Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for the European Province Chapter of the Congregation of Christian Brothers
Jesus had begun to disturb the sense of power and security of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They feel that he is undermining them. In their turn, they then begin to try to disconcert Jesus.
In today’s climate of secularisation there is the temptation for men and women of faith to feel that there are people who are out to disconcert us. Traditional values are scorned. The contribution of the Church in the area of education is often presented in a negative light. Even the word Catholic with reference to education is presented in negative terms, almost as if the Church is at the root of everything that went wrong in Irish society.
I for one do not deny that there have been and are still unjustly negative images spread about the place of the Church in Irish society. Sadly the Church has provided ample ammunition for such criticism. There is the temptation in such a situation that to gather the wagons around us to defend ourselves. But I am not one who sets out in the face of this situation in a purely defensive mode. Unjust criticism must be refuted. But we must go deeper in our response.
The question that the Pharisees the Sadducees ask in today’s Gospel is the question that we ourselves, the community of believers in Jesus Christ, should be asking about ourselves and answering in terms of today’s realities with a brutal honesty.
We have to, honestly, ask ourselves about ourselves. We have to ask what in our lives – as individuals and as communities – is for us, really, the greatest commandment? Do others perceive through the way we live that we are disciples of the great commandment of love? I am not talking about the official answer, or the catechism answer, but the answer we give through the way we live, through the witness of our lives. The witness of our lives must be transparent: transparent, not in the politically correct sense, but in the sense of how our actions and our style of life are understood and perceived by ordinary people. Do we really witness in our lives to the commandment of love of God and of our neighbour? Do we really accept the loss of personal prestige and position which the commandment of love may well demand of us, rather than rush to defend institution and position and prestige at the first sign of criticism?
Pope Francis has an amazing ability to find simple words to pose fundamental questions about the life of the Christian and of the Church. He states, frankly, that a Church, which has lost the true sense of love, has ceased to be the Church. He challenges us to become “the tender embrace of the Church” for all who are marginalised, on the fringes, and on the frontiers of the society in which we live. He does not simply say that the Church is the tender embrace of Christ’s love. He challenges us to be that tender embrace. We can repeat doctrine ad nauseam. We can enounce moral teaching with clinical clarity. But all of that will be worthless and the Church teaching will appear to others like any other ideology, if we do not reflect in our lives – personal and institutional – the loving embrace of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
What does that mean? What does it mean for you at this Chapter? I believe that in these days you, as Christian Brothers and Presentation Brothers, should be asking yourselves three questions. Christian Brother, what do I do? Christian Brother, where do I come from? Christian Brother, who am I?
Perhaps for too long you and I have been focusing principally on the first question. We like to do things. We can even come to measure our worth in terms of what we do. We have tried to prove to ourselves and to others what our convictions mean, through doing things. Certainly the scriptures tell us that we will be judged on the basis of what we have done, especially for those who are poor or hungry or who are without protection. But we can also fool ourselves into thinking that because we provide services then we are on the right track, even though our services may indeed be of a quality well below that which we should be providing.
What is the difference between the way in which we as a Christian community bring services and the way that is offered by the State or by other NGO’s? Certainly, other organizations can provide better services in a technical sense than we have been providing. They may well have greater resources to do so. We have to focus, however, on what is the essentially different contribution that we as believers are called to bring.
As a Religious Chapter, inevitably, you have been looking at the challenge of what you can effectively achieve with your current resources and human capacity and perhaps you have to recognise, painfully, that you may no longer be able to continue particular services. This is a realistic and valid form of evaluation. However, a Religious Chapter can never be reduced to just a rational analysis of activities and a revision of what can be achieved in terms of allocation of personnel and funding.
The true analysis and discernment of your Religious Chapter comes from the answer to the second question: “Christian Brother where to I come from?” Here it is vital to look at your founder, the contribution that he brought, and the vision that he espoused. Edmund Rice curiously, like many of the other great inspirers of the religious renewal, which took place in the Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, probably never envisaged the establishment of a religious order in quite the way that it evolved. In this, Edmund Rice was similar to those other great figures of the time like Mary Aikenhead, Catherine McCauley and others.
They had a creative vision of Christian individuals coming together in a loose federation of spirituality and community. These founders could see, even within the framework of a rule, a strong dimension of evangelical freedom, which would enable the members to respond with creativity to the needs of people and especially the religious needs of young people.
I have also to admit that each of these founders and their immediate successors had something else in common and that was their ability to quarrel with the Archbishop of Dublin of the time. The Christian Brothers even took Cardinal Cullen to task in Rome – and much worse they won! It is still important today there is space in our Church for those who wish in a true ecclesial spirit to challenge me and others in leadership to respond more effectively to the needs of the mission of the Church and indeed for me to challenge them. Edmund Rice was not a radical protester, but a genuinely concerned and convinced Catholic with a sense of Christian maturity. We do not need a conformist Church. We need a Church of mature and authentic common commitment and concern for the spreading of the Gospel. That Gospel is perennially new and must be presented in new ways. The Gospel is Good News and must always be presented with the enthusiasm, which is the inevitable characteristic of those who believe that they are the bearers of good news.
This brings me to the third question: “Christian Brother, who are you?” Edmund Rice had a clear vision of what sort of person he was to be. He was one who was totally committed to the religious education of young people. Yes, he was an educationalist and one who was interested in questions of educational theory and policy. But, above all, he was interested in the formation of young people in the faith, convinced that the most important contribution that could be brought to the education of young people was to introduce them to the experience of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
You can only be a Christian Brother of today if you follow where you came from, if you follow in the footsteps of Edmund Rice. You must through the way you live and witness, attract young men and women to the person of Jesus Christ through witnessing what Jesus means to you in your own life. There is a sense in which the history of the Christian Brothers and of the charism of Edmund Rice will never really be written by professional historians, but by how you live his charism day by day in the different worlds and cultures you may find yourself.
There is no catechetical programme that can replace the authentic witness of someone who really believes in Jesus and shows that faith in Jesus changes the way we live brings meaning and hope to our lives, mixed up and sinful though they may be.
Ireland is a changing society along with most of Western Europe. I could provide you with a wealth of statistics, which would show the challenges we have to face and the difficulties we encounter. I could give you a wealth of negative statistics, which would send a saint into despair!
Let us look at the challenge in a different way. Ireland is a remarkably young society. There are in the Archdiocese of Dublin more people under the age of four than there are over seventy. The challenge of authentic education is a therefore a vital one for the future of Ireland. Even though the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers may not be as present in schools as they were in the past, the witness of the brother who is a man of God, a man of prayer, a man of wisdom, a man who represents the caring embrace of the Church is vital. Young people search for the meaning of what is deepest in their lives. It is not easy for them. They need anchors in their lives, they need pointers to what is true and just and loving. They will only find that in a Church which not just talks about the new commandment of love, but a Church, which becomes truly the mirror of God’s love through the way we show our love of God and neighbour. This is the message of Jesus; if we hold firm to that message the nothing can disconcert us.
Further information Annette O Donnell, 087 8143462