We gather today, as did the people in the gospel; they came from afar to be with Jesus in the wilderness. Today this representative group of us from Clara Parish in Kilkenny, gather to celebrate the Eucharist, as we mark the 150th anniversary of the parish church.
The people heard that Jesus had withdrawn to a lonely place. They left the towns and went after him on foot. The people seek Jesus! He responds to them; he responds to them with compassion. Compassion is the one quality more than any other that Jesus expressed in his life. In the compassion of Jesus, God shows us his face. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it in Verbum Domini, “now the word is not simply audible, not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see: that of Jesus of Nazareth” (n. 12). In Jesus God stands with those who suffer, and is attentive to those who feel empty, discouraged or desolate. Real compassion demands the putting aside of our own desires in order to embrace the suffering of another with genuine kindness, mercy and selflessness. Real compassion demands that we see the other with their eyes, that we see the world from their perspective. In truth, compassion is a putting of the other before ourselves. For Jesus, compassion is the root and ground of love. So today’s gospel begins in compassion.
After the response of Jesus to the crowds, comes the response of the disciples. Their reaction to the crowd is in contrast to Jesus’ reaction: their reaction is negative: “Send them away!” … “All we have with us is five loaves and two fish” —a statement of desperation.
Jesus has a different perspective to the disciples: they see the problem and have a very pragmatic solution. The disciples’ solution is determined by anxiety, rooted in what they can bring about. Jesus’ solution, in contrast, is determined by trust and hope, rooted in what God can do. He remembers what God did in the desert—when he brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. He trusts that God will do this again. The providential love of God is clearly revealed in the life and destiny of Jesus himself: as St Paul puts it in today’s Second Reading nothing “can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
It is in this perspective that Jesus challenges the disciples: “give them something to eat yourselves.” What a strange demand Jesus makes of the powerless disciples. However, he, like God, does not look at the world the way they do. The disciples see their limited resources as a problem; Jesus sees the limited resources as the foundation for what God will do. The disciples see the way forward in protecting their own food, their own resources, as it were; Jesus sees the way forward in giving them away. To part with our possessions takes a tremendous amount of trust—trust in God and trust in those who are in need. The way of Jesus is clear: we are called to discover compassion, to learn generosity, and to accept God’s way as the way for our lives.
Parish is where the call of Christ takes flesh. It is where we experience the compassion of Christ in the compassion of our sisters and brothers. Parish is also where we learn compassion. It took considerable time for the disciples to realise God’s ways are different to our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (see Isa 55:8). In today’s gospel, the disciples’ initial response is a world away from Jesus’. They are at the start of their journey with him. Like the disciples, we too travel with Jesus: he is God with us (Matt 1:23), and it will take time, perhaps all of our lives, to see the world from his perspective.
In celebrating 150 years of a parish church, we are really celebrating 150 years of the parish, because a church and a parish is a living community. Today we give thanks for the parish of Clara, for this community, and its people. In the end, a church and its people, is not about buildings from the past, “but rather the call to live like Christ, trusting God and showing concern for others. … It is about people who, generation after generation, reach out, and create a community of “worship, education, charity, and service…” In our rapidly changing world, “this will require creativity and conviction as we live our faith, not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, but above all, by being open to the possibility which the Spirit opens up to us” (see Pope Francis, Mass in Philadelphia, Sept 26, 2015).
We remember that this call comes to us in our poverty. The disciples had but five loaves and two fish. By the prayer of Jesus and the sharing of the disciples, these became food for the multitude. We entrust ourselves to the Lord, in our poverty. May he bless us, and open our hearts to reach out to the world in its needs.
- Bishop Dermot Farrell is Bishop of Ossory. This Mass was celebrated on Sunday 2 August.