Homily of Bishop McKeown for the Mass of dedication of the altar and solemn reopening of Saint Mary’s Church, Coolcalm (Desertmartin)

01 Sep 2014

“Even though we mark twenty years since the 1994 ceasefire, we are still not a society at peace with itself. Leaving aside the suffering caused by the economic crisis and the fact that poor always suffer most,

NI is still a place where confrontation rather than conciliation is the name of the game. Political attempts to deal with the past and with how we celebrate it have failed to deliver much progress” – Bishop McKeown

It is good to be in this corner of the diocese for a happy event such as we celebrate today – the solemn re-opening of this church, which had to be restored in 1974 after it was bombed the previous year.  Though this building was opened in 1860 – and had been built in those very difficult years after the Famine – the name of Desertmartin indicates that this is a place with a long tradition of faith.  Most of these early places with the name ‘desert’ were in isolated – and sometimes very beautiful – places where people could search for the mystery of God in quiet, simplicity and beauty. Thus the history of the church in this area is conditioned by the events that we have all experienced in our lifetime – but we have roots that go back much further; and these roots, set in deep fertile soil of faith, can continue to bear rich fruit in our own day.

Last Sunday, I was in another deiseart, Desertegney in the parish of Buncrana – from which parish this beautiful altar has come. There we wrestled with the words of Jesus to Peter – on this rock I will build my Church. But while keeping that conviction that the Church is built on the rock of Peter’s faith, and that the successor of Peter has a central role in what the Church is, today’s Gospel makes it very clear to us that Peter still had a lot to learn! The task that Jesus gives Peter is not to rule with power and pomp – but will involve taking up His Cross and following Him.  Pride – or some notion that we know better than God – is a dangerous blockage to growth in the church.  The Church is the Body of Christ; it belongs to God and not to us. Our task is to seek what God wants for his people – and never to be blinded merely by what would suit us. Jesus came to cure our blindness, not to canonise it. If the popular way forward was always to be assumed to be God’s way, then the prophet in the first reading would not have described faithfulness to God as the making him a laughing stock and the butt of everyone’s jokes. It was precisely this tendency to take the easy way that Jesus rejected at his Temptations. We are invited to choose the foolishness of the Cross. What seems the sensible option is very often not God’s way.

So what are some of the areas where we might follow Peter’s instincts and avoid being told by Jesus – the way you think is not God’s way but man’s ?

Firstly, let’s look at Pope Francis. What really strikes me about him is not so much the cheerfulness simplicity of his style, as the fact what we all thought was a cynical and selfish world has responded so positively to him. Despite almost drowning in everything from brutality to rubbish, very many people still yearn for idealism and for beauty. Even though our adult society keeps telling them that all can hope for is fun and lack of responsibility, many young people still want to believe that they are capable of great things. A couple of generations ago, we talked more about the cross and sacrifice – and thousands of young, idealistic and talented young people left this island to work for the good of the developing world. Irish missionaries are renowned around the globe for their huge generosity and commitment. Go to those countries now and as often as not, the young Irish will be known as much for their misbehaviour as for their service of the poor. Can we develop faith communities where the message of generosity, service and love will proclaimed as the ideal over and above the voices that scream, Obey your thirst; Don’t cook, just eat; You’re worth it? In a world which tells them that beauty is skin deep and that everything is of passing importance, can we help them to measure themselves against what they value, rather than just valuing what other people can measure? In a world where too many people are dying for want of a reason for living, can we show them that life is not full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – as Hamlet says? (Hamlet, Act v, Sc v).

Secondly, in July of last year, I met Pope Francis. Since I guessed that he would not know where Randalstown was, I told him I was from Belfast! “Belfast, Fire!” was his response! We have come through a long and difficult period in our history, marked by everything from murder and destruction to bombs placed in this church and in Knocknagin Primary school. Even though we mark 20 years since the 1994 ceasefire, we are still not a society at peace with itself. Leaving aside the suffering caused by the economic crisis and the fact that poor always suffer most, NI is still a place where confrontation rather than conciliation is the name of the game. Political attempts to deal with the past and with how we celebrate it have failed to deliver much progress.

