St Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry 14 June 2015
One of the great advantages of having the Liturgy celebrated in English has been the exposure of us all to the riches of the scripture readings in our native tongues. Over the three year cycle, we now can hear the Word of God from a huge variety of biblical books. So regular churchgoers probably know much more about the scriptures than they give themselves credit for.
For our ordination Mass today, we have heard the same readings that have been and will be proclaimed in hundreds of different languages around the world, in Catholic churches and in other churches who use the same cycle of readings. So what might our scripture readings say to us as we gather here to ordain Seán Ó Donnell for priestly ministry in the diocese of Derry?
The first thing that strikes me about the first and Gospel readings is the robust truth that all sowing is done in hope. If you don’t believe me, ask farmers. We mightn’t have tornados or tsunamis – but bad weather or blight can ruin a harvest, even in this country. The one who sows is not the author of the growth nor is the burgeoning of the seed something that the human being creates or controls.
Seán, you are being ordained to sow the seed in hope, for you are stepping out in a time when many will say that the ground is not very receptive for word of God. Jesus tells us elsewhere that some seed will fall on rocks or among briars or in shallow soil. The Christian’s voice may sound thin amid the clamour of other voices. Your ministry may be one where the immediate fruit can seem scarce. Of course that has been the norm for the missionary Church over the last 2000 years. Your trustful sowing will itself be a witness to the power of God, even in the depths of winter when the soil is hard and frozen. But unless our generation finds new way to sow in hope, unless each of us grows where we are planted, then there will be no-one to speak to the next generation about the love, forgiveness and healing that Jesus wishes to announce to every age. And unless our generation sows with energy and trust in God’s unimaginable providence, then we will betray not just our contemporaries but also the God in whose love we trust. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle (EG 85). You can sow in hope because you know that the Lord of the harvest is in control. You or others will reap when the harvest time comes.
And the Gospel is clear that the size of the seed is no measure of what that seed might become in God’s own good time and grace. St Paul tells us elsewhere that one may sow and another water – but that it is God alone who will give the growth (1 Cor 3:6-7). It is all God’s work. (2 Cor5:18) It is the God, who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow (Ez 17:24), who – as Mary will later tell us – casts the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly (Lk 1:51). Seán, sow generously in season and out of season. Leave worries about the growth to the Lord. There is wisdom in the saying that ‘worry is the darkroom where negatives develop’.
Secondly, you are not just sowing in hope. You are called to be a sower of hope. That divine hope is not just wishful thinking that things might maybe work out ok. Christian hope is the conviction that no matter how things work out, everything will be ok. Easter Sunday says that, even when Jesus had taken upon himself all of the crushing sin of the world on Calvary, the worst that human beings would do to one another could not destroy God’s dream of the world. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is more good than bad in the world, more grace than sin, more hope than despair. Our modern culture may proudly boast of great sporting events, wonderful talent competitions and massive technological advances. But we also live surrounded a quiet despair that our economy is built on shaky foundations, that uncivilised hordes from somewhere else might take our hard-won wealth, that life may be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act 5: scene v). In the high levels of addiction and mental illness, we sense the dread that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.” Our Church and society need to hear hope.
In bringing that hope, all of our ceremony today underlines that we are ambassadors for Christ(2 Cor 5:20) and not for ourselves. You bring Christ’s message, not your own. You will do sacred things in Christ’s name. Be available for him to use you. You will often be asked to enable children and adults to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. You are taking on the role of announcing that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself… and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.(2 Cor 5:19). You are called to make available the Christ who said that he is the bread of life and that the person who eats this flesh and drinks his blood will live forever. You will have to witness as husbands and wives exchange vows of perpetual faithfulness so that their love may be a sign and sacrament to the world of Christ’s love for his Church. These are not depressing impositions on people but rather a hope-filled announcement that our bodies and our actions are of infinite value before God. Help people believe in the God who believes in them – and you will let them hear the hope that in the heart of Christ. Live in such a way as to be a living example, a sacrament of Christ.
Thirdly, you are not being ordained today merely to do a job or to fill a post. You have answered a divine call. In our culture, the emphasis is on having the maximum amount of choice and on the individual’s right to choose whatever good or lifestyle he or she wants. The person becomes the arbiter of all right and wrong. If I want something I should be entitled to it. I can divinise my transient adult wishes.
But you will be speaking of your lifelong dedication to God’s service in the tradition of a God who calls people by name. A vocation – as seen right back to the time of Abraham and Moses, Mary and Paul – means that we believe we are called by the eternal God to be and to become something, not in the service of my plans but in order to be used to be used for God’s plans. Indeed, apparent human weakness is seen as a prerequisite for God to do unimaginable things. The scriptures speak of a God does not call the qualified, but rather qualifies the called. That sense of call is not a demeaning deprivation of liberty but rather a statement that my life – my ordinary, simple, imperfect life and relationships – are of eternal beauty and value, that there is a God who knows me by name. It is a view of life which holds that the apparently useless care for the weak, the acceptance of sacrifice and crosses, faithfulness and love are of infinitely more value than the trinkets with which we try to fill the God-sized hole in our hearts. Seán, pray every day so that you will keep hearing the voice of the Master who says to all of us each day, “No, I’m not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me!” Remember that ‘a lot of kneeling will keep you in good standing!’
This is a day of blessing for Sean and his family. It is also a blessing for the Church that is in the diocese of Derry. But it is a day of good news for the world. When someone – whether in ordination, consecrated life or in marriage – takes the step of a lifelong commitment to the service of the Lord, that courage speaks a counter-cultural voice into a world of many fickle relationships where people are told that they should worship and find salvation at the altar of the great god of ‘feeling good’.
Seán, let the seed of God’s word and grace grow in your heart. Believe that God is in all the seasons of the Church’s life. Pray with your people and for your people – and they will hold you up in love and prayer. Fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith (Cf. 2 Tim 4:7). Know that God can use your faults as well as your talents. Be salt to the earth and light to the world so that people may give praise to your Father in heaven. (Mt 5:13-16)
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