Last Sunday, 50 of us from the diocese of Derry were in St Peter's Square as Pope Francis officially numbered Mother Teresa of Calcutta among the saints of God. It was a memorable experience to be there as part of a vast crowd who waited for hours in baking sun to acknowledge the sanctity of this missionary of mercy. Today we celebrate this final local diocesan pilgrimage to mark the Year of mercy, with the tail wind of Mother Teresa's example and the powerful Gospel that the Church puts before us today. All renewal in the church has come from an encounter with the Word of God and from the outstanding example of our heroes of the faith, those whom we call saints.
So what pointers might our readings today give us as to where renewal and new life will come? How can we ensure that, after the year of mercy, we have not just had a series of nice events but have gained new insights into what it means to be Church of saints in our time and in our place?
Firstly, the picture of the shepherd and the woman in the Gospel parables is almost ridiculous. Why would a shepherd risk 99 good sheep to find one awkward animal that had got lost? Why would a woman celebrate finding a coin – and then spend most of the money on a party? But Pope Francis used a wonderful phrase during his closing homily at World Youth day in Krakow on July 31st. He said that God is always 'hopelessly hopeful' for every human being. 'God remains faithful, even obstinate in his love for us. He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves.'
Thus Pope Francis' message about not judging people for their sin is not some sort of softening of Catholic teaching. It actually reflects the unreasonable hunger that God has for each person to be found and to be saved. So the Lord today is not just talking to people of his own time but to us. Does our prayer make us 'hopelessly hopeful' for the addict, the thug, the prisoner and the person who seems incapable of helping themselves? A church that withdraws into itself or tries to re-establish its power is not a church which is moulded by today's parables. Christ's people are not those who espouse a church version of 'make America great again' or 'make Britain great again'. There is always danger that those who want to 'make the Church great again' have missed the point. As St Paul tells the Galatians, the only thing I can boast about is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Gal 6:14)
And that does not just mean us individually being nice to beggars. It is much more a question of how the lost sheep in our parishes feel about those of us who are church-goers. Does our prayer and worship make us seem pious and superior – or uncomfortable with the Jesus who was himself mocked, rejected and counted with the outcasts when he hung on the cross? A Year of Mercy that does not make us much more merciful and zealous is a waste of time. Mercy pilgrimages that do not make us more generous suggest a community inn retreat, not one energised to be ridiculously merciful. Maybe, if we want to evaluate how well the Year of Mercy has gone, we should not merely check how many people went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation or on pilgrimage – but also ask the homeless and the addicts, the hoods and those in shattered relationships, whether they see more of the merciful Christ in us his people.
Secondly, there are those who would like to portray the big question for Church as having to do with whether we find the way forward in action or in prayer. Mother Teresa's life shows how that is a sterile contrast. It was precisely her deep commitment to prayer before Christ in the Eucharist that spurred her on to picking the dying up from the street. On the one hand we cannot allow the love of Christ to mould our hearts unless we spend time with the Eucharistic, self-sacrificing Lord. Otherwise our good works can be an ego-trip. On the other hand, Eucharistic adoration brings up face to face with the Lord who has ridiculous compassion for the lost sheep. Prayer pushes us out into the streets. It does not protect us from the harshness of life on the peripheries. Prayer and action are inseparable. Prayer without action is not Christian prayer.
Thirdly, these parables challenge us to ask a difficult question. Have I always seen myself as one of the well-behaved 99, as one of the coins that didn't get lost – or have I also known what it is like to be sought out and found by Christ? It is only those who allow themselves to be forgiven that can actually share the good news of that mercy of Jesus. Our faithfulness to Jesus is shown by our knowing that we are loved and forgiven sinners and never by our being keen to judge and condemn.
So the challenge to me in this Year of Mercy is to know where I am not the perfect disciple of Jesus, and to share my story with the other very imperfect followers of Christ. If Pope Francis, when asked to say who he was, replied, 'I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon' , then there is no reason for us to not be proud of the love that God has shown for us. If all we can boast about is our own presumed holiness and achievements, we have not heard Mary's words, 'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.' Similarly, in our second reading, Paul could say about himself, Jesus Christ meant to make me the greatest evidence of his inexhaustible patience for all the other people who would later have to trust in him to come to eternal life. Like St Paul, we boast of God's goodness, not ours.
Since last Sunday, we have a new saint. She found ways to respond with the love of Christ in a modern urban environment. She struggled with times when God seemed distant. She knew that, as for Jesus, faith in the Father was not merely happy-clappy, feel-good self-help idea. Discipleship means picking up your cross and walking the streets, carrying it. And then you will have a heart to seek the lost sheep and to go after the lost coin. And on the last day, that will be your treasure.