Aug 17, 2018

Bishop Leahy's - Homily at the Killeedy mass rock


Homily Notes of Bishop Brendan Leahy, August 15th 2018, Kileedy

We are now beginning the Countdown to the World meeting of Families and the arrival of Pope Francis to our shores.  It’s undoubtedly a pivotal moment for our Church, for many reasons.  It is, therefore, opportune, in preparing for this great coming that we take time to review where we’ve been and take all we can from it, bad and good, as ingredients for the future.

Before that, however, Pope Francis is the 266th Pope in history and only the second ever to visit Ireland. While the Pope is certainly a world celebrity and hugely popular – it’s enough to think that over 2000 journalists are registered to cover his visit to Ireland – for Catholics he is an instrument in the hands of God. Of course, he is a human being like all of us, a “sinner” as he defines himself, and yet he is a special person linked particularly to the Holy Spirit, a unique representative of Jesus Christ coming among us to be a healing presence, speaking words of wisdom and offering new horizons. As Catherine of Siena, one of the great women saints of the Church put it, the Pope is the gentle Christ on earth.

So it is important for us to prepare for his coming. People at many levels, both church and state, have already done a lot practically to get everything ready. I want to express the gratitude of our Diocese to them. But as we now draw near the big days, it is important that as a Diocese we open our hearts and minds to welcome the Pope spiritually.

That’s why I’m happy we have come here today to this place linked with another great woman, this time of our Irish Tradition, St. Ita. She lived in this lovely place in the sixth century, forming a community and became a spiritual mother to many, not least St. Brendan the future Navigator saint. We know that centuries later this place also became a point for the community to gather at this Mass rock where generations prayed in circumstances that were far from easy.

So here we now are, young and old, families and single people, a representative group of the family of our Diocese preparing to welcome Pope Francis. We’re here on the Feast of the Assumption when we remember how open Mary was to God and how fulfilled she became in following God’s plan for her. Symbolically, we are declaring we want to adjust our spiritual antennae to pick up the signals God will be sending into our hearts and minds in the days of the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit. If we know how to grasp the moment, the Pope’s visit can be a pivotal moment for our church and for our society.

To help us I would take the image of standing at a crossroads. In Ireland, if we want, the Pope’s visit will be a crossroads.  I want to suggest that as we stand at this crossroads, there are three directions we need to look.

First, we need to look back and re-read where we’ve come from and acknowledge our past, good and bad. Recently, a friend from America visited so I brought him around to see some of the sites of Ireland. It struck me powerfully yet again just how imbued our history has been with Christianity – from literature such as the Book of Kells to artistic works such as the Ardagh chalice, from architecture such as the ancient monasteries and abbeys such as those in Adare or Askeaton to community rituals in almost every local parish of Ireland like here in Kileedy where you celebrate an annual Mass at this Mass rock and in January celebrate St. Ita’s Feast Day. In explaining something of how Ireland works to my visitor, I was able to point to the initiatives established by pioneering Catholic men and women of the 19th century – schools, hospitals and works of outreach to people in need. It is good for us in these days to recall with a grateful heart just how much the Church, made up of ordinary women and men like you and me, did to contribute to Irish society. Without gratitude we grow cynical. We can and should be proud of the living commitment in faith and hope of those of previous generations. We can draw inspiration from it and express our thanks to them.

But, then, we need to acknowledge the dark aspects of our Church’s history that have come to light especially in recent decades – a clericalism that ended up confusing power and ministry, the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious that did untold life-long damage to victims, the violent and repressive treatment by church representatives of young people sent to the State’s reformatory institutions, the dark experience of vulnerable women in places meant to be residences of refuge.  Sadly, as has been highlighted, cover-up, wilful or otherwise, and mismanagement compounded the damage, adding to our shame.

We know that not every bishop or priest or sister or brother or lay person engaged in church circles was bad. And we know that not everyone was good. Those of us of a certain age, however, know many, many who were very kind, caring and helpful. But to acknowledge with gratitude the good can never eclipse recognition of sin, criminality and evil. In some way, everyone in the church bears the shame of these darks aspects of our history. Few of us can throw stones as if we ourselves were not somehow associated.

