23/10/2011 Mission Sunday Homily

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Mission Sunday

Homily Notes of

Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
St. Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, 23rd October 2011

I am very pleased to be able to celebrate Mission Sunday here in this Church dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier, Patron of the Missions, a Church which is both a Jesuit Church and a Parish Church here in the centre of a changing Dublin.

I am pleased that there are here with us some returned missionaries:  men and women who have dedicated much of their lives to missionary work.  They carried out their mission in different times, when luxury was a word that was never in their dictionary.  Theirs was hard dedicated work; going on the missions in those days meant effectively never knowing if you would ever return home again.   We thank God for that witness of dedication.

I have to note that in a recent publication of the Irish Missionary Union there was analysis of the current membership of missionary congregations by age-groups.  On the one hand you cannot but be worried at the drop in numbers of young members of the missionary congregations and of the high average age of their members.  But what struck me was the very high numbers who have lived to 85 and over.  The hardship of missionary life may not have been such a bad thing after all! 

We celebrate Mission Sunday in a parish Church.  Mission at home and mission in other parts of the world are not two separate realities.  The mission of the Church is one.  Today, Ireland is in many ways a mission country.  People have received the message of Jesus and have received the sacraments of initiation but the message and its significance have weakened and at times have become eclipsed.  All of us need to find ways in which we can permit the message of Jesus to reach into the lives of those around us.  We have to develop ourselves a deep relationship with Jesus Christ and witness through our lives to just what that relationship means.  That is a missionary task to which all Christians are called.

Many of our catechetical programmes of the past have been over cerebral; they have taught about Jesus but they have not introduced people into the importance of a real encounter with Jesus Christ.  Jesus is not an idea or an ideology.  Jesus is a person who comes out to meet us and to be with us in our lives “even to the ends of the earth”, as our Gospel reading said.  That means that Jesus reaches out not just geographically but to the people and to the cultures of any period in the history of the earth and of humankind.

Mission at home and mission aboard are not separate realities.  Those missionaries who are with us today will obviously be full of memories of those places where they lived out their lives as missionaries.  Many – indeed most of them – would probably have wished to spend their last days in those places which had become their home.  But it is also true that their missionary sprit was born and was nurtured in the faith community to which they belonged here in Ireland.  They developed a faith which was borderless – they learned that as children of God we are all brothers and sisters; they learned that knowing Jesus was something important in their own lives but also something powerful which can change lives and can change societies and cultures for the good.  Without the faith communities which nourished them and then supported them, their missionary activity would not have been the same.

We thank God today for those families which over the years encouraged missionary vocations and who supported them and indeed were proud of their sons and daughters as they saw them achieve things that they could not have imagined.  As our readings stress, it is the Spirit who drives missionary activity and gives us the strength to witness to Jesus Christ way beyond geographical borders and human limitations. The spirit frees us to witness to Jesus Christ whom we present then not as an imposition but as true freedom: the way and life and truth

Mission at home and mission abroad are not two separate realities.  There are many here in this Church today who have never been abroad on mission and never will, yet they carry the missionary intention in their hearts and very often support missionary activity very generously.  The great Irish missionary tradition was the fruit not just of great missionaries, but of humble men and women here at home who gave generously to support the missions.

Some of you will know that the only writing that we have from Matt Talbot – who prayed perhaps daily in this Church – was not a refection on spirituality but two short lines with which he sent a contribution to Dalgan Park.  It reads simply: “two pounds from a poor man Matthew Talbot”.

Mission at home and mission abroad are not two separate realities. Mission is part of the very nature of the Church.  The dynamic of missionary activity abroad will inevitably be linked to the life of the Church at home.  Only a mission-focussed Church will foster missionary vocations.  It might be useful on this Mission Sunday for all of us to reflect on the fact that many religious congregations founded in Ireland and which are today experiencing difficulties here at home, are in fact thriving in other places.   Does that not make us ask what has happened to the Church in Ireland and has it lost something of its missionary zeal?   We need to understand what new-evangelization means here at home.  Renewal in the Church will not be the fruit of endless and inward-focussed consultation processes but by a renewal in our ability “to go out” and make disciples.   An inward-looking, almost narcissistic Church will never be missionary.

Mission in Ireland today is a difficult task   Many find that the tried and tested ways and structures of passing on the faith are no longer the rights ones, but find also that attempts to change that situation have not brought the results they hoped for.  We have always to remember that while it the duty of the Church to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere, it is Jesus himself who is the primary evangelizer.   When we think we can go it alone, we will always get it wrong.

It is consoling to me to note that even at the very last moment of the presence of Jesus with his disciples – as we see in our second reading – they had failed to understand what their mission was to be.  As Jesus prepared to commission them to preach the good news, they came up with precisely the wrong question: “Is it now you will restore the kingdom of Israel”.   We too make mistakes and get it wrong.  But Jesus remains with us; he always remains faithful.

In these years we have witnessed enormous social and scientific change, which has brought much benefit to humankind.  But there is also another side to the story of what we call progress.   Our Western societies are marked by a loss of the sense of God and of the sacred.  At times this loss of the sacred encroaches also into the life of the Church and of our faith.  Some of the very foundations of our faith are challenged: the existence of a God who cares for us; the realization that Jesus Christ is the one Saviour; a common understanding of what is to be a human person and of the fundamental common ethical principles which should guide our coexistence.

Societies like our own where faith and the Christian life once flourished and faith communities were strong are now undergoing a far-reaching transformation.  We experience the effects of indifference to religion, of secularism and atheism.

Our presence in society will change.  Society needs the message of Jesus. But if we are to attempt to bring about a renewed active presence of the Christian message within the fabric of society, then we must first of all renew the Christian fabric of the Church community itself.  

Mission at home and mission abroad are not two separate realities.  Irish missionaries are still active and effective in so many parts of the world.  They owe much to their roots, but their missionary zeal should also and can also be a means to renew the Church in Ireland.  The experience, for example, of young volunteers who spend time with missionaries abroad enriches their faith when they return.  The Church in Ireland needs to be nourished by the faith and commitment of our missionaries.  Let us remember them and their work – very often today in isolation – in our prayers and in our generosity.

The root of all evangelization however, is not to be found in any human plan or strategy of ours.  Mission is about wishing to share the extraordinary gift of faith that God has wished to give us, when he made us sharers in his own life.  We must share that gift with others, here at home or in any other part of the world.