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Homily - Chrism Mass 2024 - Bishop McKeown


Holy Thursday, 28 March 2024
St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry

This Chrism Mass presents us every year with the start of Jesus' ministry. He returns from his temptations and says in Nazara that he has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor. In the temptations, the devil had urged him to take easy ways forward that would not cost him too much. But he is clear – he has come to take the road less travelled and bring healing and hope to those most in need of care and belonging, whatever the cost.

As we gather in our diocesan family, what do these readings tell us about who we are as church and how we need to be renewed?

Firstly, Jesus comes only to be and to bring Good News, especially to those who feel most bruised, unlovable and condemned by others. He has a passion for that call. And his passion is the price he pays for being true to that call. The first principle of our identity as the diocese of Derry is the mission of evangelisation as the driving force of the Church. We have no other purpose.

Synodality is not about changing church teaching or making us more palatable to modern tastes. It is not merely prioritising the question as to how we will supply masses with fewer ordained clergy. It is a matter of letting the light of the Holy Spirit shine on how we are parishes and seeing clearly what we need to change in order to better proclaim mercy, live mercifully and bring good news to the poor. Our parishes and diocese have to be structured and to prioritise their resources so as to serve the mission. There is a huge need in our society for hope and outreach. There is no grace in retreating to look after ourselves or trying to bolt a little bit of mission onto a structure whose priority has been reduced to maintenance. Maintenance is centred mostly on those who are there and allows us to lament those who are absent. Mission is directed to those who are not there and to lament our absence at their side. That is much more difficult territory – but it is where Jesus wants us to go.

Synodally driven renewal is not about getting parishioners to help the clergy with some of their work, but about helping the laity to take on their roles

by Bishop McKeown
Secondly, there is another temptation when we think of renewal. I have heard plenty of apparently sensible suggestions that the future will be secured by having permanent deacons or changing the criteria for who can be ordained. That would, people argue, help the priests to do all the work that they have to do, especially with funerals, wedding etc. But that starts with the fatally flawed premise that the church is an organisation with a clerical class who do all the holy stuff. When we begin with that assumption, we simply increase size of the clerical caste and promote a lay clericalism. But the synod's report last October has a second principle - the promotion of participation in the mission, which is the gift and responsibility of all the baptised. The Synthesis Report approved at the end of the First Session of the assembly recognises that the co-responsibility of all in the mission "must be the criterion at the basis of the structuring of Christian communities and of the entire local Church with all its services, in all its institutions, in all its organism of communion" (SR 18b). Pope John Paul II in his 1988 document Christifideles Laici had the subtitle 'on the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the church and in the world'. Synodally driven renewal is not about getting parishioners to help the clergy with some of their work, but about helping the laity to take on their roles. The ordained, the consecrated religious and the laity are all constituent parts of the line of kings and priests to serve God our Father. Restructuring that is not centred on the whole Body of Christ as salt to the earth and light to the world is built on sand. We are living cells in Body of Christ, not franchises, or branch offices for religious services under Christ's brand. Renewal does not come by helping Father with his many existing jobs. It comes from laity taking up the mission proper to them. That is a real challenge to clergy and parishes. But it is only by cherishing the giftedness of all in the Body of Christ, that we can become what one author calls 'an antidote to an age of decomposing bonds and identity fundamentalism'[1]

Thirdly, even on the day that he spoke in Nazara, Jesus upset his listeners. We all like to think that we are smart enough to be in control of what is happening. The world is coming down with courses on managing change. The ongoing temptation for the church down through the centuries is to think that we manage the church and that it is our job to take decisions. But the Holy Spirit wants to liberate us from the illusion of self-sufficiency. We see that temptation in the shallow theology of those who say, "let's change this or that, let's modernise and all will be well. "Following Jesus always invite us out into the desert or via the hill of Calvary. Discipleship means leaving behind our agendas and being open to being led by the Holy Spirit. Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the builders labour. (Ps 127)

Thus, the most radical and demanding lesson of renewal is the spiritual character of the synodal process. It is easy to descend into a battle over ideas or between opposing factions. But the Acts of the Apostles shows the early church being relentlessly driven from where it felt comfortable into a space where it knew it was not in charge. The church in Antioch was praying when the Holy Spirit told them to set Barnabas and Paul aside for a mission to modern Turkey (Acts 13:2). At the Council of Jerusalem, the members talked and prayed – and wrote a letter that "it has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by us" (Acts 15:28). Renewal comes from listening together to discern the voice of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayerful hearts. Those who reduce church to a parliament for the strong will find it easy to hear loud voices – but it will be deaf to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit and to the voice of the poor who cry from the margins.

Today we begin the three solemn days of the Easter triduum. It leaves me with these two challenges from Jesus.

  • Do people look at our parishes and see communities anointed by the Holy Spirit and focussed on bringing good news to the poor and needy? If not, we need to ask ourselves 'why not?'

  • Are we working together to become a missionary church, helping hurting people unburden themselves of the sin that clings so easily – or are we trapped in cosy self-serving agendas of managing decline? Jesus in the Gospel has no time for that.

  • Jesus calls us to work hard, to listen to one another and to allow the Spirit of Jesus to be the Lord of the Church.

If we labour under the illusion that we know better, in the future we will certainly have fewer clergy, but they will be more than sufficient for the small numbers of active parish members! Are we prepared to walk on the rough surface of the road less travelled?

+ Donal

[1] A Ivereigh. First Belong to God, Dublin, 2024, Mesenger Publications, pxviii

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Francis Street, Derry
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