And so we need to prepare spiritually for the Pope’s coming with an act of reparation, that is, a desire to want to “repair” the Church first of all by seeking forgiveness for the sins of the past. At Mass we say “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”. Each of us can decide to see the sins of the Church not simply someone else’s fault, but actually see them also as my story and so, on behalf of my sisters and brothers, past and present, I can say, we can say together, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”. “Brothers and sisters in Christ who have been wounded by my deeds, have mercy on me”.

Even though the Catholic Church in Ireland now has a range of services in place and very active training programmes in safeguarding, we need to know how to stay with an awareness of the pervasiveness of abuse and those dark parts of our human nature that tend to exploit weakness and vulnerability. Abuse has a devastating effect on victims and their families. It can impact on all dimensions of their lives and there are no quick or simple solutions to what are sometimes their lifelong struggles. As well as needing to pray for those who have been wounded we need to keep listening and to learn from them how to clarify and repair our church.

A second suggestion as we stand at a crossroads with the coming of Pope Francis. Look around us where we are now and be pro-active in repairing the Church today. It really is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I recall some years ago a woman I know went to Rome and attended the weekly audience with the Pope. As she sat there, she found herself thinking the Pope is not a young man and must need a lot of help in his role as Pope. Suddenly she began to think: “He needs my help”. It was like a flash of lightning that changed her way of seeing things. Until then she had somehow thought of the Pope as a CEO of some big multinational company. But that isn’t the Church. The Church isn’t just the Pope or bishops or priests or nuns. The Church is a people, it’s you and me who continue, despite (or, indeed, in and through) all our limits, to be Jesus Christ in this world. The woman said it marked a turning point for her. She realised, “I am the Church wherever I am at home, at work, in the neighbourhood”.

What’s most important in the Church is not this or that issue or this or that structure. What matters most is love. Each of us builds the Church through putting into practice the art of loving the Gospel teaches. Sometimes love is seen only as sentiment or in terms of morality. But love is at the heart of the Church. Indeed, one of the definitions of the Church is “love for one another”. Love is what gives life to our institutions. We are talking about the art of loving that Jesus teaches in the Gospel: be the first to love, love everyone, love our neighbour as ourselves, love our enemy and, above all, love one another. It’s what Pope Francis so often repeats: go outside ourselves, reach out especially to the peripheries, wherever they might be around us.

And this is why the family is so important. It’s the place where we first learn the ways of love. True, there’s no such thing as a perfect family. Each family is on a journey but it is the special place of love given, love received, love shared and experienced.

A third suggestion. We need to look to the future with hope, watching for the signposts that show the way. I like a phrase Pope Francis often repeats: “do not let yourselves be robbed of hope”. Catholics can be downbeat today because it is painful to acknowledge in our family story that we have wounded people. It isn’t easy, not least for those who are proud of their Church and the good work that it does and they do in it, to hear our own Catholic identity pilloried daily in one way or another. The group think that says to be Catholic is out of date seems sometimes overwhelming. But let’s remember, if Jesus had spent his time worrying about what people were saying about him or seeing how the numbers following him were declining (and the numbers following Jesus declined dramatically in his life time!), he would have achieved little. Instead, he kept going forward in hope. Likewise, for us. We need to move forward, attentive to what the Spirit is saying to us.

As we look around us at this crossroads moment in Ireland, we need to be both faithful to our heritage and creative in expressing Christian faith and love today. It would be such a shame were we to lose the memory of our Christian heritage. But equally, love makes us creative of new ways. Creative fidelity calls us to be open to new ways.

The Church of tomorrow will be very different. We are going to have to learn more deeply how to be Christians travelling together with the Risen Jesus among us. The Gospel story of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus is a signpost for us. They were downcast but in sharing their story of pain, allowing the Risen Jesus enlighten them with his Word and Sacrament, they experienced him among them offering new hope and direction. From the depths of suffering they became witnesses to Good News.