It would be easy for regular churchgoers to stand on the side-lines and criticise others. But what might ‘taking up the cross’ mean for people of faith in 2014? If Jesus broke down barriers between Jew and Gentile, between the religious leaders and the sinners, what would he be asking all our churches to do in order to ease the pain of those who suffer most? While there have been many great people of faith who said and did generous things, I believe that there is a lot more than our church leaders and church communities could do to ease the itch rather than just scratch it.  Are those who go to church regularly and pray at the forefront of seeking to build bridges and deal with the hurts? I am not talking about building church unity or prayer together. There is the cross of dealing with local contentious issues – and risk of getting mocked or criticised for trying that. Whatever our political agenda may be, people of faith are called to give priority to healing and reconciliation. We may have had twenty years of ceasefires and decommissioning on our streets. That is huge progress. But in the second reading Saint Paul tells us Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. Jesus asks us to have ceasefires and decommissioning in our hearts. And that does involve carrying a cross. But there is no other way to be credible disciples of His.

Finally, you have now a beautiful bright church, worthy of both the dignity of God and the long history of faith in this area. That is has taken a huge amount of work on the part of many in the parish – and it is a tribute to your sense of community and your confidence in the future. But Pope Francis has told us that we cannot rest on our laurels. Even though Jesus wanted to build his Church on Peter, Pope Francis writes that all parts of the Church including “the papacy and the central structures of the universal Church… need to hear the call to pastoral conversion” (Ev Gaudium 32). Some people suggest that, if only we had married priests or the ordination of women, then we could potter along as usual. I believe that the Pope is calling us to a much more in-depth review of how we are church, whether in Rome or in Desertmartin. Peter had to learn from Jesus that his ideas were not God’s. Later Peter had to repent after betraying Jesus. Later still, he clashed with Saint Paul as to what should happen to non-Jews, who wished to follow Jesus.  We will grow as a church only if we remember that we are all disciples, learners at the feet of Jesus, rather than fully formed believers. Jesus was very hard on any form of religious superiority on the part of the Pharisees in any generation. We have made many mistakes in the past. We need to learn from them rather than pretend that they did not happen. We have to recognise the plank in our own eyes before we try to help others to see.

This is big year for the parish. You have had an ordination of Fr Sean McGuigan at the other end of the parish. Now we celebrate today. Continue to make this beautiful church the heart of the parish. Keep it a place of prayer and adoration, a place of welcome and celebration, make it a place where the crosses and failings of this world meet the abundant mercy and healing of God. Make it a place where young people and their families hear the call to be heroic for the sake of Jesus. Make it a place where, as Pope Francis writes, we accept the unruly freedom word of God (EG 22) that invites us to respond to the love of God who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others, (EG 39),that word (which) is always beyond us… we are neither its masters or owners, but its guardians, heralds and servants (EG 146).

And then, almost unbeknownst to ourselves, God can use us to be an enormous blessing on the world. And people of future ages will look back and give praise for the generosity, graciousness and courage of the people of this generation who took us the Cross and followed Jesus, despite the many pressures to reject the Cross. And then God will make this building a teach an phobail and a gate of Heaven in the image of Mary, whose name this church bears.

We finish with a prayer by Pope Francis, addressed to Mary: Mother of love, help us to bear radiant witness to communion, service, ardent and generous love, justice and love of the poor, that the joy of the Gospel may reach the end of the earth….. Mother of the living Gospel., pray for us. Amen. Alleluia! (EG288).

Notes for Editors

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is the Bishop of Derry.  Saint Mary’s Church, Coolcalm (Desertmartin), in the Diocese of Derry, was built 1860, bombed 1973, re-opened 1974 and now re-opened again.  Over the last months it has undergone:

–          The replacement of the temporary altar with a marble altar taken from the Convent of Mercy in Buncrana (Co Donegal, Derry Diocese)

–          The development of a new sanctuary and internal redecoration

–          The building of a new porch.



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