Like many Catholic people from this diocese, it was my custom for many years to make the 3-day Lough Derg pilgrimage. One of the first things you do when you reach the island is to take off your shoes and for the duration of the pilgrimage you negotiate your way, with other pilgrims, young and old, around the island and around the ‘beds’ barefoot. Being barefoot makes people slow down; it also makes them vulnerable, without the protection of shoes. Today, the Church begins three days of prayer and commemoration, as we follow in the steps of Jesus – from the Last Supper, the arrest of Jesus, his trial by the Jewish leaders and then by the Romans, his carrying of the cross to Calvary and his painful death. Then we hold our breath in the silence of Holy Saturday until, at the Easter Vigil, we listen to the good news of the resurrection, renew our baptismal promises and deepen our faith and communion in the Risen Christ. For these three days, we hear the voice addressed to Moses, as he approached the burning bush, ‘take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground’.
My wish, for myself and for you, is that we will allow ourselves to be vulnerable and affected by what the Church calls ‘the paschal mystery’. If we can allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit in these days and accompanied by the faith of the Church, we can allow ourselves to be drawn into a closeness with Christ, in his suffering and in his resurrection.
As we live the events commemorated and celebrated in these days, each of us will be struck by something, perhaps influenced by the circumstances of our own lives. I am struck by something I read recently about the obedience of Jesus, which shines out strongly in the final days of his earthly life. A spiritual writer puts it like this:
New Testament writers do not allow us to think of Jesus as living a protected life, free from the batterings and assaults that fall to our lot in a sinful world. Rather, he learned obedience from what He underwent. Jesus recognised more and more his Father’s will in the world around Him. And as He recognised Him, so He surrendered in increasing love; not without struggle, not without groans, tears and ultimately a sweat of blood – a ‘Yes’ that cost every ounce (Ruth Burrows, Through him, with him, in him, page 62).
The struggle of the human Jesus to recognise and, after a deep personal and spiritual struggle, to embrace the will of God his Father ‘even unto death, death on a cross’ is an inspiration for us and a way of being disciples in the circumstances of our own lives. For some people, this involves struggling with serious illness; for some it involves the struggle with the weakness and limitations of old age; for our young people, it may involve the struggle of hearing God’s word and trying to live it out in a world that is often hostile or indifferent to Christian faith.
For the priests and deacons of the diocese, and for me as Bishop at this time, our greatest struggle at the present time is to know how serve our people with decreasing numbers. Over the past year priests and people together have wrestled with the conundrum of knowing how to plan and prepare for a future different from the past. Sometimes this means not being able to offer the same number of Masses as in the past and asking parishioners to sacrifice the habits of a lifetime. Which is always painful.
We are also being challenged, as clergy, not just to serve our people, but to share ministry with them, to share pastoral responsibility with them and, increasingly, to prepare talented men and women to take on positions of leadership in carrying out the mission of the Church.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus, a layman, read from the Book of the prophet Isaias in the synagogue at Nazareth. When he rolled up the scroll, he said, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen’ (Luke 4:21). This continues to happen when, for example, when a member of a chaplaincy team – priest, religious, lay man or woman – sits with a patient in hospital and spends time with them, says a prayer and puts a hand on the patient’s hand to reassure and comfort them.
At this Chrism Mass we thank God in a special way for the ordained ministry in the Church, the ministry of priests and deacons. For our priests, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, ‘do this in memory of me’ has become a call to leave all things and follow Jesus, in our celebration of the Eucharist, in our preaching of God’s word, in the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of penance, in the pastoral care of the sick and elderly, and in our shepherding of God’s flock.
We are fortunate in our diocese to have the support of our brothers who have committed themselves to serve God and the Church as deacons. They have taken as their model Jesus who, after the Supper – as we read in St John’s Gospel – took water and a towel and washed the feet of his disciples.
At the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral we have the Church of the diocese in microcosm: the lay faithful of our parishes, religious of the diocese, deacons and priests. We reflect on the significance of the oils that are blessed in this Mass; the chrism, for example, is used at baptism and confirmation. In these sacraments we are initiated into the Church, which is a priestly people. Together, we pray for one another. We pray for an openness to the Spirit who will lead us, inspired by the obedience of Jesus, to respond to the needs of our people and the needs of the wider world in which we live. I think particularly of the struggles of our political leaders at this time to form a stable executive. I think also of the challenges to find peace in many parts of our world.
At this Mass we recall again the instruction of Jesus ‘to pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest’. Some of those workers for the kingdom will serve God in the ordained priesthood; some will serve as religious women or men; some will serve as deacons; some will offer the service of their time and talents as lay pastoral workers. The great majority of our people will continue to hear God’s word and live lives of personal faith and service, for example, as parents, in the unique circumstances of their lives.
I began these words by recalling the pilgrims at Lough Derg, walking barefoot. Today, we find ourselves at a crossroads; the old, well-trod paths are no longer available for us. As we pick our way forward, perhaps uncertainly, we have no guarantee that we will not make mistakes and perhaps even hurt ourselves or others. However following Jesus together on the way of the cross, we trust that through this difficult time new life and hope will emerge.
- Bishop John McAreavey is Bishop of Dromore
- The Annual Chrism Mass was celebrated in Newry Cathedral on Holy Thursday at 10.30am.
- The priests of the diocese concelebrated the Mass of Chrism with Bishop McAreavey. During this Mass priests renewed their commitment to the priesthood. The Holy Oils, which will be used in the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick and Ordination were consecrated.