To be Catholic isn’t simply about Mass on Sunday or certain moral rules or pious practices. Unfortunately, too often, and perhaps we ourselves are partly to blame, our Catholic faith has been reduced to this caricature. Catholic faith is something much more alive and dynamic. It is about discovering the true freedom that comes from following Jesus who makes us really free. It is about following, day by day, God the Father’s unique plan for each one of us and for our world in our small and big decisions. It is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit who enables us individually and then together to be one heart and one soul, working to build a world that is more united, more fraternal, more peaceful, more equitable in the sharing of resources, more sensitive to the environmental care of our common home, more attentive to the vulnerable and promotion to the integrity of life at all levels.

Catholics believe true fulfilment comes in an encounter with a Person that sets us free and in a community that is authentic. As we move into the future, we will need to discover more radically what it means to say we go to God together. We will need to strengthen the fabric of our own Christian communities as real Spirit-filled places of sharing and belonging in Jesus Christ. And then, too, our communities will need to recognise how to be open and be in relationship with others – with those of our faith, those of other faiths, those of other views, religious or otherwise.

One of the developments in the Church in recent decades has been the emergence of various new groups and associations, movement and communities in the Church: bible groups, spiritual groups, prayer groups, youth groups, social action groups. They want to come together in this more participative lively way. This is surely a pointer from the Holy Spirit.

The challenge, of course, is to re-connect faith and the search for meaning and direction that so many of our contemporaries experience. Just as faith and culture managed to connect so powerfully in our history, might it not be possible to imagine a new creative meeting of the Christian life and today’s new cultures?

It can seem at times in Ireland that religion has to be relegated to the private domain alone. We also seem to be saying to ourselves we want to go beyond a moral compass of the past. I acknowledge a Catholicism that spoke to a previous era might seem too confining to people today. There is a desire to break out, open new horizons, be in dialogue with world horizons, go beyond frontiers. But this is the very change the Catholic Church itself knows it needs. The Catholic Church too feels compelled to break into a new way of being Church in our world. Pope Francis exemplifies this.

But in searching for the new, let’s be careful not to discard too easily what is valuable and noble and deep in our Irish Christian heritage. To throw away what seems no longer fit for purpose shouldn’t mean we end up eclipsing the huge resources of insight and wisdom, intellectual research and enlightenment within the Christian parameters that speak of human fulfilment and freedom.

When we consider the social ills of isolation and individualism that have so easily taken hold of us in Irish society, the Church today needs to offer in new ways oases of community life can be a real contribution to helping people because people are searching.

Young people seek out like-minded friends on social media because they want to find clusters of meaning and belonging. Too often they are presented with counterfeits of meaning and love. They can be peddled the fake news that happiness is found in the “likes” on social media or the “image” of brands. Deep down, however, they know there are problematic issues. I am always struck when talking to young people how often they mention their friends who suffer mental ill health or stress or inner emptiness.

And this is where we need to appeal to young people. There are many, many very fine young people today, with great values of respect and toleration and inclusiveness. Though not directly linked to Church, many of them will recognise the Church as part of them in some way. Their difficulty with finding a connection with the Church isn’t their fault. We need young people to help Church-attending members to find the way forward on how to reconnect youth cultures and Church.

Might this visit of Pope Francis be a moment when young people might look again at what the Church really has to offer. The risk is that with years of religious education at school we might think we know Christianity, but perhaps we don’t. It’s not enough to know a few facts and figures about Church. We need to experience it deeply in ways that are new. For that to happen, we have to be open to it. And that’s an invitation I’d like to extend to young adults. We need you because you are part of our access to what God is saying to the Church today. We need you to help us find the ways towards the future that God has marked out for us all. I am grateful to the young people in groups and initiatives that bring so much life to our Church – the groups that travel to Lourdes helping out, the young people taking part in summer camps, the young people who go to youth retreats and gatherings, the young people volunteering in church initiatives.

I conclude by thanking you all for coming. We’re here in a region associated with St. Ita. the great woman saint who built the Church community in her day. And today, Feast of the Assumption, we think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, our mother. She did the most important thing in history – she brought Jesus into the world and so transformed it. Now it’s our turn to do our part. Pope Francis’ visit is like an appointment with history for us. Let’s not miss it.

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