Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at the Derry Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock

01 Oct 2019

“Our parishes and communities should aim to model a different way of being human.  Because that is what Jesus did with His disciples” – Bishop McKeown

Knock is a great place of prayer and a key beating heart for renewal in the Irish Church. Yesterday, we had over 1,000 teenagers here celebrating their participation in the Pope John Paul II Awards.  I believe that Saint John Paul II – who came here this weekend 40 years ago – would have been very much at home in the gathering.  These were idealistic young people who are hungering for a truth that will help them make sense of their lives. But there is widespread fear among young people about the sort of climate that they will have to live in as they grow older.  Politics seems unable to deliver a just society where at least a home is available for everyone.  There is much mistrust about all institutions – including Church.  With widespread addiction, mental illness and suicide, this is a very dangerous world in which young people are growing up.  It is not surprising that, each weekend, great numbers still come here to Knock at this time of widespread crisis at many levels of society.

We know many of the problems and we come here to seek divine guidance to understand what is happening and to tap into the source of God’s grace to minister into that reality.  Jesus trained His apostles to be able to go out into their world and proclaim the Kingdom of God.  Mary appeared here in 1879 to support people in their hour of need.  We seek the grace to be fit for purpose in our missionary age.  A Church that wants merely to be strong again has missed the point of the Cross.  We seek only to be used by God to combat the violence and gloom that is killing so many of our young people.  Our institutional strength is often our weakness for it can lead to blindness and pride.  Our weakness helps us to remember that God is in charge of the Church’s mission.  

Next week, we start the Extraordinary Month of Mission in October.  It is a month in which the Church throughout the world is challenged to take seriously in 2019 Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  Jesus did not give his apostles a list of excuses why they might not be able to undertake that apparently impossible task.  He simply told them to get started, to put out into the deep, to cast their nest for a catch, to sow the seed of God’s word everywhere.

Becoming missionary requires a number of things.  It may benefit from good preparation.  But the most important thing is having confidence in the wisdom of God’s ways and in the fact that, in his name, we have something to offer.

Generations of Irish went around the world to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, bringing education, medical care and a message of hope.  Our Irish contribution to the world is celebrated in so many places.  But we seem to have lost much of the belief that we have something to offer.  Indeed, the message being drummed into us is that we were awful in the past and are far behind everybody else.  In that narrative, the only decent thing we can do is catch up with so many other countries have gone in terms of greed, sexuality and abortion.  Healthy local identity and pride were not a limiting factor for our predecessors but rather a springboard for being able to reach out to the ends of the earth with confidence in what they had to offer.  I believe that the current dominant sense of cultural poverty is just another form of submission to cultural imperialism, something the Irish tried to shake off for centuries.  We are asked to believe that we have little to offer the world but music and drink.  That makes us delightful but harmless.  But a healthy sense of local and national identity believes that we have resources to deal with complex issues in our way. It is cultural subservience to believe that only somebody else knows better – and that we are just stupid and backward.  If all we have to say to the world is ‘sorry for being so bad ad backward’, then we will never be missionary.  An Irish Church that believes it has nothing to offer is mortally impoverished.

Secondly, becoming missionary again means seeing through much of what contemporary culture views as unquestioned success. Jesus was able to see straight through the fake logic and piety of his own time. Indeed, it was because of this that He had to be silenced on the Cross.  Last Sunday, Jesus spoke out strongly about those who thought they could be a slave of money and still serve God. Tomorrow, Jesus speaks of the blindness of the rich man who does not see Lazarus suffering at his gate.  If we are to be missionary to our own generation, this does not mean whining self-righteously or angrily about the faults of others.  Nor does it mean dreaming of returning to a different age.  But it does mean having the courage to question the new dominant ideology that says the wishes of the adult must trump every other right.  An over self-centred focus can never build community. An excessive emphasis on my entitlements leads to an inability in many to cope with disappointment and failure.  The deceptive promise that every problem can be solved by the market leads to disillusionment.  Life is difficult.  And those who tell us that life is just about freedom and fun are enemies of hope for they tell us that life is just a joke, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Jesus tells us a truth in today’s Gospel (Luke 9:43-45) that lies at the heart of making sense of life.  There is no salvation of healing for humanity without the Cross.  It is a waste of time to promise cheap grace through angel stories or new age self-healing fads.  Healing, wholeness and holiness will be gifted by grace to those who live with the power of the Cross in communities of prayer and mission.  The apostles did not understand Jesus when he speaks about the Cross today.  It is still seen as an unwelcome message.  But the apparition at Knock is centred on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Mary, Joseph and John all point towards him.  And Jesus is seen upon the altar for it is there that we encounter the One whose blood seals the New Covenant.

Pope John Paul II told us in Ireland 40 years ago that every new generation is like a new continent to be conquered for Christ.  As a national Church have failed to conquer the hearts of this new generation with Good News and instead so many are languishing in hopelessness.  That absence of meaning and hope in the lives of so many is wreaking havoc.  Too many of those who are dying too young are regarded more-and-more as insignificant people.  It is like society is saying: ‘we shouldn’t worry about them, or indeed ask awkward questions about those who benefit from the current system.  They are dispensable.  The market knows best.’

As we face into this Extraordinary Month of Mission in Jesus’ name, we are invited to Knock by Mary.  She came to little people to give them courage.  Today we are invited to let our courage be renewed in two ways:

  • firstly, we are invited to see our values of family life and respect for all human life as being a faith-based strength that we have, not a bad habit to be rejected because our elders and betters want to kick us into line.  And,
  • secondly, we are called to speak a prophetic word to our society, not merely attacking its values but firmly calling it to something better than lonely individualism and unsustainable consumerism.  

It means that our parishes and communities should aim to model a different way of being human.  Because that is what Jesus did with His disciples and what the Holy Spirit did in the early Church.

Knock is a place where Heaven has kissed the earth.  Can we pray that this divine embrace in Knock will release new energy in us to acknowledge the failures of the past but not be uncritical of the scandalous failings of the present?  The world will be saved in Jesus’ name by the Cross and by love.  And in every generation He has used ordinary little people like us to do great things.  Like Mary, all we have to say is ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.’


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.  This homily was preached on Saturday 28 September at the Derry Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock.

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