Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Holy Thursday Mass of Chrism

02 Apr 2015

· “We have 207 Masses in English each weekend around the diocese. But I think many would struggle to state clearly what it is we stand for, what the core of our message is and what we see as our role in 2015” – Bishop McKeown

Tonight’s evening liturgy focuses on the events of the first Holy Thursday – the Last Supper – with the very explicit link between the washing of the disciples’ feet and the Eucharist. But, perhaps strangely, the Mass of Chrism this morning stands back a bit from the individual events of Holy Week and seeks to put what happened in those fatal days in Jerusalem into a much bigger context. The Gospel of today actually maps out that context in the words used by Jesus right at the beginning of his public ministry.

So what did He see Himself as coming to do, throughout His ministry and culminating in Calvary and Resurrection? He claims before His fellow citizens in Nazara that the words of Isaiah are being fulfilled in that the Spirit of God has come upon Him, sending Him to bring Good News to the poor, freedom to captives, comfort and gladness for the mourning. That is clear and simple – and those who follow Him can have no other agenda.

But Jesus’ use of that passage causes consternation in the synagogue. Why? He was upsetting the comfortable status quo of religious practice, where He saw heavy burdens being placed on people and a Pharasaic lack of integrity. They could see the small points of the Law but missed the whole purpose of the Law. He was coming to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

So we could spend a while this morning on an inspiring theology of Jesus our High Priest – but I believe that this is not a time for some reassuring words. Rather, we are invited to engage with the Gospel’s uncomfortable Jesus who did not want to promote the status quo in His own time. If you want to be a fisher of people you have to push the boat out.

After all, we have to acknowledge across all the Churches that the current way of being Church may still attract considerable numbers of people – but it’s failing to engage with the reality of many people’s lives and is not permeating the heart of society.

As we search for ways forward a few things from today’s readings strike me.

Firstly, Jesus is able to state clearly who He is and what His mission is. He is quite open that He wishes to spread the Good News about human dignity and the forgiveness of all sin to those places and people who find it hard to believe that their lives are lovable or forgivable. In Jesus, God wishes to heal the broken heart of the world.

As the Church in the diocese of Derry we need to be clear about what has to change if we are to be a missionary Church. Priests and parish communities work tremendously hard – we have 207 Masses in English each weekend around the diocese. But I think many would struggle to state clearly what it is we stand for, what the core of our message is and what we see as our role in 2015. If we have no clarity what we are trying to do in God’s name, then it is not surprising if others will not know.

And we will be clear about those things only if we are communities who pray, not just separately but together, making communal space for grace and discerning which uncomfortable roads we have to follow. Thus it is hard to justify a parish not moving towards some form of parish Pastoral Council – or a diocese not having a diocesan equivalent. Otherwise we end up exhausted, doing what we have always done and expecting that to be effective in ways that it has not been up until now.

Pope Francis is clear in that it is the bishop’s job to lead that process by listening to everyone and not simply to those who would tell (me) what (I) would want to hear. (EG31) We have heard the mission statement of Jesus. We have to be focussed, not on what we like or on those who like our current offer – but on the evangelisation of everybody, everywhere, from Malin to Desertmartin and from Coleraine to Drumquin. That may sound a huge task – but it is the sort of mission that Jesus set for Himself and for us. This is not a structural renewal, merely involving clustering of parishes. It is a question of how the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures are suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for (our) self –preservation (EG27). At that means grappling with the challenges that face the Synod on the Family next October. Orthodoxy without compassion means becoming like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. Compassion without orthodoxy means we stand for nothing and fall for anything. In both circumstances, it is not surprising that outsiders would find it hard to see clearly the Jesus of today’s Gospel in His Church.

Secondly, in the carrying out of God’s mission, the Scriptures constantly speak of a God who uses and trusts people. The Prophets were a mixed bunch and the Apostles were a motley crew. We know from the writings of the New Testament that the early Christian communities were not some group of ideal believers. They were composed of people that argued, sinned and made mistakes. But we believe in a God who believes in us. The God who made us in the Divine image and likeness still sees the Church as the Body and the Bride of Christ – even when we cannot see that, or behave as if we did not believe it. We can all say, with Jesus, that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us. That applies to our priests as well. They can be selfish, bad mannered, thoughtless and odd. Some priests and bishops have made terrible mistakes. But I still believe that these are men who do their best to preach the Gospel by word and deed, and celebrate the sacramental mystery of God’s work in Jesus. Some have had to struggle with addictions, mental and physical illnesses and with bad errors of judgement in their lives. They can move between a youthful enthusiasm for Christ and the doubts that come from apparent failures or a punishing workload. None of us knows what demons others have to fight in their lives. Before Go, we are all sinners – and the saints are those who know it but are not crushed by that awareness. But, at heart, they are good men who could be living a much less pressurised life in another job. I pay tribute to each and every one of them. God can work best, not through the apparently most gifted but only through those who know their failings and who bring them to the foot of the Cross.

Thirdly, Jesus had a very personal relationship with each person that He met. That was true even when He was hanging on the Cross, where the Gospels tell us that He spoke to the Good Thief and to His Mother and Saint John. Each of can say – the Spirit of the Lord is upon ME, because the Lord has anointed ME. But that is no excuse for the believers reflecting the individualism that permeates our culture. Thus, arguments about marriage legislation or rights to provide or not provide services are not just about me and what I am entitled to do. All that we do in Church and in society is linked. Society is not a collection of individuals but an organism where my advantage or the assertion of my rights does affect everybody. That applies in everything from Church to marriage to education. No-one is an island. I am my brother and sister’s keeper. Thus, in Church we celebrate our unity in the service of Christ’s mission. Clergy and parishes are not individual units doing their own thing. Through our membership of the one Body of Christ, we are partners in the one mission. We preach – not our ideas – but what Jesus teaches through the Church. We serve the challenging message of the Gospel, not our individual popularity nor our parish pride. Our human and financial resources are there for the mission and not just for premises. Living a consistent message about how we celebrate the sacraments and what we teach about morality is possible, when all of us allow the Spirit of the Lord to be upon us. But there is no Church unless it spends time on its knees and – like Jesus in the Gospel – allows the Sabbath gathering to nourish us on our journey. At this only Mass celebrated in the diocese today, Holy Thursday morning, we recommit ourselves to service within the Body and mission of Jesus, in His name and through His strength alone.

Today we begin the three days of high drama in the life of Jesus, concluding with His Resurrection. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty … to Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Notes for Editors

Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. The Diocese of Derry includes almost of all of County Derry, parts of counties Donegal and Tyrone, and a very small area across the River Bann in County Antrim.
Holy Week Chrism Mass – or Mass of the Oils – is the celebration of the Eucharist at which priests and representatives from every parish in the diocese gather with the bishop for Mass, during which Holy Oils are blessed for the coming year and priests renew their priestly service. The Chrism Mass is a clear expression of the unity of the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ, which continue to be present in the Church.

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