Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Mass of his Episcopal Installation as Bishop of Derry

06 Apr 2014

Brief note to news editors

Reverend Robert Miller, Rector Church of Ireland Christ Church, which is situated close to Saint Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry city, along with his congregation warmly welcomed Bishop Donal McKeown who visited the church this morning before his Episcopal Installation as Bishop of Derry.  Reverend Millar offered his own prayers and that of his congregation to Bishop McKeown as he begins his new ministry in the dioceses.  Reverend Millar presented a Book of Psalms and extended his heartfelt good wishes to Bishop McKeown on this special day.

Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Mass of his Episcopal Installation as Bishop of Derry

When decisions had to be made about when today’s official ceremony would take place, there were considerations other than what scripture readings the liturgy would put before us.  But now that we have gathered here today, we have listened to the Word of God that, as Pope Francis said, is always unpredictable in its power.  And, he adds, we have to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.  (Evangelii Gaudium 22) So what might the Gospel of Lazarus have to say to us in the context of where we find ourselves?  How might the scriptural message incarnate itself in Derry this afternoon?

This Gospel for today is the third of the great signs of Jesus that out before us during Lent. In John’s Gospel, the author does not use the term ‘miracles’.  He refers to ‘signs’ that point to the divinity of Jesus – signs that some can read and that remain opaque to others.  We heard about the Samaritan woman, into whose apparently hopelessly barren life, Jesus pours springs of living water.  One, who was an outcast among her own people – who were themselves outcasts to their neighbours – is welcomed into the heart of the new people of God who will worship in spirit and in truth.  Then last week, we heard about the man born blind, one seen as punished for either his own sins or the sins of his parents.  But the blind man is able to recognise Jesus as the Messiah because of his deeds, while the religious leaders – who can see – are blind to the sign that they do not want to accept.  And today the dead man – the smelling untouchable one after four days in the tomb – becomes a sign of God’s love for the world in Jesus who is Lord even of death.

These Gospel passages that are proclaimed in the middle of Lent are not just nice passages about a smart Jesus and the stupid Pharisees.  In all of these stories, Jesus ventures into the ‘peripheries’ of life as Pope Francis referred to Samaria, the blind man and the dead. Jesus constantly moves into uncomfortable territory, where comfortable religion thought that grace could not be found.  The apparent hopelessness of those places was used as a wall to keep evil away from the pious and to reassure them of their holiness.  But Jesus was having none of that self-referential piety.  And he is a sign that those, who claim to be his followers, cannot seek refuge in cosiness or self-righteousness.

Our society knows many places where people feel discarded or beyond hope.  Many people feel prisoners of their past while others seem to glide on, presumed masters of their future.  That can happen because of neglect and abuse in its multiple forms; it can come from ill health or lack of satisfying chances to contribute to society; it can be reinforced by being labelled in education or social status; it can be born from the mistakes that they or others have made.  Pope Francis is quite explicit  that many people feel crushed by the economy of exclusion, scorned by the new idolatry of money, victims of a financial system which rules rather than serves and prisoners of the inequality which spawns violence (Cf Evangelii Gaudium para 53-60) In saying this he is not being modern or new.  He is simply reflecting the Jesus of the Gospel. And he is not just speaking about some foreign lands, his words can find echoes in our own country as well.

But the Jesus who calls Lazarus forth from the tomb believes that no-one can be buried behind the heavy rocks of mistakes or disadvantage.  God has a dream for each of us, for we are all made in the divine image and likeness.  Even when that image is blurred by sin and negativity, God sees the possibility for resurrection where others see neither divine solidarity nor human potential.  Thus, as Blessed Pope John Paul II was clear in his letter to the Church in Europe (2003), the key Gospel message that needs to be heard in this continent is one that speaks of hope.  Into a culture that feels battered by the economy, fearful of climate change, cowed by the fear of violence and sadly disappointed in the lack of integrity in many parts of the church, we are invited to speak of God’s hope for the world.

