Saint Conleth’s Parish, Newbridge, 11th May 2015
In our first reading we have seen how Saint Paul continues on his journeys establishing new communities of faith in Jesus Christ and preaching the message of Jesus in new areas. He is moving closer on his journey to what was the political and cultural centre of the known world. On this occasion Paul enters into a Roman colony, in fact he enters Europe for the first time.
The message of Jesus Christ can find roots in any culture and can bring the fruits of the saving message of Jesus Christ into any culture. How was the message of Jesus transmitted by Saint Paul and how did it take root in so many different communities? Our reading is full of interesting details.
What can we say about Philippi, this Roman colony? What was its religious culture? It would seem that the Jewish community – to which Paul on his journeys would normally go on the Sabbath to pray – was a very small one. Indeed it seems that there was really no Synagogue in the town. Paul had to go along the river to a place outside the gates where there was not so much a Synagogue, but a small, probably open, space where the community gathered to pray.
It would also seem that the community of believers was not strong and was limited just to some women; their menfolk obviously did not consider prayer as something important for them. This is a community which has similarities with many of our communities today: on the periphery of the life of the broader community, a small group not really embracing fully any more the wider community.
What does Paul try to achieve in this situation? Are there lessons that we might learn? Paul encounters this devout woman called Lydia, who was in the purple-dye trade. Producing purple-dye was a complex and time consuming trade. It was however a very prestigious and profitable business involving the preparation of precious cloth for ceremonial clothing or for home decoration. Lydia was certainly a very wealthy woman and indeed a free woman. You will note that there is no reference to her husband – who may have in fact died. She is clearly the owner of a business and had a house of her own and a household. For the times she was certainly a person of great stature.
Lydia listens to the words of Paul and her heart is opened to understand and accept the teaching of Jesus and she and her household were immediately baptised. She is the first known European to have been converted by Saint Paul.
It is important to understand what household means. Household here means Lydia’s extended family, including her immediate relatives and all those who lived as part of that wider family life and activity. On the periphery of a small and weary town, the Lord speaks and sets in motion something important. And he begins with a family!
Family must become again today a real focus for evangelisation in our often weary Church which finds it difficult at times to know where it is going. There was a sense in which in Ireland “the Church” taught married couples what marriage was about, whereas for the Church married people are not just passive recipients of teaching. The sacrament of marriage is not just a blessing for a man and a woman on their wedding day. The sacrament of marriage is a sacrament given – like every sacrament – for the building up of the Church. Christian married couples have a calling and a special charism within the Church which should make them active protagonists in fostering the values of love and life, of permanence and fruitfulness, which are the essentials of marriage life. Where that charism of Christian married couples based on the sacrament of marriage is not allowed to flourish, then the Church is deprived of one of its strengths.
If we make space in our communities for the authentically lived experience and struggle of spouses to be heard, then we will find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of Church teaching. The Church must listen to married couples. The Church must listen also to where God is speaking through the witness of those Christian married couples who struggle and fail and begin again and fail again. The experience of failure and struggle cannot surely be irrelevant in arriving at the way we proclaim the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. The sacraments are there not just for the saints: they are also a medicine for those who are weak.
The Church must reach out to encounter families where they are, but that does not mean that you simply leave people where they are. The Church speaks of a law of gradualness, not in the sense that “anything goes”, but that we can be led, by the help of grace, to move step-by step towards living our Christian vocation more fully.
We have to reach out to people in what for the Church are irregular situations. We will attain more by reaching out rather than by simply condemning. We have to learn from the pedagogy of Pope Francis which is what I call “a pedagogy of pastoral patience”.
In his closing words at the end of the Synod last October, Pope Francis himself described the basis for this pedagogy of patience quoting his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI:
“This is the supreme rule of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, like that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, given to all, attentive to those close to us and solicitous for those who are distant, gentle towards the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope.”
This pedagogy of pastoral patience is a task for every parish. The Synod of Bishops stressed that the pastoral care of marriage and the preparation of marriage is a task for each parish. Unfortunately many parishes have simply farmed out that task to agencies and the link between marriage and the parish is weakened. The Synod also stressed that that pastoral care of marriage and the family should be an itinerary of faith which should be an integral part of our catechesis and in the faith education of young people. In today’s society young people will inevitably be influenced by the popular culture on marriage and the family. Our catechesis will in many cases inevitably be counter cultural. Most young people, however, aspire to a fulfilled married and family life as perhaps the most significant component of their future happiness. A catechesis which ignores or down plays marriage and the family would in fact a betrayal of our young people.
Marriage and the family are complex social realities. Marriage is not simply about “two individuals who are in love”. The Christian teaching about marriage stresses the complementary relationship between male and female, which is not just a social construction. Marriage is also about a stable and loving relationship where children are generated and educated. Family is also an intergenerational reality. The stability of marriage contributes in a unique way to the stability of society. It is important in our discussions about marriage and the family in these days that people should stop for a moment and reflect carefully on what marriage and the family mean within society and on what a change in our understanding of marriage across society would entail.
