7/6/06 CORI Conference Homily

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Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Rosslare Harbour,  8th June 2006
A few weeks ago I presided at a Mass for the 175th anniversary of the foundation of the Sisters of Mercy.  When I was working on my homily for that occasion I was almost led off on a tangent.  I mentioned my distraction in the homily if only in passing, but it is a question that has come back to me again when reflecting on what I should say here this evening.
Catherine McCauley had started out to establish a society of lay women who would devote themselves to lasting efforts for the relief of suffering and instruction of the uneducated.  Eventually she was presented with an ultimatum by my predecessor, Archbishop Daniel Murray, that she either withdraw from the project or become a religious.  As I said on that earlier occasion: “To continue her work for the poor [Catherine] decided to become a nun, and she became a nun with her whole being”.
The distraction that keeps coming up in my mind however is this one: “Who knows who was right in that decision: Catherine or my predecessor?    What if Catherine had been able to go ahead with such a revolutionary concept of the role of lay persons?”It is not an abstract question.  Neither is it in any way intended to be a negative reflection on what Catherine and her followers achieved as religious, much less a criticism of religious life as such.

It is a question however about the Church today and tomorrow.  How do we release the spiritual potential that is represented by the Christian life of lay men and women?  Are there ways in which we as Bishops, priests and religious have stifled that potential, thinking somehow that we were running the Church quite well without that contribution?  What will be the respective role of religious and lay persons in the Church in the years to come?
Today many of you realize that the survival of the charism of your Religious Congregations will depend on the ability to find and to sustain lay Christians prepared to put flesh and blood on that original charism and see that it can be lived out and kept flourishing in the circumstances of a future marked by many unknowns.
On my side, as a Bishop, I am looking at ways in which lay persons can take on broader responsibilities in parishes and in diocesan structures.
In both cases, if we are to be totally honest, we have been driven to such reflection – at least in part – by the fact that there are fewer priests, fewer sisters, and fewer brothers.  The danger in such a situation is that we approach the challenge from the wrong direction; that we think of lay people substituting others, filling the gap left by others.
If we begin to look at lay people as substitutes we will fail to understand what the role of lay Christians in the Church is.  Indeed if we look at lay persons as substitutes we may only be reinforcing a conviction that the “ordinary” role of lay persons is somehow a second class one. In that way we will end up damaging our understanding of priesthood, of religious life and of laity all at once.
In these days you have come to discern on the role of your Congregations and thus on the role of religious life in the Church. Reflecting on “discernment” in the context of on today’s readings, I was obviously struck by the phrase in the first reading:”rekindle the gift of God that is within you”. Discernment means renewal, re-kindling, bringing new energy.
But I was also struck by the words of Jesus in the Gospel – admittedly in a specific context, but which I think we can legitimately apply to the situation of each one of us.   It is the stark and uncompromising statement of Jesus to the Sadducees: “You are quite wrong”.
Any process of discernment must dispassionately ask: “where have we got it wrong”.  We have to sincerely ask ourselves: where have we ended up like the Sadducees?  They had gotten themselves entangled in a web of interpretations of the Scriptures and in a play of group interests to such a degree that that they got it wrong, and badly wrong.   They got so caught up in their own positions and positions that they ended up with the wrong God.  Jesus had to remind them that: “God is a God of the living and not of the dead”
If we look closer at today’s reading from Saint Paul we can see that he had to face similar confusion among the early Christian community.  He called on the disciples of Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God that was within them” because they had fallen into the trap of forgetting that the spirit is not a “spirit of cowardice”, a craven spirit, a spirit of slavery, but “a spirit of power and love and self-discipline”.
The original sin of every external institutional form in the Church is the sin of not recognizing the Lordship of God, the sin of wanting God to be the God we want, a God of our own design, a God of our shape and size. If we fail to grasp the fact that:  “We have been saved not by our own works but according to God’s own purpose and grace”, as Saint Paul writes, then we have not just got it wrong, but we are freewheeling off rapidly in a totally false direction.The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that Jesus attained Lordship not through clinging to the outward trappings of sovereignty, authority or power, but through total self-giving.  He attained “the name that is above every other name, so that every tongue can confess him as Lord” through self-giving love unto the end.

Religious life is an ecclesial reality, a sign witness of what Church life is about.  Religious must be “credible and luminous signs” – these are the recent words of Pope Benedict to religious superiors – of the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. All those we meet on our path and all whose journey we are called to share must be led by us to encounter God’s love.  We have to bring that love to those who have never encountered it.  We have to bring that love to those who have rejected Christ’s message because they never encountered it as a message of love.  We have to recognize where we have allowed “outward trappings”, whether of our own creation or those of contemporary culture, to stifle our ability to give of ourselves and how we have thus betrayed the God of love that we are called to witness to.“Deus Caritas Est”.  Religious life means witnessing to that reality which Pope Benedict XVI chose as the theme for his first encyclical:  “God is love”.   Religious life must be a credible and luminous sign: always pointing forwards, illuminating the way.  It can never be introspective or concerned only about its own prerogatives.   When I was at school I was slightly uncertain about how we were taught that Jesus worked miracles to prove by his power that he was God.  I do not deny that miracles prove that Jesus was God, what was not stressed was that miracles prove to us above all what God is like, that he is a God who reveals his power as one who cares and has mercy, who heals and wants to free people from the burdens and addictions and obsessions that bind them, so that they can be taken up into the inner life of love of God and experience salvation and freedom.

“God is love”.  Anyone called to office or authority or service in the Church must be a witness to God’s self-giving love.  The religious is called to reject false securities and throw yourselves into the risk of what is inherent of being the fragile instruments which God chooses to work through.   Again let me quote Pope Benedict’s address to religious superiors: “The Lord wants men and women who are free, not bound, able to give up everything to follow him and to find in him alone their very all”.
Christian discernment will never be the fruit of self-congratulatory words.  It will always involve putting truly at risk our own comfort, our own satisfaction, our own security, reaching out gratuitously, way beyond reasonable measure to respond to the needs of the other, to bear on our shoulders the needs of the others.
The path towards Christian love is not a risk free zone.  Similarly, as religious consecrated to the evangelical counsels, our discernment of the truth must lead us beyond the world of measurement and calculation and the tangible and lead us into the dimension of mystery which surrounds us and which give real meaning to our lives.   Religious life is a sign, a public sign within the Church, a sign of the creativity that can emerge when we abandon ourselves to generous self-giving.   Lay persons can take on some of the tasks carried out by religious, but the laity and indeed the entire Church need the witness of religious, as an ecclesial reality that cannot be substituted.In these days after Pentecost we can remember that it is the “Creator Spirit” who can steer us along the right path of “creative abandonment”.   Only the “Creator Spirit” can give us true insight into the meaning and purpose of creation, as gift of God for all rather than possession of the few.  The “Creator Spirit” can drive us on to recognise and enhance creativity, especially that creativity within the poor and marginalized which is so often subdued and repressed. Only the “Creator Spirit” can entice us to transform our individualism and self centeredness into a response of generosity.  The “Creator Spirit” can lead us to the true “crossing place”, the place of creative discernment, which takes us beyond ourselves an enables us, with all our limitations, to be witness to the creative and transforming power of God’s love.