- Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Mass in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry
Last week, Jesus sent out his disciples as missionaries and he told them to travel light. Now they have come back and are tired as well as keen to talk about their experiences. Jesus wants to look after them by getting them some rest. But the crowds still keep coming and Jesus starts teaching, even though they are away in some lonely place. What does he teach them – and us – about his mission?
Firstly, this is Jesus’ mission, not ours. He is the shepherd, and he calls others to be part of his ministry. The Church in every generation is called to discern where Jesus is sending us. That was the problem that he found in his own time. The Pharisees and Sadducees had become so comfortable with their own form of ministry that they could not make space for Jesus. They had gotten used to be religious service-providers. They were so convinced of their own righteousness that Jesus appeared to them to be an evil threat. As Christ seeks to renew the Church in our day, we will be open to being used if we listen for and to the voice of the one who calls us. I don’t know what the Church in Ireland will look like in 50 years. I don’t need to know. But I trust that if I do my best, if I pray for guidance and am open to the voice of the Holy Spirit then what I do can be used to build the Kingdom of God. God knows where he is leading the Church. When we think we know, we fall into the error of believing that God’s imagination is limited by ours.
Thus, we see in our second reading how St Paul, the strict Pharisee, praises Christ for breaking down the walls that separated Jews and Gentiles – an unimaginable idea to the world in which Paul had grown up. Jesus had destroyed old identities and created a new unity in his Body, the Church. We will be renewed for mission only if we are prepared to be shocked by the divine dream for a world of healing and justice. In our modern situation of so much conflict, Christian culture warriors have so often allowed themselves to be seduced by secular agendas and have misunderstood the divine mission that today’s reading speak of.
Secondly, Jesus is moved by compassion for the lost and the lonely. He sees them as sheep without a shepherd. And- as everywhere – to the hurting he proclaims the love and mercy of God. He is not angry with them because their lives are in a mess. He wants to speak to their hearts and not merely to their heads. The catechesis can come later. His first teaching is about believing in the merciful love of the Father. There is a modern temptation to put an explanation of Christian teaching before a conversion – or to assume that more teaching is a response to a weak theological literacy. The people he most wants to meet and touch are those who most need to know healing mercy on their messed up or badly scarred lives. Our towns and communities are full of people who are harassed and dejected. A ministry to the comfortable would have been easier for Jesus. But that was never his mission. The Church will be renewed in this country when we enable a new young generation to know the love and mercy of God and be driven – like so many generations before them – to bring mercy and compassion where these are most needed. A Church mission that is not suffused with divine compassion has little to do with the Jesus of the Gospel. Any hint of distance or arrogance damage the credibility of Christ’s mission.
Thirdly, we have so many people who are hurting after our Troubles here. As in every conflict, the majority of those who died were not combatants but bystanders and civilians. So many deaths of the innocent may be an embarrassment to those who killed them. But their deaths and injury have scarred thousands, many of whom dare not speak about their loss as it would undermine narratives about heroic warriors. We know from Church life that there is a temptation to hide uncomfortable truths. Dark secrets are always unwelcome. The effect of the current government proposals on legacy is to prevent too much prying into dark corners of a dirty war. That will protect reputations but will not help the hurting ones for whom Jesus was most concerned. A system that appears to prioritise the feelings of the perpetrators over the distress of the victims is guaranteed only to perpetuate the pain, not draw a line under it. Just because some powerful people prefer to keep the truth hidden is no reason for civic leadership to facilitate that. Just as the abuse of children over half a century ago should be investigated to see what we can learn, so too the killing of innocent men, women and children should not be locked away beyond prying eyes. We have to proclaim and show that divine pity is more important that political propriety.
Next week, we will hear – from St John’s Gospel – about Jesus who feeds these crowds and then speaks at length about himself as the Bread of Life. That teaching will end with some followers walking away because they consider Jesus’ teaching to be intolerable language. Over the next five Sundays, we will be invited to reflect on Jesus who wants to nourish both body and soul. When we gather here each week, Jesus is both calling us aside to rest – and inviting us to have our hearts remade so that we can bring his compassion and mercy to those whom we meet. When we have rested in the Lord, when we have bathed ourselves in the soothing waters of adoration, when we have allowed Jesus to look with pity on the reality of our lives – then we can learn from his ministry to work with him to restore peace through the cross. The world needs to know the divine compassion that Jesus wants to pour on the world. He keeps asking us whether we want to serve his mission or use him to serve our agendas. That has been an uncomfortable question for people of faith in every generation.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
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