Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, 29 November 2020
As a parish community, and as friends of the parish, we gather to celebrate the Feast of our Patron Saint Andrew. We do so as the Church celebrates the First Sunday of Advent. We move into a new Church year. We reflect on the future. We reflect on our future at a moment of uncertainty and insecurity as we face an ongoing pandemic. We reflect on how our faith can strengthen our resolve and focus on the Christian way to shape true human progress.
At this Mass, we welcome online the Members of the Movement Comunione e Liberazione who are holding their annual retreat today. We all join in asking ourselves what the Gospel appeal on this First Sunday of Advent “to be alert and awake” means, as we try to understand the challenges of what living our faith means in our times and the times to come.
Before listening to God’s word let us however ask forgiveness for the many ways in which we have failed to be alert and have allowed indifference and fatigue, anxiety and fear to creep into our life of faith.
The origins of this Parish Church are linked with a decisive moment in the history of the Catholic Church in Dublin and in Ireland. We know that Daniel O’Connell personally observed the daily development of the construction of this building. The Church building is a remarkable witness to the renewal of the faith of the community of Westland Row of that time.
That early community could never have imagined what the community here today would look like with its very different demographic and economic make up and constantly changing pace of life. Times change. Generations pass.
Curiously very few of us could have imagined just one year ago how our lives would have changed radically because of the current COVID pandemic. Times change and generations pass and times can change at a pace that we could never have foreseen.
Today we realise that it is not easy to forecast with any great accuracy what the world will be like in the next few years and what type of world our younger generation will encounter and be called to construct. We live in a world fascinated by progress. Perhaps we deceived ourselves into thinking that progress was a linear process that automatically led to a gradual improvement of the human condition.
Pope Benedict often spoke of what he called “the ambiguity of progress”. What we call modernity has brought huge benefits in terms of progress in health care, in terms of consumer choice, in terms of investment in education for the betterment of society. A look at our world will remind us also that often what we thought of as progress brought with it negative effects. Think of damage to the environment and the damage to the human ecology of society: think of the negative effects on stable married and family life, of an increased individualism and a weakening of the sense of community. Think of the many who have fallen victim to a style of modernity and who end up fragile, insecure and fearful.
The Gospel of this first Sunday of Advent was written at a significant time in the history of the early Church, a time in which the early Christians were facing a fundamental challenge about their future. There had been a first generational change in the makeup of the community of believers. Many had thought that Jesus would return soon after his resurrection and bring his kingdom to full realisation. Now, fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ return to his Father, this does not seem to be happening. Some felt that since his second coming had not taken place by then, then it would never take place and they could renounce the vigilance of behaviour which had marked the early Christian community. Others became distracted from true faith by all kinds of speculation and fantasies about when and how the Lord might return.
The Gospel reading we have just heard reminds us that we can never know all the answers about the when and how of the future; what we can and must attain is the proper attitude regarding the future. Believers should never become agitated and preoccupied. However they should always “be alert, be wakeful”.
Living and witnessing to the faith in our times may well have become more difficult, but also more challenging in the best sense of that word. Faith must remain alert, never allowing itself to be swallowed up almost unconsciously by indifference.
In fact, we have witnessed during the shock of this pandemic a resurgence of some of the things that are central to human community. We have seen the witness of people in the front line but also within the fabric of everyday society, the people who Pope Francis calls “The saints next door… the antibodies to the virus of indifference.”
In my years as Archbishop, I have happily witnessed so many men and women who are rising to that challenge of deepening their own faith and witnessing to that faith through their lives, precisely in the context of contemporary Ireland. We welcome the return on Tuesday of public worship in our Churches. It will be an opportunity to enter into more deeply and be renewed by the saving mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That personal renewal must then send us back into the contemporary world to bring that saving and liberating message to those who are anxious and uncertain.
The new generation of our young people need leadership and support from a mature generation of believers as they face generational change and become leaders in the Christian community and in wider society in the years to come.
We have reflected on the idea of progress and the ambiguities that exist in any model or moment of progress. What we have to stress, especially to our young people, is that their path to maturity in life and in the world they will construct has need of the message of faith in Jesus Christ.
To quote Pope Benedict once again, “a ‘Kingdom of God’ accomplished without God—a kingdom therefore of human achievement alone – inevitably ends up unrealised”. Living our faith in our contemporary culture is not easy. Yet rarely has the culture of any period had such need of the witness of men and women of faith. The world needs the message of Jesus Christ, today and tomorrow as times change and generations pass.