Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell for Laetare Sunday

22 Mar 2020

Mass celebrated from the KCLR studios at 9.30am 

During the week I celebrated the funeral Mass of our oldest retired priest.  He had lived in his parish for the last forty-nine years.  There were only twenty-five people present, mainly family.  It was a very strange experience for me – as a priest and as bishop, but also as a person attending a funeral.  It shocked me to think how much our country had changed in a few weeks. The one we were laying to rest had ministered so long in that parish, there were many people – parishioners, priests, and friends – who would have loved to have been present for the funeral Mass, but they could not attend because of the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

Indeed, today’s celebration of Mother’s day will have a surreal character for children and parents: so many people wishing to express their appreciation of mothers and grandmothers, and unable to do so in person.  We are in uncharted waters – a place where we have never been in our lifetime, a place we could not have imagined a few weeks ago. We begin to appreciate anew what is essential in life. Indeed, we begin to appreciate why God had to come to us as one of ourselves, why the Word not only became, but had to become flesh.

The Readings address us today; they are not stories to be read romantically. We might ask ourselves: what does the passage want to say to us, where does the text want to lead us, how does it want us to look at our lives and at our world? How do readings from today’s Mass speak to this pandemic?  We sometimes forget that the biblical stories have to become our stories, that the Scriptures are there not only to be read, but also to be received within us, to become a word of hope that gives us the strength to continue, and to continue well. These stories continue within us; they illuminate our own human and Christian journey in this time of affliction which bypasses religion, race, gender, and country. They call us to move from “I” to “we.” In moving to “we,” our hopes become real; we put flesh on our hope. 

Like life itself, the Bible is a place of surprises. The reversal of expectations is common in the Scriptures. Consider today’s first reading.  When Samuel – at the Lord’s request – came to Bethlehem to find the new king, he was presented with all of Jesse’s splendid sons, but none of these had been chosen. He then discovered that there was one more: the young David out in the fields.  And it was this overlooked son whom God had chosen.   He never even entertained the possibility of Jesse’s youngest Son, David.  Yet this is the one whom God had singled out, because David was a shepherd.  God sees what Samuel can’t, because Samuel sees the appearance, but God sees the heart.  Although David was not the strongest, he was able to shepherd the best.  That is what God does for his people. In the end, God is the shepherd of his people and that has not changed down through the centuries.

Not only is the Lord with his people today, but his Son, is also living his passion with us and within us right now. There are so many things to be fearful about: contagion, isolation, suffering, disease and even death. But as Christ shares in our suffering, he also shares in our encouragement: we hear anew the words of the psalm:  “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. … If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear.”  Psalm 23 was written thousands of years ago to assure each one in their dark-valley times that they are cared for unceasingly by the Good Shepherd.  Although we may be oblivious of his presence, the psalmist assures us that the Lord never abandons us. 

While we may not deny the unprecedented dangers of this global pandemic, or take flight from the darkness that is descending on our country, neither may we wallow in depression. There are grave dangers in the outbreak of COVID-19 which we must respect. Today, more than ever, we must see the world as it is.  While we do not have an infinite responsibility to be neighbour to the whole country, we cannot in advance know how we will be called upon to respond with prudence and courage. Like the flight attendant’s instructions: “Put on your own mask first,” hope – an extraordinary hope – never encourages any kind of disdain for common sense and responsibilities of protecting human life and the common good.

It is in this perspective that it is prudent, wise and necessary that we not gather in Church to celebrate our faith and receive the Eucharist. These extraordinary measures call us to re-discover the other ways we have to encounter Christ, ways which we’ve always had at our disposal, but which may have been beyond our horizon. It is a tenet of Christian faith that every person is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that the Lord dwells within us … As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

“For Christ plays in ten thousand places,

lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

(As Kingfishers Catch Fire)

It’s striking how Saint Paul reminds the Ephesians that they are a light in the world, for this echoes what Jesus is saying of himself in Saint John’s Gospel.  “You were in darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). We don’t always remember who we are, or who we are for each other. We know the darkness does not last forever. We have been overtaken by the darkness, until we find new ways of coping with this deadly enemy.  In the meantime, because we are children of the light we have to find new and renewed ways to illuminate other peoples’ lives.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus tells his disciples that “it was not this man sinned, or his parents, he was born blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3).  God is not punishing us.  A person who holds such views lacks faith and does not know the God who is the father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Rather, such a view of God reduces God to a very powerful being, the celestial equivalent of the person who holds the view.  Such a god is a god of darkness, not the God of Light.  As we pray in the Creed, Christ – God’s Son – is God from God, Light from Light.  In Isaiah, God says that he has cast all our sins behind his back (see Is 38:17).  God’s abiding presence is not dependent on our remaining faithful to God. Ultimately, we are saved not because we remain faithful to God, but because God remains faithful to us.  God remains faithful to that which He has created.

Some may describe the COVID-19 epidemic as apocalyptic. Properly understood, an apocalyptic view of the world is not a flight from the world, but is a way of coping with the world so that people can take stock of the traumatic situation they find themselves in, make decisions and take appropriate action.  One thing we cannot take flight from is reality; we have to engage with the grim reality of the Coronavirus by assiduously observing the social distancing and other measures that have been put in place for our safely and the well-being of others.  In the words of the Director of the World Health Organisation, “Let our shared humanity, be the antidote to our shared threat.”

Eternal Shepherd, Lord of Life,
stay close to your people, as we pass through this valley of darkness.
Guide us, carry us, be our light and our strength,
the food for our journey, day-in-day-out.
You who are our home and our hope, for ever and ever. Amen.

+Dermot Farrell
Bishop of Ossory


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