Last Saturday and Sunday, in Cookstown and in Collon, I joined a group of people gathered by the diocesan Youth Coordinators to reflect on the second chapter of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation ‘Christus Vivit’ entitled ‘Jesus Ever Young’. We tend to forget that Jesus was a young man when he died on the cross and that most of those who followed him, his closest friends, and disciples, were also very young perhaps in their late teens and early twenties.
Because Jesus is ever young, the Church is ever young. It is filled with his energy, enthusiasm, and determination to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. It echoes down through the ages the words that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.”
Each of us here who are priests will shortly renew the vows we took on our ordination day. There is nothing more uplifting than to encounter a priest, who, after many years of ministry, has that same level of enthusiasm and commitment to the mission that he had on his ordination day. Thankfully I have met many priests who have retained over the years that deep sense of purpose and joy in their calling. Even though the years may have taken their physical toll they, like Jesus, remain ever young. Their infectious enthusiasm for proclaiming the Good News can light the fire of faith in even the coldest of hearts and they provide an example to the rest of us of what can be achieved when God’s love is experienced in the person of the priest.
In Christus vivit Pope Francis calls for a Church that is young at heart. He asks the Lord to free it “from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill. But equally he calls upon the Lord to free it from those who thinks the Church can be young “because she accepts everything the world offers her, thinking that she is renewed because she sets her message aside and acts like everybody else”. For Pope Francis the Church is truly young when she is herself “when she receives ever anew the strength born of God’s word, the Eucharist, and the daily presence of Christ and the power of his Spirit in our lives”.
When we look at our Church today and assess its situation here in Europe, and in the Western World in general, it is difficult to believe that we are part of a Church that is ever young. We are also in a time of upheaval in our world – a time of brutal war in Ukraine, of pandemic, of climate change. Society is changing in so many critical and alarming ways and the Church too is caught in that maelstrom of upheaval and transformation.
In every age and time the Church has faced challenges and difficulties and its demise was heralded on numerous occasions. Yet, we know that the Lord did not abandon it. He sent his spirit to renew and reform and change its course. I believe we are living in one of those moments of renewal, reform, and change. The Synodal process that Pope Francis has restored and revamped is an opportunity for all groups and individuals in the Church to speak, to give voice to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Just as important in the synodal process, however, is the ability to listen and to find a shared path even with those who have a different view.
Cardinal Grech, the Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops, in a recent speech given at Oxford University stated “Many people have doubts about the synod, many people think that it is a big risk…But, perhaps, we have not quite understood what the synodal process is all about. This is not a process of revolution: the pope does not want to change the Church into something that it is not…It is time for the local Churches to voice their concerns…now it is time for the polyphony that constitutes the Church to be played …and don’t be surprised if there are some false notes along the way”. He recognizes that the synodal process is not easy and that it “is not exempt from mistakes, human weaknesses, misinterpretations, confusion”.
One of the false notes that can be heard in discussions on the Synod Pathway is the assumption that because of the renewed emphasis placed on the common priesthood of all the baptized and the ‘sensus fidei’ of all the people of God, we priests will somehow suffer a loss of identity and purpose. Cardinal Grech along with Archbishop Heung Sik addressed this issue in a recent letter to all priests. They encouraged priests to recognize the “fundamental equality of all the baptized” and to do what they could to encourage all the faithful to take part in the mission of the Church. But it is important to stress that they emphasized that this essential activity brings to the fore the special charism and identity of the priest to serve, sanctify and animate the people of God.
Today we have with us several members of the Diocesan Synodal Core Group who were brought together last June to begin the process of preparing for a Diocesan Synod in a few years’ time. They have done great work over the last six months as they, very quickly and without much warning, had to guide the diocesan phase of the synod for the Universal Church by encouraging parish communities and groups to engage in discussions around the question of how we are as Church today. Along with them I want to acknowledge the great work priests and Pastoral Councils have also done in assisting and supporting the consultation in the diocese.
The Core Group are presently sifting through all the feedback that has returned from the consultation and there are many issues emerging. One issue that is coming through very strongly, however, is the importance of preaching; the importance of a good sermon that is, unlike this one, relatively short and which relates the teaching of Christ to the lived experience of the listener. Proclaiming the Word is one of the most significant tasks of the ordained minister. We have been sent to bring good news to all and be positive in our proclamation of that Good News. If we are to listen to the voice of the people coming through this Synodal process, then we must always take that responsibility seriously.
This is just one example of where the synodal process will provide direction, confidence, and renewal to us as ordained ministers as it encourages us to return to what is essential in our ministry. It is hoped that it will also facilitate a greater reflection among the faithful in the wider Church of their responsibility to become more actively involved in the work of evangelisation. This will take time and patience. We have some way to go to fully appreciate that the task of protecting and passing on the treasure of our faith can not be left to just a few. It is the vocation of every baptised Christian.
As Pope Francis has repeatedly outlined, this synodal pathway that we have embarked on is truly the way God wants us to be Church in this third millennium. It will have its high points, and also its low points, but we trust it will bring us together as one in all our diversity. If it does then we will, as Isaiah proclaims in the 1st reading, be recognised as a people “whom the Lord has blessed”.
Notes to editors:
- Bishop Michael Router is Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh. This homily was preached at the annual Chrism Mass which was celebrated in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh on Wednesday 13 April 2022.