Indeed, that is the constant message of the Bible, which Pope Benedict called the love story between God and the world.  The God of creation still so loves the universe that the Lamb of God offers to take away the sins of the world and invites us to believe

– that our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit,

– that we are individually members of the Body of Christ,

– that the world which bore the divine in Jesus can reveal something of God and specifically in the bread, wine, water and oil; and that

– for example, the love of husband and wife can be a unique sign, a sacrament of Christ’s faithful passionate love for his people.

In this springtime of our society and our churches in Ireland, there is much work to be done if the new season is to bear mellow fruitfulness.  The ground needs to tilled, the weeds removed, the new seed planted.  We may not be the ones to reap the harvest.  But how we work today in the hard ground that characterises the peripheries, will determine where the next generation will be able to dream or just be trapped in a cycle of recurrent nightmares, devoid of hope and victims to shallow promises of salvation through bling and botox.

And the constant Biblical stories of resurrection – from Ezekiel’s dry bones to Book of Revelations – do not just speak of individual life after death.  In the face of the question that appeared years ago on a Belfast wall “is there life before death?”, the scriptures proclaim a God who wishes us to heave life to the full her and hereafter.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life and Christian spirituality is not some childish belief in a fairy godfather who will tell me the right lottery sequence or the Grand National winner – a silly God who panders to my plans. Christian faith does not tell of a God who rewards me for being good by making me wealthy and successful. The followers of Jesus are those who have experienced resurrection from the locked corners of their own life and who want to share that good news, especially with their fellow pilgrims.

As Christians of various traditions, we have an opportunity and a duty to be sources of hope, especially when political sclerosis seems to have afflicted out body politic.  I know that many politicians are embarrassed at the failure of the NI Assembly to focus on delivering the reforms that people need.  But, as Churches, we cannot merely criticise them.  We have the chance to play the part of critical friends, speaking on behalf of the many who feel that human need are being neglected in the service of political priorities.  There is no more room in society for self-referential politics than there is for a Church that falls prey to ecclesial introversion. (EG27)

But the biblical stories also bear witness to the permanent reality of Christ’s body, the Church, being resurrected, even when all thought it was done and dusted.  The old and new testaments are full of stories of unfaithfulness by God’s people, blindness to the concerns of the weak – and a God who still wishes to bring life where others thought that all life was gone.  Christians will be reborn if they are primarily concerned with the physical and spiritual tombs in which so many people feel entombed, trapped, living lives of quiet despair.  Our Church will not be able to grow if it is perennial preoccupied about its own internal affairs and problems.  It will thrive when we are faithful to the call to be a community that shares its life journey in joy.  A missionary church must ensure that all we do is channelled for the evangelisation of the world and not for our own self-preservation. (EG27). The joy of the life-giving Gospel will not be seen in a church that is buried in selfishness or smelling of ‘a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”’ (EG 85) God means to open our graves and raise us from our graves. God, in Jesus, wants us to Spirit that is living in us. (Romans 8:11)

We have walked the journey of Lent – from the temptations of Jesus through the glimpse of the divine in the Transfiguration.  Over the last three Sundays, we have seen Jesus bringing life into unexpected places – and, over the next fortnight, we face into how Jesus grapples with the worst that human violence and heartlessness can do to him.  It is only by grappling with the pain of being human that we can know resurrection here and hereafter.

Our faith calls us, not to glossy success by human standards but to walking the hard pilgrim way that leads to Calvary – where salvation is experienced by the foreigner Simon of Cyrene, the apparently silly woman Veronica, and the good thief. Spring bursts forth in rough ground where hope had seemed to die.

There are two weeks left in Lent. Perhaps the unruly word of God wants to remind us that the road to Calvary is not just a season of the year but a season of the heart. Renewing the face of the earth cost Jesus his life on the Cross. There is no cheap grace on this side of Resurrection. So we venture into Passiontide, not seeing it as a time to be endured before we tuck into the Easter eggs, but believing it to be a good time, a time of grace.

As we walk forward in Lent with the Lord of the outcast, the blind and the dead, may we have eyes to see the signs of his presence and the heart to rejoice in the hope. of his resurrection.

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678