Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry at Mass to mark 40 years of ACCORD in Derry Diocese

22 Oct 2014

 Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Steelstown

  • “Broken relationships break hearts. Broken homes break children’s spirits. You are part of the ministry of Jesus who wants people to be healed.”
  • “Never see yourselves as merely a counselling and training organisation that had Catholic roots away back in the past. Going that way would mean that you are merely offering a service rather than exercising a ministry.”

I like the rich readings that you have chosen for our celebration here this evening.

  1. Love appears in that beautiful second reading from St Paul to the Church in Corinth which was so riven by factions and pride. Marriage is a statement that ‘love changes everything’ and that nothing is more powerful or beautiful.
  2. That leads into the Gospel passage from the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In a fragile world, it is important to build one’s life on solid ground. A trusting, growing relationship of life-long commitment and fidelity is a great foundation for self-esteem, human maturity and the growth of children.
  3. And the first reading uses that important word ‘covenant’. God has made a binding agreement to be faithful to his people – and he invites us to see marriage, not just as a contract that can easily be broken but as a covenant. It is an invitation to mirror God’s fidelity to us – and St Paul will later say that marriage is a sacrament, a sign of Christ’s love for his bride the Church. God has a stake in marriage.

We have a rich theology of the body and of human marriage. It would be a huge loss if it were reduced to a contract, already armed with the self-destruct button of pre-nups or to a self-indulgent exercise in serial monogamy.

I have just three points to make about your work as we thank God for the last 40 years and look forward to the future and its challenges in the service of God and his people.

Firstly, people have grown up with distortions of the Gospel message and have perceived an excess of Catholic guilt. But the scriptures focus, yes, on the reality of sin. But the core point is that we are all made in God’s image and likeness and capable of great things – if only we would recognise where we have sought knowledge of good and evil in places where God has said we will not find that wisdom. ‘Believe in better’ is the divine call. The invitation is to be truthful about where we have acted as if we were fit for little. God wants nothing but the best for us. We bring our faults and fears, not to be burdened by them but in order to be unburdened of them by the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

So your work is not merely the pushing of some out dated Catholic morality that so many of our modern role models think would cramp their immature style. Your work is about helping people to have high expectations of themselves and of their relationships (through pre-marriage courses) and to face the problems that arise from sharing your home and bed with another person. Your work is about telling people that they are capable of great things, that problems may be more of an opportunity for growth than a burden to crush them.

Secondly, life is very difficult for young people. As Deirdre O’Rawe indicted to us in the Guildhall last Thursday, something approaching half of all British 16 year olds are not living with their two biological parents. I do not doubt that there are many problems that undermine the self-confidence of young people. Parents know that it is a very dangerous world out there where young people are in danger from others and from themselves. But, regarding stable healing relationships, it is very hard for them to believe in faithful love if they have not experienced what it means in their own homes. In some cases your pre-marriage courses are not just struggling with the young couples’ religious understanding of the sacrament – or with any idea of the possible sacredness of marital intimacy. The notion of recreational sex has already damaged any Christian theology of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. But many of them have family role models and public heroes, whose personal lives are deserts, focused on living the good life with no sense that it is possible to live a good life. Your pre-marriage course may be one of the few opportunities for them to hear adults speaking about a different form of relationship. Help them believe in a God and a Church that cares for the quality of their personal lives. Help them forgive themselves and others. Give them the spiritual and emotional intelligence to process all the pain of being human. These are skills that many of them will have never experienced before.

Thirdly, there has been a lot of talk about the first stage of the Synodal process in Rome. As you know, the next year is meant to be a time for conversations and dialogue around the world –leading up to a full Synod next Autumn. It is unfortunate that much of the media coverage suggested that the only points to be discussed were communion for the remarried and the recognition of same-sex relationships.

I think that the Synod is actually a great chance for big questions to be asked, not merely of Church but actually of civil society. The reality for numerous European countries is that they have more deaths than births. That is the case in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and other places. The big question for governments is not merely about remarriage or what is called ‘marriage equality’. The big challenge for many western governments is how to have fiscal and other policies that encourage the birth of children, rather than just arguing how to avoid having to give birth to babies through contraception or abortion. In fact some countries are now seeking ways to enable people to be assisted to take their own lives – and Belgium now allows that for children and minors as well. And then the next problem that they face is how to provide legal structures and incentives to ensure that, once babies are born, they grow up in a stable family environment, preferably with both biological parents playing a full role in their lives, and normally under the one roof. The future of our societies and the emotional welfare of children is always more important that the preferences of adults.  Children are people, not acquisitions. The present legal structures and vocabulary suggests that the most important priority is how adults live their lives, centred only on the right to exercise your rights. This focus on the present suggests little concern for the future.

So as you celebrate 40 years of ACCORD’s work in the diocese, I encourage you, not to see this as some diehard Catholic way of resisting the inevitable wave of progress. You are dealing with issues that affect the welfare of society and the future of our communities.

Broken relationships break hearts. Broken homes break children’s spirits. You are part of the ministry of Jesus who wants people to be healed. God has a dream for who and what we can become. You are telling people about that dream. You do it with compassion – pointing to the ideal but knowing that none of us is ideal. You accept the reality of people’s lives, but you do not tell them to stay there. You tell them that, with work, prayer and grace the mess of the past can become a solid foundation for the future. Jesus does not walk away from our human messes. He comes and takes part in it and walks with us through our Cavalries so that we can believe in Resurrection and not just in a sad tomb for our dreams.

Tonight we bring all that has been achieved in 40 years, the couples and families that have been enriched by the work of you and your colleagues, living and dead. We bring the challenges of the present and our hopes for the future. You are not just one more counselling organisation. You are part of the Church that wants to speak of love, to point to a solid rock on which people can build and the faithfulness of God to his covenant with the world. That covenant wants to bring healing and hope. Keep prayer as part of your ministry. Make space for grace in your ministry. Do not be afraid if you meet with opposition. That is often a sign that you are speaking too much truth! If you do so, you will continue to be a great blessing on the world and great servants of the common good. Never see yourselves as merely a counselling and training organisation that had Catholic roots away back in the past. Going that way would mean that you are merely offering a service rather than exercising a ministry.  The salt would quickly lose its taste. You are offering more because you speak of a God who loves and believes in people.

Thank you for your work. It is more needed now than ever. I look forward to being here for your 50th anniversary!

+Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry

  • This homily was delivered on Monday 20 October 2014.

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