· Delivered in the Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland, Knock, Co Mayo in the Archdiocese of Tuam
“My first hope for the Church would be that we as Christians would remember who we are, to whom we belong and where we are going … another aspect of my hope for the Church and it is that we would be ‘encouragers’” – Bishop Doran
Some twenty years ago, a significant change took place in Rome. It was not of universal significance, but it was important enough for a small group of Irish seminarians. They were, for the first time, allowed to go home for Christmas. One of the more entrepreneurial students set about block booking flights, in the hope of getting his own flight free. He had just one concern: “Do you think it will be okay with the bishops?” he asked me. I told him I thought that the bishops might have more to do than to be worrying about the flight plans of seminarians. “Well, I was just thinking” he said, “… the whole future of the Irish Church …. on one airplane”.
This true story crossed my mind when I was asked to reflect today on “my hope for the future of the Church.” Each one of us, by virtue of our Baptism, has a contribution to make, not just to the future, but to the present life of the Church to which we each belong. We need to recognise, however, that our hope for the future of the Church is not rooted in any one person or group of people, however talented or committed they may be.
“Our hope is in The Lord.” That refrain crops up again and again in the psalms, the folk songs of the people of Israel. As it happens, it is also the motto of the Diocese of Elphin (Dominus Spes Mea) and it is written in stone over the door of my house. For the people of Israel “The Lord” meant the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is a faithful God “who never revokes his choice”, as Saint Paul reminds us in our second reading today. His love, once given, is never taken back.
That same God came to live among us and took on our human condition, in the person of Jesus Christ, who died and is risen. One of the earliest expressions of faith among the first Christians was the simple phrase “Jesus is Lord”. So, if you ask me where I place my hope for the future of the Church, then my answer would be that it is to Jesus Christ that we must turn first of all.
Jesus is the perfection of our humanity. He not only reveals God to us but, as we read in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, He reveals us to ourselves “and makes our supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). He shows us in His own humanity what we can be at our very best. Which of us would not wish to reflect in our own lives the compassion of Jesus, His integrity, His capacity to inspire and encourage; His obvious closeness to God.
In a particular way through His Resurrection, Jesus is our hope for the future. In Him, Saint John Paul II as pope wrote, we find the meaning of our existence (Redemptor Hominis 11). At Mass, as the wine is poured into the chalice, the priest prays quietly “through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity”. This sharing in the divinity of Christ begins, not when we die, but when we are Baptised, because in Baptism, we become members of Christ’s body, and we begin to live with the new life of the Resurrection.
I am not one of those people who looks at the past through rose tinted spectacles. The past was marked by poverty, war and corruption, just as the present is. The centenary of the First World War is something to be marked with respect, but not celebrated. There are, however, some good things about the past that it would be good for us to reclaim. There was, for example, a time when it was generally accepted that God, who is the source of life, was also the One who gave meaning to our human existence. We understood God be the end towards which human life, of its very nature, was directed. He held us continually, as the Psalm says, “in the palm of his hand” (Isaiah 41). I think one of the challenges that face us today, not just in our society – but even amongst us who call ourselves Christian – is that we tend to think that the world revolves around us, that we are the ones who give meaning to our own existence. It would be worth asking ourselves how big a part the goal of eternal life plays in the way we focus our daily lives. With all of this in mind, my first hope for the Church would be that we as Christians would remember who we are, to whom we belong and where we are going.
Most people have certain phrases or expressions that they use all the time. I remember one of the priests in our parish when I was growing up, who was known by many as “Father if-you-like”, because almost every second sentence in his homilies end with the expression “if-you-like”. Saint Paul uses the expression “in Christ” over two hundred times in his letters, but it is not just a mannerism. He uses these two words to express the way in which people who really believe in Jesus and in his Resurrection are transformed by their faith. “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5). There is nothing vague or nebulous about being in Christ. It is concrete and it has very real implications for the way we live. To the extent that we are “in Christ”, then each one of us carries hope in our hearts and becomes a source of encouragement to others within the community in which we live.
This brings me to another aspect of my hope for the Church and it is that we would be “encouragers”. You will possibly be aware that one of those who worked most closely with Saint Paul was Barnabas. He was the one who wanted to give Paul a chance after his conversion at Damascus, when other members of the Christian community looked on him with suspicion. The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (cf Acts 4). Later on, Barnabas shared in Paul’s missionary journey and we are told how he and Paul encouraged the believers or, literally, put fresh hearts in them (Acts 14).
The characteristic spirit of our age is individualistic. There is a tendency to relate to others in terms of what they can do for me. We are inclined to be consumers and our children are becoming consumers. This, if we are not careful, can even spill over into how we are in Church. In every one of our parishes there are people who give most generously of themselves, using their gifts in all kinds of service. Obviously there are times in people’s lives when they are more or less able to offer their time and their energy. But there are some who come only to be served, in much the same way that they would go to the local take-away. They are the people who talk about “my seat” and “my Mass” and who resist anything which does not suit them personally. They may be very pious people, but that is not what it means to be “in Christ”.
One of the things you may have noticed in the second reading today is what you might call Saint Paul’s “missionary love” for the whole of humanity; his desire for the salvation of all. He is delighted that the pagans have heard the good news, if only because the Jewish people were unwilling at first to receive it. Then he expresses his hope that the Jewish people, spurred on by what they see in the pagan converts, will also come to participate fully in the mercy of God, who “never revokes his choice”. How do you feel about that? How does it speak to you?
To me it says that our mission, “in Christ” is not just to live our own personal relationship with God in a kind of “spiritual cocoon”, but to actively seek the good of all. We are called to be daughters and sons of encouragement, as Paul and Barnabas were. What would that mean in practise?
· I think it would mean, for a start, that more people would want to have a deeper understanding of their faith, so that they could share it with others and so that they could give an account of themselves to anyone who asks the reason for their faith (1 Peter 3). The huge demand for catechesis at the International Eucharistic Congress in Ireland in 2012 suggests that there is a real hunger out there.
· I think it would mean that when people are asked to undertake some ministry in the Church, they would be more inclined to say “why not” than to ask “why me”? The specific vocations of priesthood and religious life would grow more naturally out of such a culture of service. If we are “in Christ” then, in his name, we will invite others to be disciples.
· It think we might be more inclined to ask ourselves what we can do to welcome and encourage those who are hanging on by their fingernails or those who, though culturally Catholic, no longer participate in the life of the Church.
These are just a few examples of how life “in Christ” might be different – and more hope-filled. As we are here in Knock it seems appropriate to give the last Word to Mary the Mother of God. She saw her call to serve as a gift, which lifted her up. It was not an imposition. Our Lady was a woman of the “Yes” and her “Yes” gave Christ to the world. What form will your “Yes” take?
Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin
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