“The message of Jesus will not be proclaimed by a Church that retreats into itself” – Bishop Donal McKeown

14 Jun 2021

  • “The entire synodal process for the Church in Ireland will go nowhere if the desired outcome is promoting our individual agendas and often divisive arguments”


The time between the start of Lent and the Feast of Corpus Christi has focused on the core Christian teachings.  Now that we have heard the kerygma – the basic message about the death and resurrection at the end of Jesus’ life – we move into six months where we walk with Jesus in the Gospel and allow ourselves to go deeper into Christ’s teachings.  The three years that He spent teaching His apostles are contained in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings.  What can we learn from Him today?

Firstly, irresistible growth is at the heart of our Gospel passage.  Jesus knew that we are all impatient and that that we can depend on our own efforts.  But Jesus says that God is author of all growth.  Elsewhere Paul will write that one sows and another waters – but it is God who gives the growth.  We are tempted to judge the state of the Church by the standards of outsiders.  The Jesus who died on the Cross knows that the Father is in charge, especially at challenging times.  For people of faith, every stage of the Church’s history is a time of grace.  The question is never ‘How can we get the Church back to way that we want it?’, rather the disciple’s question is always ‘What is God trying to teach us as He remakes the Church?’  Only a prayerful people will be open to God’s growth-giving grace at work, night and day, when we are awake, when we are asleep.  That is why the Church always needs those who dedicate their lives to prayer.  It is there that growth is nourished, and not in our frenetic efforts to bring our plans to completion.

Secondly, the mustard seed is very small but grows beyond imagination.  Mighty oaks come from little acorns.  Jesus spent most of His time with the little ones.  In their lives, He could show the power of God to do great things.  The pride of the strong kept getting in God’s way.  In an age of giant egos and obscene wealth, today’s Gospel is a call to see life through divine eyes.  When Jesus encounters those who are hurting or weighed down by their past, he has eyes to see not where they have been but what they can become.  The mercy and love of God are always an invitation to promote growth and healing where others see only failure and despair.  Thus, the miracles of Jesus are not merely Him showing off His powers.  They are signs that call believers to help the broken ones believe that things can be different, that Divine love changes everything.  Jesus sees the mustard seed of hope where others see nothing or just an opportunity to condemn.  A Church that does not help people to see the hope of growth is not being faithful to its Lord.

Thirdly, that hope and grace are communicated through little gestures and apparently insignificant sacraments.  In the Divine dispensation, simple words and very ordinary materials such as bread, water, wine and oil can be bearers of powerful divine grace.  Our sacramental life is not so much centred on defending the majesty of God as on revealing the Divine Mercy that helps the little ones to grow.  Jesus took five loaves and a few fish to feed the crowd of 5,000.  Jesus took a motley crew of 12 disciples and sent them out to convert the whole world.

Today’s Gospel comes as the Church in Ireland opens itself to face the future together.  In the Old Testament, the chosen people, when they were faced with disaster or apparent defeats, were able to reflect, not on the badness of their enemies but rather on their own failings.  The real enemy of God’s plan lies not in outsiders and non-believers but the infidelity of those who were called to be witnesses to God’s ways.  We deserve to be scorned and criticised for the times when we failed to inspire contemporaries with the beauty of God’s simple ways.

Thus, it is important that we learn to live the uncomfortable message of Jesus.  The Church will not be reformed by proclaiming a message that has lost its salty taste or hidden its light.  Any Church movement that seeks to be effective by conforming its message to passing cultural emphases is a witness to its own folly rather than to the wise folly of the Cross.  For centuries, the Church in Ireland was marked by enormous idealism and generosity as many young people dedicated their lives to bringing hope and healing to the furthest corners of the world and the dirtiest streets of our towns.  The message of Jesus will not be proclaimed by a Church that retreats into itself.  A Church that is afraid to take the road less travelled is not walking with Jesus.  The Church is not faithful to Jesus if it is without the radical witness of those who dedicate their lives to Christ, trusting that God will give growth through their unreasonable generosity.  A prayer life that does not spill over into care for the broken is not a witness to the Lord who wants to give growth to everybody.   There will be amazing new life when we sow the seeds in hope, not when we hoard them in fear.  The entire synodal process for the Church in Ireland will go nowhere if the desired outcome is promoting our individual agendas and often divisive arguments.  The only question to be asked by Jesus’ little disciples is “What does God want of the Church in Ireland today?”  The irresistible growth of the little mustard seed will always win through.  Our job is to listen and watch for signs of that growth so that we can facilitate it.

Today we begin again our school of discipleship with Jesus, inviting Him to be our teacher.  Do not be afraid to discuss the Scripture readings with a small group of close friends.  Let the seed of God’s word gradually grow in your heart.  Spend time each day reflecting on where the seeds of mercy and hope are needed in your life – and where you see signs of growth.  Today Jesus implies that all we have to do is clear away the weeds and wait.  The Lord of the harvest will give a new springtime, a new summer growth and a new harvest.  Winter is an indispensable but passing stage of the year.


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.  This homily was preached by Bishop McKeown on 13 June, the 11thSunday in Ordinary Time, in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.                                                  

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