‘Condemnation and ill-treatment of the weak is a counter-witness to the powerful weakness of Jesus’ – Bishop McKeown

27 Jul 2021

  • Homily for the seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time celebrated in Saint Anne’s Church, Shanveghera, Knock Parish, Archdiocese of Tuam, with Cursillo peace walkers from Derry, Belfast and Dublin

Last week, in Mark’s Gospel story, Jesus had addressed the crowds in a deserted place, where he had brought the disciples to get a rest. We now take a full chapter from Saint John’s Gospel where Jesus develops the theme of himself as the Bread of Life. But before we step into that piece of his teaching, we are invited to reflect on how Jesus feeds the hungry crowd with five loaves and two fish. What can we learn?

Firstly, Jesus asks a strange and unsettling question about how they could buy bread for the crowd. Jesus knows that Philip will feel powerless to do anything. And Saint John notes that this event happened shortly before the Passover. This lays the context for the whole event of the multiplication. For the Jews, the Passover was the night on which the Israelites, saved by the blood of the Lamb on their doorposts, were freed from Egypt as the angel of death passed over their children but caused the death of the first born of all Egyptians. The Passover was a transforming act on the part of God into the apparently hopeless situation of people enslaved in Egypt. Everything that Jesus does draws us to recognise our profound inadequacy. Only when we have recognised our helplessness, can God be revealed as the one who goes beyond assisting us with our plans and is revealed as the one who offers us new birth, resurrected life out of the mess of our personal Calvaries.

This challenges our modern assumption that life is always about developing self-confidence and assertiveness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that the meek, the sorrowful, the gentle and the peacemakers are blessed. Faith is never merely a statement that we believe in the existence of God, somewhere, somehow. Faith means trusting God’s offer of salvation in the face of my own glaring inadequacies and lack of ability. Jesus was revealed to the disciples in the midst of the disciples’ terror and sense of helplessness during storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ teaching also undermined the confidence of the Pharisees. It critiques the human confidence of those who believe they know God’s will for the Church in Ireland now or those who may be tempted to think that their form of witness or worship is somehow superior to that of others. Unless we discover our helplessness before God, we are incapable of discerning where Jesus is really being revealed. As on Calvary, our weakness is the source of our salvation. Any presumed wisdom or superiority is a huge block to the work of God who wants to feed us in his transforming way. The Passover in Egypt taught that to the Israelites. The new Passover of Jesus on Calvary, made present in the Eucharist, keeps teaching us that message. Power and learning can deafen us to the weakness of Christ. Are we weak enough to hear his Passover message?

Secondly, we are on pilgrimage to Knock. County Mayo in 1879 after the Famine was a place that needed hope. The apparitions there echo the stories from so many other places. We have all heard of the dump outside a mountain town where socially shunned Bernadette met the Virgin. We know of three children in Fatima during the First World War. We have heard stories of Medjugorje in an impoverished land that would be ravaged by civil war. Our faith is littered with stories from Abraham and Moses on to modern days where the question is not “is someone strong or holy enough to receive special insights?”. As Philip discovered, the real question about a disciple and an apostle, is “Is this person weak enough to be used as a servant of the Gospel?”. Jesus himself thanks God that divine wisdom is hidden from the learned and the clever and revealed to mere children (Mt 11:25). It takes a wise person to allow God to work through our weakness so that, like Mary, we can praise God who has looked upon us in our nothingness.

Thirdly, there are those who are angry at the relative weakness of Church in modern Ireland and how its members are ignored by a new ruling elite. And the angry seek someone to blame for this weakness. Today’s Gospel tells us that weakness is where divine growth starts. Those who cannot cope with weakness and who want to be strong cannot understand the Eucharist or Jesus as the Bread of Life. The link between Passover, last Supper and Calvary tells us of his Body broken for us and his Blood shed for us. Jesus presents himself to us as his sacrificed self. A priesthood that yearns for strength or that sees weakness as failure has not understood that the strength and efficacy of all Christian ministry lies in the weakness that seems to threaten us. Philip had to learn the lesson of helplessness so that God’s power could be seen as an act of divine revelation and not merely of generous Christian charity and efficiency. Jesus himself became weak for us and was crucified as a condemned criminal. It was in his self-abandonment to the Father that the world was saved. It is a betrayal of Jesus when Church leaders think they ought to be preserved from the Cross. And it renders us incapable of standing with those who suffer. Condemnation and ill-treatment of the weak is a counter-witness to the powerful weakness of Jesus that he asks us all to espouse.

Ove the next four weeks, we will be drawn into the mystery of Jesus the Bread of Life. We can have our own specific emphasis on the presence among us of the Eucharistic Jesus. But today’s Gospel tells us two things. Firstly, we come to the Eucharist as the sacrament of divine weakness that saves the world. The starting point is never Jesus sitting on his powerful throne, demanding that we bring him our gifts and piety. That is what Pope Francis means when he says that the Eucharist is not merely a reward for the pious but nourishment for those who hunger and thirst, and know their own frailty. Secondly, Jesus begins by feeding the hungry crowd through preaching and bread. As a Eucharistic community, we are called to make life possible for one another in the desert of our lives. Love of condemnation and exclusion are not part of being life giving in Jesus’ name. This pilgrimage to Knock is a revelation when it reminds us of the powerful weakness with which we can dare to face the future. It is in the desert of our individual and communal lives that the Eucharistic Jesus is most easily revealed. Those who sat at home because they thought they didn’t need the itinerant preacher and were too smart to need to learn from Jesus – these never encountered the amazing Jesus of the new Passover who sat with the poor and disheartened. Just as on Mount Sinai, God is best revealed in a deserted place where all our self-made confidence is gone. Are we weak enough yet to be his disciples?


Notes to Editors

  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
  • The story of Knock began on the 21 August 1879 when Our Lady, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist appeared at the south gable of Knock Parish Church.  This miraculous silent apparition was witnessed by fifteen people, young and old.  Knock is an internationally recognised Marian Shrine and was visited by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1979 as part of his apostolic pilgrimage, and in 2018 by Pope Francis as part of the celebrations in Ireland for the IX World Meeting of Families. On 19 March 2021, Pope Francis officially recognised Knock as an International Marian Shrine through the Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation. Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, is the custodian of the Marian Shrine and Father Richard Gibbons is parish priest of Knock and rector of the shrine.  Please see www.knockshrine.ie for more information.

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