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Homily - Mission Sunday 2020 - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 18 October 2020

October has long been the time when we are asked as a Church to focus on our missionary outreach to other countries. Mission Sunday still asks to remember those who have gone out from here to bring the Gospel to far-flung corners of the world. And we do well to remember that, for generations, many of our finest young people felt called to spend their lives in the service of other lands and peoples. Like the great Celtic missionary saints, often they are much better known abroad than at home. But what might Mission Sunday tell us with 2020 vision in this pandemic year?

Unless religious practice is an expression of faith in Jesus, we are offering little more than religious-themed entertainment.

Firstly, in the Gospel passage, Jesus talks about those whom he is sending into the world to make him known. Obviously, Jesus was speaking about his followers who were a small group, a tiny minority. He wanted the world out there to hear his message. But so many of our baptised contemporaries have not actually rejected the Gospel. They have never really heard it. Some have known bits and pieces of religious practices and are happy periodically to avail of the religious services that our parishes work so hard to offer. But Jesus seeks more than that. He prays for the apostles and for those who, through them, will believe in him. Unless religious practice is an expression of faith in Jesus, we are offering little more than religious-themed entertainment. Unless religious practice draws people into the mystery of Christ's presence among us and out to those 'who are dejected and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd', then we have missed the point. If maintenance of the structure has actually become the only mission that we know, then we have lost our identity as missionary disciples. Jesus, at the Last Supper, did not pray to the Father to bless a bunch of self-absorbed disciples. If the pandemic is driving us to be too preoccupied with ourselves, then we need to hear his prayer on Mission Sunday.

Secondly, the mission of Jesus is focused on those who most need to hear good news. In his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reflects on the many things that damage solidarity and community. In a potentially quite depressing first chapter, he talks about the rise of 'short-sighted, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism' (para 11), 'empty individualism' (para 12) and 'a strategy of exaggeration, extremism and relentless criticism' (para 15). Pope Francis speaks about the marginalisation of the '"not yet useful"- like the unborn or the "no longer needed" – like the elderly' (para 19).That harsh 'throwaway culture' may suit the strong. But the disadvantaged pay the price

That is the real modern void into which the mission of the Church is sent to speak. Jesus wants his disciples to venture out into it, energised by trust, not paralysed by fear. In this divided world, the Church is not an end in itself but a tool to be used by God to serve the mission. The question we need to keep asking ourselves in Ireland is whether we are putting all our energies into being fit for purpose in this new environment. There are those who want to return to a model of Church that was effective in a different age. There are those who focus on structural changes such as who can be ordained for ministry. But if we are 'consecrated in the truth' – as Jesus says – we will be seeking to discern God's outrageous dream for the way forward and not merely the implementation of our limited imagination. If we allow ourselves to be 'sent into the world', we will keep our eyes on the ministry of Jesus and not merely on joining passing political or theological fads. Jesus never wanted to be seen as relevant in the service of someone else's philosophical or moral crusade. He wanted hurting people to know the love and mercy of the Father. St Paul in our second reading knew that. He praises the people of Thessalonica because they received the message about Jesus 'not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction'. Thus, I am delighted that we are still able to have public worship in NI. Our parishes have made that possible because of great planning and consistency. But a missionary people gather in church, not defensively or ego-centrically in order to demand our civil rights to worship but so that we can be better prepared to bring hope to the frightened and lonely and to all those who will be squeezed by economic pressures and crushed by a hollow consumerist ideology.

Thirdly, there is much talk now about discernment and a synodal church. That all reflects trust in God's Holy Spirit working in the hearts of all the baptised. But synodality and discernment are at the service of the mission, not ends in themselves. Jesus wanted to energise his disciples in every generation, not to politicise them with simplistic slogans. We will need clergy into the future who have the skills to lead by listening to both God and God's people. We need to be forming courageous laity who will not be afraid of the hard questions and of holding church structures accountable. In today's Gospel, Jesus is aware that the unity of his disciples is a key element in his message, so that the world might believe that Jesus is the one whom the Father sent. A divided Christianity is already a scandal to a world that wants to see Good News in action. A divided Church just adds to the world's burden of division and fragmentation. If we seek only the victory of our hobbyhorse, then we are not at the races in serving the mission of Jesus.

Mission Sunday is a day in the year to think about our missionaries abroad. We are so grateful for them, often working with God's little ones in impoverished and war-torn parts of the world. But today is also a challenge to rediscover a missionary culture that has characterised the Irish Church for much of the last 1500 years. That means believing in Jesus who gave his life for the life of the world. It means taking up our cross to follow him, dying to ourselves so that Christ's life can be born in us. A church that can refocus its efforts on bringing good news to our neighbours will naturally develop a heart that sees beyond our local horizons. We will be focused on God's glory and not merely on the alleged glories of a mythical Golden Age. Like the prophet in the first reading, we trust that God will use all sorts of strange situations and characters to bring about the divine Kingdom of Justice and peace. Because that is the only purpose and mission that the Church has.

+ Donal McKeown


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