Today is first and foremost a celebration of the Good News of Christ’s resurrection on the fourth Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings focus specifically on the theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd – and that guides our focus as we give thanks for the 150 years that have passed since Bishop Francis Kelly opened St Eugene’s Cathedral for worship on May 4th 1873. By a strange co-incidence, that year May 4th was also Good Shepherd Sunday. Bishop Kelly had been Co-adjutor Bishop of this diocese for 15 years from 1849 and thus was the one who shepherded the construction of this building through many challenges. But today we give thanks for the one Good Shepherd Jesus who works through people and events in every generation, so that we might have life and have it to the full.
The first thing that strikes me about today’s Gospel is that the flock belongs to the Good Shepherd. The Church is not of our making. Different people are charged with responsibilities and are given gifts that come from their baptism. But we are not in charge. It is not uncommon to hear some people in church asking how we can regain or retain credibility with people. And they base proposed changes in church processes on what will bolster the credibility of the church where they have status. That is based on the false assumption that it is about our credibility. We will bear fruit when we are faithful to the Good Shepherd who calls us. The one who hung naked on the Cross between two thieves was not concerned with credibility or popularity.
It is interesting to note that it took practically a hundred years between the idea of a Cathedral – dreamed about in the 1830s shortly after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 – and the final consecration of the high altar that took place in April 1936 when the debt was eventually paid off. Those who planned and worked knew that they would never see the end of the process. But, with faith, hope and love, they were prepared to lay stone upon stone, knowing that when the Lord builds the house, the builders do not labour in vain. As Jesus told the apostles that, when they had done their work, they should say “We are merely servants; we have done no more than out duty.” (Luke 17:10). As St Paul wrote, it is only when we are aligned on Christ Jesus the cornerstone, that we can be built into house where God lives in the Spirit. (Cf Eph 2:22). As we seek to let the Good Shepherd work in our day, we need this reminder that the sheepfold will never stand unless it is built on solid rock and centred on Jesus. It is his church, not ours.
The second thing that speaks to me today in the readings is that the shepherd is concerned for the welfare of his flock. Jesus speaks about his voice reassuring the sheep and about them having both protection from thieves and brigands, and access to pasture. The church of Christ has the mission of building communities where the little ones are fed. It is no coincidence that the word ‘pastoral’ comes from the Latin word for a shepherd. A bishop’s crozier is made to resemble a shepherd’s crook, make with a curved top to pull sheep and lambs out of dangerous places. Jesus says that sheep respond to the voice of a good shepherd. Others they take no notice of. Today’s Gospel suggests to me that our main question as church is not merely ’how to we get more people to Mass on Sunday?’ but ‘are the hungry and the frightened being fed and led?’. That applies to all age groups – but especially to young people who face many pressures and stresses. Our new statue of Blessed Carlo Acutis, who died in 2006 aged 15, is part of a commitment to help the young to find the one who wants to lead them to fresh pastures and call them by name. Renewal will come when we focus on the good shepherd who does not want even one of the little ones to be lost (Matt 18:14). They are poor shepherds who do not care about the ones who go astray.
A third point comes to mind. This cathedral church has ministered in many difficult periods – the unsettled post-Famine decades leading to the creation of NI, years of unemployment and injustice, the awful years of the Troubles and the huge current economic and social uncertainties. Often, we think of church leaders whose names are known. But there was the famous piece of local graffiti to the effect that women did not just make shirts, they made communities. It is strong women and men of faith who were the salt to the earth and the light to our world in difficult times. And we were blessed with generations of extraordinarily generous consecrated women and men who provided education and many other services. In 1973, when the centenary of St Eugene’s was marked, it was impossible to have any substantial celebrations because of the raging conflict on our streets, not just here but across Northern Ireland. It took a further 25 years of work by dedicated peacemakers to bring us to the watershed moment of the Good Friday Agreement. Just as Jesus suffered on Calvary – as St Peter writes He was bearing our faults in his own body on the cross – the fragile peace was built on generous hearts who did not stop believing in a God who believed in people. We can wax eloquently about the past or what might be. But if we are going to build a future for people, we have to do that on an honest story about the past with its highs and lows. When history is written by the strong, the little ones who suffered are easily forgotten about. Honesty about the past has to be a central plank for both church and politicians. The pain of the past has to be processed through the lens of truth, not merely through what is politically expedient for the strong.
Jesus the Good Shepherd offers leadership has to do with promoting human flourishing and not merely economic policies. Jesus has a vision for what we can become by living for holiness. When church or politics fail to speak of human greatness and virtue, we have nothing to offer. Jesus wants his followers to be good shepherds concerned with human wholeness– and to resist the temptations to show off in the cheap search for popularity. People want a hand-up and not merely a hand-out. If we are to face the current challenges across church and society, we need generous-hearted leaders who speak with honesty. Shallow theology or pious political platitudes will never feed hungry hearts who want to know that there are shepherds whom they can trust.
Today we gather in the parish church of this diocese to give thanks for those who built this cathedral in hope when many must have told them to be sensible. We give thanks for those clergy, religious brothers and sisters, and laity who gathered here over the last 150 years to be nourished for the work of community building so that people might know the grace of God and have life to the full. We acknowledge the failings of the past but do not cease to have hope in the Good Shepherd who is at work in our midst. It is through the wounds of the Good Shepherd that we have been healed and not by our own holiness.
Please God, some of you will gather here in 2073 to celebrate the Good Shepherd who has been faithful to his flock since Saints Eugene and Colmcille spoke of Christ in our part of this island. Gabhaimid buíochas le Dia as na Naoimh a chuaigh romhainn – na Naoimh a bhfuil clú agus cáil orthu agus na Naoimh beaga a d’obair le Críost agus as son Chríost in achan glún. We give thanks for the saints who have gone before us – the famous ones and the little unknown saints who worked for and with Christ in every generation. When we can tell a good story about God’s goodness even in difficult times, we can face whatever the future holds. Moladh go deo le Dia. Blessed be God forever.