Oct 24, 2014

Mass at the tomb of Saint John Paul


Monday 20TH October 2014


We were especially privileged when Pope John Paul II spoke to the people of Limerick and, as he put it, to pobal dílis na Mumhan.   He came to us in the first year of his pontificate and I am often struck by the fact that many of the great themes that were to characterise his years as Pope were already being unveiled in Greenpark on that October morning. He spoke, for instance, on the importance of the family. That was the theme of a Synod of Bishops that he called, and of a major document, not to speak of his profound series of talks on marriage and sexuality which still need to be digested and applied. It was also the theme of the Synod, just concluded, a discussion which will resume next year.

One of the first points he made was about what he called “the vocation and mission” of baptised Christians, and in particular of lay people, to express the Gospel in their lives.  That was to be the theme of a Synod of Bishops and of one of the most important documents he left us: On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World.

I am not going to attempt to summarise all the issues he addressed during what was the third longest pontificate in history!  I simply want to share some thoughts about what the opening paragraphs of his address in Limerick might mean for us today.

He summed it up when he said, “Lay people today are called to a strong Christian commitment, to permeate society with the leaven of the Gospel, for Ireland is at a point of decision in her history”.  Now, 35 years on, there is no room for doubt about how right he was.  Ireland has indeed been at a point of decision, and we have many reasons to ask whether we have been choosing wisely.  We know well that these are crucial years for our country and for our Church – and that means for each of us.

This is not a time for looking around to see what other people should be doing.  It is a time for looking first at ourselves. Pope John Paul made it clear: “All Christians, incorporated into Christ and his Church by baptism, are consecrated to God. They are called to profess the faith which they have received”.

As Bishop Kevin Doran put it a few days ago: “I think all of us who love the Church know that she needs to be renewed. The question is whether we are willing to undergo a personal conversion in order for that to happen. Putting Christ at the centre of things is not just about prayer. It is also about allowing Jesus to inspire the way we live in our religious communities and in our parish communities. Prayer and apostolic action have to go hand in hand”[1].

The core of renewal is that we have to make choices, not just about political or economic or social issues.  Pope Benedict told us what the fundamental choice is: We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life”. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”[2].   The choice we have to make is about what our lives will mean, about whether we are willing to accept a whole new horizon and a decisive direction.

But what does all that mean in practice?  I will make three simple but challenging points. When a preacher puts forward a challenging point, of course, he challenges himself first of all.

The first is clearly set out for us in the Pope’s homily in Limerick: “Your country seems in a sense to be living again the temptations of Christ: Ireland is being asked to prefer the "kingdoms of the world and their splendour" to the kingdom of God”.  The temptations of Christ at the beginning of his public ministry express the fundamental question that is posed to us all through our lives:  Will we really give God  the first place, or will we see other things as the goal of our lives, like being wealthy – turning the stones to bread so that we never want for anything; becoming a celebrity – throwing ourselves from the pinnacle of the temple and being saved by angels so that people will admire and  follow us; and power – so that everyone will do what we want?  To each of those Jesus replies that in the end only God can give our lives meaning; only God offers a hope that is stronger than evil, suffering, hatred and death. We do not live by bread alone but by the words that come from the mouth of God; we must worship God and serve only him.  That is the core of the challenge.  As our year as City of Culture draws to a close we might remind ourselves what Pope John Paul wrote: that at the heart of every culture lies the attitude human beings take to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God[3].

The second point is that we who are baptised have an inescapable responsibility – to share with others the truth that sets us free: the hope and wonder that we find in our meeting with Christ.  That is why Pope John Paul told us in Limerick that every baptised person has a “role in the evangelisation of the world”.  That is why Pope Francis repeatedly tells us that he wants the whole Church to be missionary: “Being Church means being God’s people…  This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way”[4]. The task is urgent.  Our world is moved by many forces, “politics, the mass media, science, technology, culture, education, industry and work”.  Each of those can be transformed by believers who bring their faith in God and their love for all of their neighbours to bear on how they contribute to these areas of life. It is truer than ever that we are at a point of decision. In his pastoral letter calling a diocesan synod Bishop Brendan says “We are at a crucial time in the history of our diocese.  The missionary commitment of each one is essential.”

The third point is to ask what this demands of us in terms of how we see ourselves and our lives.  The Pope reminded us that we are "a chosen race, a holy priesthood", called to be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world".  He said that we are meant to transform the world.  The phrase ‘transform the world’ is not about wishful thinking!  St John Paul once wrote about a particular kind of sinfulness which undermines and blights society: the sin of "those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world"[5].

How do we change the world?  We are doing it right now.  In celebrating the Eucharist we are uniting everything in our lives the hopes the fears, the weakness, the joy, the fragility, the love, the anxieties for others, those we love, living and dead, those we have harmed.  All of that becomes part of Christ’s offering.  We offer the Body of Christ which he offered on Calvary, but we know that we are his Body and so in our offering, even in offering our weaknesses and failures, we fulfil the words of St Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body that is the church”.   The whole Body of Christ, including ourselves, has not yet followed him through death.  But that process is still going on.

Every baptised person is a priest – and not only during Mass – because the Mass gathers up the whole of life into Christ’s offering and sends us out to continue playing our part in his transforming of the world into the new creation, which is the fruit of his death and resurrection.  “And so”, as Vatican II put it, “worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God”[6].

The vision that Pope John Paul presented to us in Limerick is one in which every disciple of Christ valuing all the varied activities of life, brings to all the varied spheres of his or her life the light of the Gospel which gives them new hope and new insights, or as Pope Benedict put it ‘a new horizon and new direction’

That is why, at the end of this Mass, we are sent out with words like ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’.  What we celebrate in the Eucharist is not meant to be left behind at the altar.  It is meant to be lived in a world which needs to see in us the central truth of our faith: We have come to believe in God's love and the new horizon and new direction that the Gospel of Christ offers us.

[1] DORAN, K.  Homily for the 5th Centenary of St Teresa of Avila, Clarendon St, Dublin, 15 October 2014.

[2] BENEDICT XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1

[3] JOHN PAUL II, Centesimus Annus, 24

[4] FRANCIS Evangelii Gaudium, 114

[5] JOHN PAUL II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16.

[6] VATICAN II, Lumen Gentium, 34