Homily Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin at Mass to celebrate the canonisations of John XXIII and John Paul II

27 Apr 2014

Second Sunday of Easter 2014

Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin

Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, EMBARGO 27th April 2014

This morning, in this liturgy which is still full of the spirit of the Resurrection, we join with Christians around the world to celebrate the Canonisation of two Popes: Pope John XXIII, who was Pope from 1958 until 1963, and Pope John Paul II, who was Pope from 1978 until 2005.

I remember well the election of both Popes. In 1958, when I was just thirteen years old, my great fascination was with broadcasting. Ireland had at that time no television service. Telefís Éireann began in 1961…. My family had, however, a large television aerial perched on our roof, capable of receiving far-from-perfect BBC television images from Belfast (in a storm it would have been capable of bringing down the entire chimney on which it was fixed!) Much of my homework was done watching television and that’s what I was doing late one autumn evening in 1958 when BBC television interrupted its programming to bring the announcement of the new Pope.

When my parents returned home they asked me what my impressions were of the new Pope. I honestly had to say that I was slightly bewildered. After the severe and austere figure of Pope Pius XII, as we had known him through photographs and occasionally on filmed newsreels, this rather corpulent and jovial new Pope seemed to me anything but ‘Pope-like’. Pope John was in fact about to change what being ‘Pope-like’ meant. Pope John was to bring change to the Church and to change the impact of the Church on the world of his time.

Many years later, I was in Saint Peter’s Square for the announcement of the election of Pope John Paul II. Again, it was a surprise and very few could have imagined the extraordinary effect that this young Pope – he was only 59 years old at the time – was to have on the Church and the world. He was the first Pope to journey to so many countries in all continents. At the same time it should be remembered that he rarely missed a Sunday visit to a Roman Parish. He was very much the Bishop of Rome. By 1978 times had changed. Instead of the unsteady black and white images of the election of Pope John, the world’s media was present in a massive way at the election of Pope John Paul II, as indeed they would be 29 years later on the occasion of his funeral.

Times had changed for me also. At the time of Pope John Paul II’s election, I was a very junior Vatican official. Within a short time I was beginning to have closer contact with that Pope who was to ordain me Bishop in 1999 and at whose wish I was to become Archbishop of Dublin ten years ago, yesterday.

We give thanks to God for the gifts which these two Popes brought to the Church and for their incessant dedication and prayer for the Church at times of rapid change in the Church and the world. I am not going to attempt to give a biography of each of these Popes or to list their achievements. I am not going to respond to the polemics of those who caricature Pope John as Pope of the Vatican Council and Pope John Paul as someone who wished to roll back the Council. Those who talk like that fail to understand not just the two Popes, but the Council itself and the Church itself.

I remember in 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the Vatican Council, Pope John Paul called an extraordinary Session of the Synod of Bishops to celebrate the anniversary. I was responsible for the media briefing of English-speaking journalists on that occasion and the media story was that this was to be the great moment of the restoration of things past, of a turning back on the Vatican Council. Nothing was further from the truth. In effect that Synod was a vital moment in resetting focus on the understanding of the Vatican Council and on the concept of “the Church as communion” as a vital theme for understanding the Church.

That concept of the Church as communion was well illustrated in the First Reading of our Mass this morning. It describes the Church in its earliest days. That early Church is still today a model of what the Church must be and how the Church lives communion. “The disciples were faithful to the brotherhood”, the reading notes, to that spirit of communion which unites men and women who believe in Jesus Christ through fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, through the nourishment of prayer and through the celebration of and communion in the breaking of the bread.

Flowing from this theological communion the early Christians formed a communion of life, which was marked by a sharing of what they possessed and attention to all who were in need. This is the sense of communion which is at the root of the teaching of Vatican II, and of the teaching of Pope John Paul, and it has been made explicit again in our days in Pope Francis’ call for a poor Church at the service of the poor. This concept of communion is not an ideology or a political theology, but a reflection on the nature of the Church rooted in the mystery of the communion of the Blessed Trinity.

Pope Francis has also shown that just as in the early days of the Church, when the early Christian community “was looked up to by everyone”, still today the effectiveness of the Church comes not from any human plan or through complicated social processes but through the witness of believers and of a Church community which reflects the communion and the self-giving love of God himself.

This is what is meant by holiness. There is a danger that, with the entire world watching and observing, commenting and interpreting, we might become so caught up in the mechanics and externals of the canonisation event that we will fail to see what holiness really means. Saints are men and women who in their day to day ordinary lives try heroically to live the Christian life. Saints are not men and women taken out of human history and human realities, but are witnesses as to how we should try to live of humanity. They are not perfect witnesses. God alone is holy. In the Gloria of the Mass we proclaim daily “You alone are the holy one”. Pope Francis, who will today canonise two Saints, when asked about his own identity, without hesitation declared himself as a sinner. Humans live sanctity and holiness not in thinking that they have attained the holiness of God, but humbly proclaiming how far they still have to journey on the path to holiness.

One of the most significant texts of Vatican II – and perhaps sadly one of the most overlooked – is the Chapter in the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium on the “Universal Call to Holiness”. It stresses that one of the distinctive marks of the Church is that it is holy, but it is holy because of the action of Christ in his Church. The Church is holy because it offers to us who are sinners the means needed to attain holiness. Those means are the same ones that marked the early Christian community: prayer, the teaching of the Apostles, and the sacraments and the breaking of the bread. These then still today can lead us then on a path of Christian love which is visibly reflected in a way of life. The Vatican Council says that through this holiness then “a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society”.

We celebrate two new Saints. We do so thanking God for the gift of holiness they represent. But we must do so also through crying out daily – as we do in the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our sins” and in daily straining forwards to overcome our sinfulness, knowing that the Lord will be with his in his great mercy when we are at our weakest. ENDS