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Homily - Ordination to the Diaconate of Stephen Ward - Bishop McKeown

Friday, 6 January Feast of the Epiphany 2023

Today's feast of the Magi finding Jesus is quite appropriate for the ordination of a new Deacon in this diocese. It is some years since Stephen felt drawn by a star in the distance and has gone up hill and down dale in order to follow it. That has not always been easy. There were times when unnecessary obstacles seemed to be blocking the journey and sending him on detours. But Stephen has continued to keep the star in sight. We thank God for the ups and downs of the journey that has brought him this far – and for the many people and structures which have enabled him to be formed as an ordained disciple of Jesus Christ. 

In a sacramental Church, there will always be a need for ordained ministers to celebrate the gifts which Christ left us. But a sacramental church cannot afford to neglect the giftedness of all believers. They are participants in the mission of the Church, not merely consumers of religious rituals.

+ Donal McKeown
Events such as this are comparatively rare occurrences in Ireland now. Some suggest that, if only we changed the regulations for who could be ordained for ministry, then we would have lots of clergy. That seems a perfectly logical argument. However, we all know from our congregations on Sundays that the problem is not the lack of priests to celebrate. In fact, we currently have at least 200 Saturday vigil and Sunday Mases celebrated in this Diocese. The glaring problem is not the absence of a 9.30 Mass in St John's chapel that granny always went to. It is that we have failed to evangelise large numbers of young people who can be enabled to discern their life choices, not as human ambitions but as divine dreams.

Stephen is being ordained to serve in this diocese where we are making fundamental changes in how we serve Christ. The old structure of mainly providing clergy-led services on demand is going because it no longer works in the service of Jesus' mission. A much more appropriate model of church is one that focuses all we do on calling, forming and sending missionary disciples into a highly secularised world. That is not easy. It is easier to supply events that the parishioners want, regularly or occasionally – and lament the fact that parish means very little for very many people.

Some see the relative shortage of ordained clergy as only a negative phenomenon. But Jesus started a movement that he wanted to be radically different from the religious model of his day. He promised to send the Holy Spirit on all his disciples, blessing each with gifts for the building up of the body of Christ, his Church. In a sacramental Church, there will always be a need for ordained ministers to celebrate the gifts which Christ left us. But a sacramental church cannot afford to neglect the giftedness of all believers. They are participants in the mission of the Church, not merely consumers of religious rituals.

This change of focus will involve a journey that is not unlike that of the Magi. It will mean a long trek, facing many obstacles and detours, having to put up with those who mock the stupidity of our exodus and often wondering whether we are crazy or deluded. And, when we get to the end of the journey, we will not find what our limited imagination expected. God always surprises us.

Thus, the synodal journey is not just about developing parish structures that involve lay people. The process has to involve the People of God in discerning how the structures are developed and changed as required. Therefore, the synodal process is not some sort of quick vox pop that gathers a few ideas and passes them on to someone else so that 'somebody else' can do something. It is a journeying together to see where God's star is leading us. It means this diocese – clergy and laity – praying for divine guidance so that we can take the road less travelled and discover that this choice has made all the difference.

Stephen, that is the sort of church for which you are being ordained a deacon today. It is not just about you. You are called to discover your call to holiness within the concrete situation and structures of here and now. Circumstances will change during your years of ministry. And you will have to change, with an eye of the star that calls you to seek Jesus and make him known and loved. In a world which is told that everything is about 'me', you are being called to venture out into the desert of serving Christ, knowing that some people will think you silly for following your star. But you believe that you have been called by one greater and wiser than yourself. You believe that the Lord is your shepherd and that there is nothing you shall want. You will be led to discover something completely unexpected because God has plans for us that exceed our horizons.

And your ministry is not merely doing a job of helping people to know Christ. Your ordained lifestyle and radical choice to be chosen by Christ – these are signs, sacraments that point to the primacy of God's actions in all of our lives. Your decision today also points to the fact that following Jesus means taking Christ on his terms, and not merely on our terms. Christ is the morning star who comes to visit us like the dawn from on high. It takes a prayerful heart to be vigilant to that visit each day.

And today's ceremony is a call to the whole of our diocesan church to let ourselves be led by the star that beckons us forward, not backwards. It invites all of us to venture out into the unknown, believing that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Stephen. Thank you for your openness to your call. Thank God for all those laity, religious and clergy who sense God's call to be sacraments of faith, hope and love. The church will be renewed, not when we dilute the tough invitation which the Magi heard but when we take seriously the radical call to follow Christ. The church has always been renewed by unexpected people whom God picks.

Stephen may God bless you today and bless many people through your ministry. And let many people bless you in your ministry. You need them as much as they need you.

+ Donal McKeown

The Epiphany of the Lord & Ordination to the Diaconate of Stephen Ward, Waterside (Glendermott) Parish, Derry, Diocese of Derry

God has plans for His people. A Pastoral Letter

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