Remembering Saint Kevin—Welcoming God’s Future
To remember St Kevin is to call to mind not only the patron of our diocese, but it is to celebrate the roots of the Church in this Diocese of Dublin. Celebrating our roots is not about our past, but is about who we are, and who we are called to be. A living Church is a reality that has deep roots; but more: the Church is a reality needs deep roots, so that we can truly embrace our ever-changing present, and have the capacity to welcome the future offered to us by God.
You don’t need me to point out to you how rapidly our world and this country are changing, and the effects this has across all aspects of ecclesial life. The rapid pace of change has been expressed very clearly in some of the figures from the most recent census, published on Tuesday last.
Which Church? Responding in Times of Rapid Change)
While these figures merit serious reflection and interpretation, and while they may make the headlines in domestic media and occasion comment in media abroad, the question that presents itself to people of faith is how we respond. The question is what do we do? In order to frame things I thought it might be fruitful to look at a parallel situation of turmoil in the Church, and one of the figures—a saint—who found a way of negotiating that turmoil for himself and for others. There have been many eras of turmoil in the last 2000 years: one could think of the turmoil around the Christological controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries, or the turmoil in the Renaissance with the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and all that followed in their wake, or the turmoil in the wake of the Enlightenment, or that in the last century in the wake of the horror of the two world wars. Let us not fool ourselves: we’re still working our way through the effects of these recent cultural upheavals! How do we respond? What do we do? In describing an earlier wave of what we’re currently living through, Church historian Eamon Duffy speaks of a reactionary European Catholicism with “the pope besieged in an aggressively secular Italy, the church’s monopoly over education and morals challenged everywhere by the rise of liberal democracies.” Duffy continues, “Pius IX responded by cranking up the claims of the papacy and denouncing the secular world—egged on by what [John Henry] Newman called ‘an aggressive and insolent faction,’ who made unquestioning obedience to hyper-orthodoxy the sole test of Catholicism.” (The Guardian, September 18, 2010)
At play were different visions of what the Church was, and how the Church was to be in the world. The Church as a whole, and those in positions of leadership, found themselves tossed and torn in the turmoil of the times.
Discerning the Church—John Henry Newman as Guide
In this context it is interesting to consider John Henry Newman—now Saint John Henry Newman. In Newman we have a window on our own situation. John Henry Newman was a person of profound faith. He “believed deeply in God and in Jesus, was morally very upright, of great asceticism and holiness of life. Intellectually, however, he was very confused. [Within the Anglicanism of his day,] he did not know which Church really represented the Church established by Jesus.” Reading his spiritual autobiography—his famous Apologia, one discovers how much it cost him to arrive at a sense of what the Church truly was, or where the Church truly was. This is what the late Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini described as “the effort of grasping from among the different ways of thinking, the different arguments, the many theologies and philosophies, the right one.” I do not wish to oversimplify or reduce the complexity of Newman’s journey, but “at a certain point in his journey, reflecting carefully on the heresies of the 4th century, on how the Church had overcome Arianism and Donatism, [Newman] perceived the principle of unity and the centrality of Rome. [For Newman this was] an ‘illumination’ that changed his life” (see Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Incontro al Signore Risorto (2012), 90–91).
In a time of change and turmoil, Newman worked out—for himself—what and where the Church was. He came to his own vision of the Church. In this time of change and turmoil, we have to work out—for ourselves—what and where the Church was. We—the clergy and engaged laity of this diocese—have to do the same. This is where God is calling us, and this is our responsibility as disciples of Christ: together, listening to each other and to those beyond our comfort zone. Is this not the heart of our Building Hope initiative?
Becoming Adult Disciples—Called to Mature Faith
It is no longer adequate to cite the Pope and say, “The pope says this …,” or to cite another pope and say “This other pope says that!” No! More is demanded of us. Like Newman, our crisis—the crisis of the clergy and engaged laity a crisis of vision. This is nothing new. In the reading we heard, “one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’ (1 Cor 3:4) But this aligning behind our favourite ‘authorities’—be they popes, theologians, or religious ‘influencers,’ in the end, hold us back. It hinders us standing on our own two feet before our Lord (see Romans 14:4). The adult faith to which we are called is other. Mature faith is a faith which is owned, “which has been worked through. It is absolutely essential for the mature Christian to acquire personal, inner convictions in order to be a serious proclaimer of the gospel in a pluralistic world buffeted by conflicting opinions” (Martini, Incontro al Signore Risorto, 94).
