27th Sunday 2017
60TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CHURCH OF SAINT THERESE MOUNT MERRION
Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Church of Saint Therese, Mount Merrion, 1st October 2016
“Lord increase our faith” the Apostles ask Jesus. Is it harder to believe today than it was in 1956 when this Church was built? Is it harder for a young person, with all the drive and idealism and generosity of a young person, to believe today? Are our catechesis and our Catholic educational structures failing, if they leave so many indifferent to God in their lives? Is secular Ireland Godless, or simply shy about God? Is faith individualistic and a purely private matter or is there a space for faith in building society?
We often use the word secularisation, but in many different ways. We bemoan that society takes less notice of the Church than it may have done in the past. Some would say that this is because the media are against us. Others will say that we have nothing to say that is newsworthy. Some will say that the gradual secularisation of Irish society is due to the arrogance and the sins of the Church. Again some will say that the diminishing impact of the Church in society is due to the fact that the concerns the Church talks about and how the Church talks, are no longer vote-winning questions and politics then goes a different way. Others will say that Church leaders have lost their backbone and are afraid to take on the secularists, whoever they are.
There are no easy answers. The prayer of the apostles in today’s Gospel is very much a prayer for our age: “Lord increase our faith!” Faith is individual, but not individualist. Faith embraces the entire person, and therefore faith embraces all that the person embraces. Faith spreads within society but does not alienate the rational logic of society. Faith should not limit our rational reflection; it should challenge us to go beyond the boundaries of the empirical without going into unreality.
What happens when the overall impact of faith in God diminishes within a society? Where the overall presence of God in society diminishes or becomes relativized, then society as a whole begins to ask itself if God matters at all. If society goes about its business without God really mattering, then the overall ethos of faith in society changes and society becomes more and more secular.
When a society which maintains an overall relationship with a God who matters changes into one where God is no longer present, then we realise that we men and women of faith are talking a different language, and mutual understanding becomes more difficult. Secularisation may not be hostile, but when it no longer understands faith as relevant, then the language of Church becomes a foreign language. How then do we communicate? Do we simply try to package the newness and the originality of the Christian message into the slick language of the day? The secularists, whatever else you may think, are not ingenuous and will not fall for trendiness.
I am not a fan of Mission Statements. Overall they are very bland and so politically correct that they may inspire but will never offend anyone.
So I was especially surprised and pleased looking at your parish website to read your Mission Statement which goes right into the real mission of the Church today:
“Secure in the belief that we are loved by God
to make love a reality in our homes, in our parish and beyond
in a spirit of prayer and service”.
A Mission Statement in general attempts to put into words what we are here to do. Your Mission Statement, however, begins with God and what God does. Our God is a God who loves us. If we begin our understanding of society with the wrong God, then we will never influence society in the right way.
“The name of God is Mercy” is the title that Pope Francis gave to a recent book. It is not just a catchy title; it says something about the very essence of being a Christian. If we have difficulty in understanding that God’s name is mercy, then we will have great difficulty in understanding the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. If we have some name of our own for God, then we may well have ended up with a false God.
The Gospels are full of references to mercy and compassion. Wherever the words mercy and compassion appear in a parable then the reference is really to Jesus himself. Look at the Gospel of the Good Samaritan. Two figures of respectability and institutional status pass-by uncaring of an unknown person who lies abandoned. An outsider, a Samaritan, someone barely tolerated in respectable society, passes by and is moved by compassion. This outsider is the image of Jesus.
Jesus, in this parable, is giving a new definition of what respectability means: it has nothing to do with prestige or institutional position or title. It is the person who cares and who is moved to compassion who is respectable in Jesus’ eyes. If the name of God is mercy, how can we be intolerant and judgemental and merciless and still believe that we are respectable?
If the name of God is mercy, then we have to understand that we can only begin to understand God when we ourselves encounter his mercy. We cannot understand God if we exclude ourselves from that encounter with mercy through our own feelings of self-security and self-superiority and self-assigned status.
If the name of God is mercy, how did we end up with the idea of a harsh condemnatory God who only wishes to judge us in our sinfulness and humiliate us? If we have created such a God then we misunderstand both God and sin. Sinfulness is not about breaking arbitrary rules: sinfulness is failure to love and failure to be merciful. If sinfulness is failure to be merciful then many who are quick to condemn sinners, may well be in a category of sinners all of its own.
We celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of this Church on a hill in a very different world to that of 1956. Building a Church on a hill can be interpreted in different ways. It could be looked on as a watchtower to protect and even to dominate. The Church on a hill will only take on its real significance when those who frequent the building authentically witness to what the building is for. It is the place where people encounter the mercy of God in such a way as that it frees them to be apostles of mercy, “in their home in the parish and beyond, in a spirit of prayer and service”.
Faith is not just about doing things. Faith is never just an intellectual exercise. Faith is not a response to a catalogue of does, much less a catalogue of don’ts. Faith is a fundamental attitude which involves the entire person in a relationship with God.
The Church on a hill will remain just a billboard with bland messages if it fails to be an open-ended invitation to all to go up to something which takes us beyond ourselves, changing and clarifying the language and the attitudes of our everyday.
Above all the building will be an invitation to prayer, the central focal point of where our humanity and our reason are captured into something which goes beyond ourselves and leads us into an encounter with the mercy and the beauty of our God.