- Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Mass in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry
On these Sundays in Ordinary Time, we are invited to journey with Jesus in a more or less unbroken narrative from Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Last Sunday – had it not been for the Feast of Corpus Christi – we would have been starting the second of Jesus’ great sermons in that Gospel. He has picked His 12 apostles and He is sending them out with a set of instructions. Today’s Gospel is a continuation of his formation programme for missionaries – 2,000 years ago and in every generation.
Firstly, Jesus says that they are undertaking a difficult task. ‘Do not afraid’ appears twice in this Gospel passage. And both times, the threat comes from the strong. Jesus himself knew that a call to repent, to imagine a much better set of human relationships, to break out of an earth-bound perspective – all of these would incur the wrath of those who were benefiting quite nicely from the status quo. ‘You can look after those who are suffering from that status quo, you can also reprimand them for breaking the commandments – but don’t dare to criticise the system or the dominant culture.’ Jesus says that we should not whisper His teaching, but proclaim it from the rooftops – even if there are those who would kill you for speaking out.
The prophet Jeremiah knew what it was like to be attacked and denounced. He tried to speak the truth into the politics of his day. And the strong had him arrested. But, whatever the cost, he trusted that the uncomfortable truth had to be spoken – because untruths and half-truths are no basis for a stable future. He spoke openly, not in order to damage or demean people – but to free them from living a lie. He was more concerned about the little ones than he was about the big egos or his own comfort. He knew that we are all affected by the sin of self-deception. Jeremiah was concerned about the real freedom to become great through grace. Being enslaved to the agendas of the strong is not freedom. For saying that, Jeremiah was thrown into prison.
If Jesus and Jeremiah had spoken only about harmless holy things, they would have been regarded as irrelevant fools. But when they spoke into concrete political realities, when they spoke about arrogance and hypocrisy, when they defended the weak and defenceless they became dangerous. In a world of fake news, the truth is unwelcome. In a fragmenting culture where everybody has their own infallible truth, those who speak of truth outside my little bubble undermine the individualist philosophy. Such voices will always be classified as dangerous or spoilsports.
Secondly, there is much talk of getting back to ‘normal’. That all assumes that our earlier ways of running society and Church were the best that they could be. We are facing into a period when there will be new poverties. There will be the economic poverty. In a society with huge gaps between the well-off and the poor, an economic downturn first strikes the weakest and those who were hanging on by their fingertips.
The pandemic has also increased the level of educational poverty. If we structure our education system in such a way as to advantage the already advantaged, are we building a future based on community or on competition? After three months with an emphasis on dedication and service, do we want to go back to children believing in the survival of the fittest, as if that were divinely ordained?
And there will be a poverty of hope for many people. Can we offer a way of looking at life which inspires our young people to look forward rather than just anaesthetising them? Or will we continue to offer them role models who – with a very few notable exceptions – have had nothing useful to say into our current crisis? Will we as Church be clear about what we want to shout from the housetops? Today’s missionary training from Jesus tells us not to be afraid of criticism for speaking the uncomfortable truth unto power. Those who are hurting and frightened need to dream of something better than yet more clothes for the wardrobe or a return to hollow self-indulgence. And those who foment hatred and division have nothing to offer.
Thirdly, as Church we have much to learn from these last months. We have seen the large numbers who have turned to prayer and worship, privately and online. In many homes there has been a rediscovery of the domestic church, where households have been, ate and prayed together much more. Parishes have often been very creative in finding ways of communicating and encouraging. And with the prospect of re-opening our churches for public worship, there has been a great surge of volunteers who want to be part of both planning and implementing the ‘new normal’. Parishes have recognised just how much wisdom and generosity can be accessed when people are brought together. I have been so encouraged by the energy that many have brought to the new challenges. That energy speaks to me of a remarkably healthy faith culture. Today’s readings do not give any support to the idea that we should be quiet and apologetic for who we are and for what Jesus teaches. Many people are frightened and insecure. They need to at least have the chance to hear a message of healing and hope. They want to hear that the future may well be tough because changing for the better requires grace. They do not want to hear that the future will be awful because the message of Jesus means nothing to a modern generation. A healthy Christian spirituality will gather people who love the both Lord and the world. It is Jesus’ mission that we are called to carry on. That mission has a future and not just a past.
Beginning tomorrow week, it will be great to be able to gather here in a real and not just a virtual congregation. That will be strange where we are encouraged to be both together and socially distant. But, please God, we will have churches where all can be fed and encouraged – and no-one’s mental or physical health is endangered by careless behaviour or poor practice. People will gather here if they hear the Good News of Jesus. Today we listen to Jesus and Jeremiah because they spoke with love and courage. We do well to learn from them.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered today atMass in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.
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