted into areas where it did not belong and to an extent weakened the ability of laymen and women in bring their rightful critical contribution to the issues of the day.  When the crozier and clericalism over extend their range, rather than being instruments for fostering Christian values they undermine the legitimate contribution of lay people and in a sense de-legitimize that vital contribution in the eyes of society.

It is also important, in speaking about baptism, to remember that we share a common baptism with Christians of other denominations and that this posits a fundamental bond of unity which already exists.  There are many more ways in which we can witness to our common baptism, both in society and in the development of our faith.  We can pray together, indeed there is much to be learnt from a deeper understanding of the prayer traditions of other Christian traditions.  We must go beyond an ecumenism of positive yet separate gestures and establish ways which recognise our differences and yet build every day on what we have in common.

I return for one final reflection to our Gospel reading:  Jesus says that in the washing of the feet: “I have set you an example”.  A short time later he will say: “Do this in memory of me”.  The events of the washing of the feet and of the Eucharist belong intimately together in the way we live as the Christian Church.  Jesus gives himself in the Eucharist and the Eucharist becomes the model and the driving force for the way we share and establish communion.   In the Eucharist the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus is re-enacted and we are nourished by his very body and blood and Spirit and through a sharing in the sonship of Jesus we become brothers and sisters.

‘We are at an important moment in the life of the Church in Ireland.  This Eucharistic Gathering and Festival of Faith is an important response in the diocese of Ferns.  As I said in my opening remarks, there is the danger that in difficult moment in the life of the Church we can loose courage and that we loose our focus on what is essential.  I need not have been so worried about the weather forecasts one year ago.  The occasional rain showers did nothing to take away from the success of the Eucharistic Congress.’

Difficult times in the life of the Church require an answer of enthusiasm and optimism, of commitment and renewal in our own lives. Negative sentiment can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and take us nowhere but into renewed and deeper negativity.   We have to witness to others the sense of meaning and purpose that Jesus brings to our lives.  If all we have to offer is a tired and discouraged faith, then we have to ask questions about the quality of our own faith.

My final words at the Eucharistic Congress set the tone for the type of renewal that we need in the Church and which we witness here this evening:

We must go away from here with a renewed passion for the Eucharist.  We must go away with a renewed love the Church.  We must go away from here wanting to tell others not just about the Congress, but about Jesus Christ himself who in giving himself in sacrifice revealed to us that God is love.   In the Eucharist we are captured into that self-giving love and are empowered to be loving people.

At the Congress, and this is something we should not easily forget, we experienced the importance of being together, of supporting each other, of being proud of our faith and our Church.  And we realised that this experience could only have been generated by our communion with Christ and our sharing in his sacrificial self-giving which we live in the Eucharist.   We have to keep that experience alive and renewed and vigorous.  The Year of Faith places the challenge before us.”


Note to editors

  • A special three day ‘Eucharistic Gathering’ will take place in Enniscorthy, Diocese of Ferns, starting tonight Friday and running until Sunday evening.  The Eucharistic Gathering in Enniscorthy has been arranged to mark the Year of Faith which is being celebrated by the Universal Church throughout 2013.