This journey to adulthood in the faith demands a type of conversion, what one might call a conversion of our vision, a conversion which is “proper to one who has learnt to reason [for themselves], to grasp the reasonableness of faith thanks to a journey, perhaps a tiring one, that makes them capable of enlightening others.” (Martini, Incontro al Signore Risorto, 91)
Mature Faith at Work: a Vision of the Church in the Europe of Today
The other day I was very struck by something Cardinal Aveline, the Archbishop of Marseille, said at the end of his words of welcome for the new Archbishop of Lille (in Northern France). In encouraging his brother at the beginning of his ministry in a new place and among a new people he said,
The mission of the Church is not be a religion which succeeds according to the world’s criteria for success—those of control and efficiency. No! The mission of the Church is humbly to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order to be at the service of that love with which God loves the world. Without counting the cost, give of yourself to this people who await you, this people whom God has entrusted to you, and to whom you have been entrusted by God. I pray that together you may live the wonderful adventure of being disciples of Christ, the wonderful adventure of the mission of the Church. (Installation of Bishop Laurent Le Boul’ch as Archbishop of Lille. May 20, 2023)
“I pray that together you may live the wonderful adventure of being disciples of Christ, the wonderful adventure of the mission of the Church.” We celebrate the Feast of St Kevin. In the end, what do we celebrate, if not someone who himself “lived the wonderful adventure of being a disciple of Christ.” This is not some dreamy thought born in the mists of history! If today’s celebration is to mean anything, it has to be founded upon reality. Of course, our access to St Kevin is not the same as our access to Saint John Henry Newman, or St John XXIII, or St Paul VI or St John Paul II, but the reality is the same. Otherwise, we are celebrating not the truth of God among us, but some feel-good, nostalgic, romanticised illusion. What began in the life and ministry of Kevin was real.
The Reality of Saint Kevin Today—Living the Adventure of the Mission of the Church
“I pray that together you may live the wonderful adventure of being disciples of Christ, the wonderful adventure of the mission of the Church.” These are the 21st century words of a 21st century pastor, but in their heart is the life of the Church. Hear today’s Gospel: “Peter, Son of John, do you love me? … Feed my lambs.” The wonderful adventure of being disciples of Christ! “Peter, Son of John, do you love me?” … Feed my sheep.” The wonderful adventure of the mission of the Church!
There is a type of irrepressible hope in the words of Cardinal Aveline, someone born in French Algeria, in a Muslim context, whose parents brought him to France in 1966, aged seven, a child. In the language of Pope Francis, we might call him someone who comes from the margins. A Christian in a Muslim country, in a time of turmoil and terror, a refugee in France, an outsider among his own, as it were, his definition of the mission of the Church comes from the depth of his experience of faith made his own, and from his cultural identity:
The mission of the Church is not be a religion which succeeds according to the world’s criteria for success—those of control and efficiency. No! The mission of the Church is humbly to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order to be at the service of that love with which God loves the world.
This is not the Church of power and domination. A Church which is at the service of that love with which God loves the world—all the world. “Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep.” This is a way of being Church for our time. But is it his working out of the mission of the Church for himself and his people, with and among his flock, as it were.
We are called to do the same for our place and for our time, this Dublin of 2023, this culture, this changing Ireland. Newman had to do this for himself. There was much at stake for him. In a way, it made him the person, the saint, he became.
Beyond a Self-Referential Church: the Mission of the Church in Dublin Today
Maybe the following questions might help us focus and find a way of seeing the Church for our time.
What is precious to you in the Church? What do you want to hand on?
What have you discovered about the life of the Church through your ministry, or through life in your parish? What has become important to you that was not important to you 20 years ago, or 10 years ago?
Two things are clear: we can only answer these questions together, and we can only answer them by listening to each other. Let us move beyond what Pope Francis calls, the “structures which give us a false sense of security, beyond rules which make us harsh judges, beyond habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 49) “Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep.”
St Kevin of Glendalough. Pray for us.
St Laurence O’Toole. Pray for us.
St John Henry Newman, St John XIII, St Paul VI, St John Paul II, Pastors of God’s Flock. Pray for us.
St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena, Doctors of the Church. Pray for us.
Mary, Mother of the Church. Pray for us.
- Archbishop Dermot Farrell is Archbishop of Dublin.