Day for Consecrated Life

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Homily notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin


Terenure College Chapel, 3 February 2018


“New wine and old wineskins”   Our gospel reading is about two realities:  new wine and old wineskins.   We have to reflect on both.   Put simply our Gospel reading is about the message of Jesus Christ that is always new and about the condition of the wineskins in which that wine is preserved.    The wineskins are about the Church and its outward structures.  They are however even more about us and about how we conserve the newness of the Gospel within our hearts and through the way we live.

Pope John XXIII set out what this involves with extraordinary clarity at the opening of the Second Vatican Council:

“The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us”.

The new wine is not a collection of dogmatic texts:  it is Jesus himself.  The consecration of religious is not a consecration to formulae, but to a person who leads us and accompanies us along a path of a different life.

That great homily of Pope John at the opening of Vatican II began with the words Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, Let our Mother the Church rejoice.

Perhaps the worst kind of useless wineskin that we encounter, whether in our Church, in our culture or in our hearts is the one that has lost the sense of joy and of rejoicing.  It is the culture of the prophets of gloom to use a phrase of Pope John in that same homily.  It is the culture of those who rejoice only in spreading the negative.  I have often spoken about a man I knew in the Vatican whose philosophy could be summed up in the joke about him telling the Pope “Holy Father I am delighted to be able to tell you that the situation is even worse than we had imagined”.  Negativity inevitably becomes poisonous and destructive.

I am not saying that we should avoid facing what is worrying in Church life and just naively make our way into unreality.  The Church has many challenges and it would be very foolish to ignore this.  We have constantly to review the condition of the wineskins.  We have pitilessly to seek out where the leak and the spill might be, distorting or losing the newness of the message of Jesus.

We can also fall into the trap of thinking that renewal can be attained through patching up either the old cloth or the wineskins and end up becoming experts on wear-and-tear rather than people filled with the joy of the new wine, the presence of Jesus and his message in our world.

Our expertise must not be about wear-and-tear but about the joy of living and spreading the message of Jesus and a message that brings newness into our lives and into the lives of others.  We will never win the hearts of our young people if we are not people who show where they can find the roots of true happiness.  Young people today, perhaps more than at any other time, find themselves seeking.  The certainties of the past leave them unmoved or even disillusioned.  We must first of all help them to discern the direction their life must take, not by imposing rules and norms but by opening up for them the path to integrity and the newness of the Gospel.  Our witness must help them to rise above what it transient to what endures.  We must help them to see how prayer is not a flight from reality but an openness to reality in its deepest sense.  Our communities must become not just communities where individuals can pray but rather become communities of prayer, open to welcome those who seek how to pray.

The new wine is what is important; its newness is there before it is put into wineskins.  We can become so concerned with fixing structures, that we overlook the that the new wine is what is precious and we have to do everything to savour and be surprised and relish that newness.   In the past, especially here in Ireland, in our religious education we often got so preoccupied with rules and norms and sins, before we were taught about the beauty and attractiveness of the path of Jesus.  Today we will only really understand what structures we need to change when we first experience and live the newness of the Gospel.

We are the wineskins.  Most of us would probably have to place ourselves within the category of old wineskins.  Nevertheless, recognising our age does not mean that we have nothing to offer. The oldness of the wineskins is not about physical age.  It is about the fundamental condition of our hearts.  Pope John XII and Pope Francis were both way beyond the normal age of retirement when they became Popes and yet both of them brought a renewed freshness into the life of the Church.

Religious life will be considered outdated only if we begin to think that it is.  Negativity is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We will begin to understand that religious life is a thing of today and of tomorrow when we focus on the new wine of Jesus.  That newness must really become rooted in our hearts.  Religious life is countercultural and the more it becomes compromised by the way we live the more it loses the challenging power of the newness of Jesus message.

Both Pope John and Pope Francis experienced criticism and even rejection.  Some would prefer the stuffiness of a solid over mature wine to the challenges and freshness of a new wine that is full of sparkle.   The newness of the Gospel is a challenge that endures right throughout our lives, which can change and renew us at any age, and indeed which we must allow change us at any age. ENDS