Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Chrism Mass in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

17 Apr 2014

“A Church that seems to prioritise the welfare of the pious and the well-off will not bear witness to the Jesus who died on the Cross” – Bishop McKeown

Our Mass this morning is the only one celebrated in the diocese of Derry before the evening liturgy later on today.

Our Mass is not just the convenient ceremony where the sacred oils of Catechumens, the Sick and Chrism can be blessed. It speaks of much more than that. We gather as the Body of Christ – and the word Christ means ‘the Anointed One’ – in the parish church of our diocese – the cathedral – because Jesus has anointed us ‘with the oil of gladness’ as ‘a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father’ through our water and oil at Baptism and Confirmation. And we gather those among us, the clergy, who have been specifically called and anointed to minister in Christ’s name – the suffering Christ, the Risen Christ and the Christ who will come again. They have the task of ensuring that our communities of faith are good news to the poor, bind up hearts that are broken and comfort those who mourn. Here we both ask the priests to renew their vows to bear witness to Jesus by their lives and their work, and assure them of the support of all members of the Body of Christ. We all need the ministry of each other so that we can all be true to our sacred vocations.

The words of Pope Francis have given us much to think about over these last months. The Holy Father has been remarkably clear about who we are as Church in 2014 – and that has huge implications for how we are the People of God, and how Christ’s ministers should act in his name.

One point is very clear. Pope Francis has given us permission to acknowledge that the Church needs to be rebuilt. Not just repainted or tinkered with – but rebuilt. We live in a world that, in many places, no longer speaks or understands the language about God that we still use each day. The vocabulary of so many of our contemporaries is formed, not by Church but by popular culture. And the world, whose imagination is pickled in the language of silky shampoos, celebrities and salvation by self-indulgence, does not understand words like sin, salvation, sacrifice or sacrament. In that context, Pope Francis calls us to be a missionary Church, or – to quote Pope John Paul II in Ireland 35 years ago – to go out to our generation as if it were a new continent to be conquered for Christ.

That has huge implications for how we are priests and how we are the Church. Can I address myself first of all to our priests?

Like so many generations before us, we are launching out into new and uncharted waters. Many heroic priests have given long years of dedicated service. Some younger ones wonder how they will cope in the future with extra work and fewer colleagues. But, put out into the deep, Jesus says to His Apostles – and do not be afraid. I have no idea what the Church will be like in fifty years time – but that is not ours to worry about. The task of leadership in the Church is to witness to the joy of the Gospel and to let the Lord look after His Church.

That confidence in the Lord’s power gives us the freedom not to be afraid of looking forward rather than back and hankering after some mythical Golden Age in the past. Our Lenten readings about the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt showed that it is easier to yearn for the comfortable certainties of slavery than to walk forward across the burning desert that is the only way to the Promised Land. Pope Francis warns against “a tomb psychology (which) transforms Christians into mummies in a museum … In the end (we) are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness and slowly all zeal for the apostolate’’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 83).

I have no idea how we in Derry diocese are going to grow into a missionary Church that will be able to bring the Gospel message to the thousands of people in our parishes who have never really heard the message of Jesus. The current service model of providing masses, funerals, baptism and blessings on demand is not going to be possible into the future. So, in order to find God’s way forward in that reality, Pope Francis encourages each diocese confidently “to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” (EG 30). My task as bishop, he tells us, is ‘to always foster a missionary communion in this diocesan church… (and be ready) to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear” (EG 31). Yes, we needs lots more idealistic young people to commit their lives to the consecrated and ordained ministries. But their work will be to minister, not in some re-creation of a model of Church that worked fifty years ago, but rather in a new way of being Church where the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to God and never to us.

That should be a call to joyful ministry, generosity and self-sacrifice in the service of the world that God so loves that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world but so that through him the world might be saved. (Jn 3:16-7)

But if our new circumstances mean that priesthood will have to let itself be remade in the potter’s hands, then that also means that our parishes will have to evolve in this new missionary Church. We will have to move away from a customer model where most of the lay faithful were periodic consumers of the religious services provided by often over-stretched clergy. That is not a sustainable way forward.

A missionary Church will not come about, unless the people in our faith communities can learn to share their faith with others, including their children or their parents. There is no future for an educated population, whose faith is not constantly growing and engaging with the real problems of current society. That will mean each believer being committed to learning more about their faith, sharing their faith journey with their brothers and sisters, and loving their neighbours – especially the poorest and most disadvantaged – into knowing the compassion and mercy of God. A Church that seems to prioritise the welfare of the pious and the well-off will not bear witness to the Jesus who died on the Cross.

So our Chrism Mass this morning and every year is not just a time to bless the oils and for your hard working priests to renew their promises to be your servants in Jesus’ name. It is also an annual occasion for us as a diocesan Church to reflect on our mission as the Body of Christ – the Anointed One – and to be honest about where we are and where we might be going. Only the truth will set free energies to walk in faith as servants of the One, who came to be our High Priest before the throne of God.

Yes it is true that we face huge challenges. But we face them with Christ by our side, Christ before us and Christ behind us – Críost linn, Críost romhainn, Críost inár ndiaidh. He is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Our task is not to build the Church in our comfort zone but to allow the incarnate Christ to build His Church in our midst.


· Bishop Donal McKeown is the Bishop of Derry

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