Let me come back to our reading. Lydia and her household hear the call of Jesus and are baptized. What happens next? Lydia invites Jesus to her home. Once again we see the importance of the home and the family as a starting point for evangelisation. What does that mean concretely? What would a parish which puts a focus on the family as protagonist look like?
We have too often looked on renewal of parish life in terms of organizational structure. This is certainly not unimportant. But it could leave families still in a passive role and place structures as being more important than charism. Structures are important if they serve evangelisation, but they may also leave us in a situation in which structures make things run better in serving a Church, but a Church which remains fundamentally just as it was. Pope Francis warns against an inward looking Church, an auto-referential Church, rather than a missionary Church.
The first thing that a family-inspired pastoral care would do is to empower families to carry out their vocation. That vocation is about love and about fidelity and about the transmission and nurturing of life and faith. Such a model of pastoral care should enable believers to develop spirituality of family life and above all help families in that vital task of transmitting the faith to their children. Every parish should ask itself: “what are we doing to enhance and empower families?” Every parish must ask itself: “What are we doing to help parents pass the faith on to their children?” What services do we have? What resources of family spirituality do we provide?
I remember on taking up office as Archbishop of Dublin being surprised at the number of requests that I received for permission to celebrate mixed marriages. The procedure was that the couple would write to me and then the canon lawyers would prepare a document authorizing the marriage and then sending that document to the priest who was to assist at the wedding.
I found it strange that I would reply to a couple only in such an indirect way, so I decided to reply to each couple and send them a small prayer book which would help them to initiate their Christian married life. I sent my secretary to find a suitable prayer book and interestingly at that time we could not find one. We now have a family prayer book prepared by the Episcopal Commission for the Family: but do we have that wider range of spiritual literature aimed at enriching married Christians in the living out their charism?
We celebrate this novena in the Easter season and we remember how Jesus with his resurrection opened a path of new life for us. The Christian message of resurrection is not simply a cherished personal spiritual idea. It is something that must change individual Christian believers and change the community of believers. Resurrection is not just about a promise of future eternal happiness; it is about the meaning of life today. The new life of Jesus is for us a path to fullness of life which then must burst out into a life of sharing. Sharing means not just giving something of what we possess: it is about striving to see that every man woman and child in our community can live their life to the fullness, just as we can. We are called to foster a sharing of opportunity and hope. Our homes must be places which reflect that sense of hope.
The vocation of the family is, as I said, about love and about fidelity and about the transmission and nurturing of life and faith. These are in fact fundamental values not just for the Church, but for the strengthening of society. The Christian message of love is not something just personal and removed from the realities of day-to-day life or irrelevant to the good of society. When we as individuals and as a Church fail to witness to love, when we allow love to be compromised and weakened, we damage the Church as an institution, but we also contribute to the weakening of the message of Jesus in our world and we contribute to a weakening of what enduring and caring love is about.
When Jesus leaves his disciples he reminds them, as we heard in the Gospel reading of yesterday, that his legacy to them is the great commandment, the commandment of love. Unfortunately we have for too long tended to look on commandments more in terms of “thou shalt not” rather than seeing what is the fundamental call which lies behind the negative indications contained in the commandment.
The Christian faith is not a faith of rules and norms. It is about a person, Jesus Christ. Renewal in the Church has to begin with renewal of our knowledge of Jesus and who he is. It is about establishing not an intellectual interest of what Jesus taught, it is about a friendship with Jesus, knowing that he loves us and wishes that our faith should not be shaken.
Catholic education cannot limit itself to some vague concept of religious education, more or less limited to the sociology and the history of religion and some generic debate of the teaching of Jesus. One can never understand the teaching of Jesus, if you do not establish a bond not with a set of values, but with a person. Faith in the person of Jesus must be allowed to fascinate us and guide our lives in the world in which we live. Like Lydia, a sign of our conversion and the consolidation of our conversion, must always be that we invite Jesus into our home, especially though our homes being places of prayer. I could talk about family prayer for a long time. All I can say this evening is that in our world today we have to begin again with small steps at simple moments: prayers before meals, prayers at the end of the day, prayers for special intentions.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit will make them his witnesses. He tells them that “so that your faith may not be shaken”. There is a danger, in the face of so many challenges to faith and to the Christian understanding of marriage and family, that we may become resigned and pessimistic. The Spirit is given to us so that we can be free and strong in our witness.
When we are tempted to become unsure about our faith we can turn to Mary, Mother of the Church, image of true discipleship, to whom we turn this evening as Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She will respond to our own personal needs, but she will also respond to the needs of the Church on its journey in time turning weary congregations, as happened on the journeys of Saint Paul, into new communities of faith, built in a special way on the charism of Christian parents and Christian families.
Further information: Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications, Archdiocese of Dublin.