TWENTY FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 2015
Family Mass and dedication of Frank Duff Room
Homily Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Church of Saint Peter, Phibsborough, 23rd August 2015
“Today’s Gospel reading from the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel comes at the end of a series of readings we have been hearing over the past few Sunday’s about Jesus as the bread of life.
These readings are about faith and how our faith is nourished by closeness to Jesus. The readings are about how in the Eucharist Jesus becomes present in our own deepest being, as essential nourishment and sustenance for our life’s journey.
The teaching of Jesus about the bread of life in the sixth chapter of Saint John is one of the most beautiful and deepest chapters of all the scriptures. But, as we heard in today’s Gospel, that teaching was rejected by those listening to Jesus. Some reject it outright: “This is intolerable language”, they answer. And on this occasion it is not just the crowd that rejects Jesus, but even some of his own disciples: “Many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him”, the Gospel adds.
Those who stay with Jesus are the ones who realise that there is only one true way: “Lord who shall we go to”, they say. They realise that alone Jesus has the message of eternal life, a message of “spirit and life” which will change their lives here on earth and make them understand the meaning of life – in this world and in the next – in a different and hope-filled way.
We sometimes become discouraged by the fact that today more and more people find it hard to believe. Today’s’ Gospel shows that this was the case even in Jesus’ own time. Doubts and rejection of Jesus have always been part of the history of the Church. It is obviously a concern today to see that many people in Ireland do not live out their faith as perhaps they did in the past. However, if we deny that reality we only delude ourselves. But neither should we lose heart.
Let us look at how Jesus dealt with rejection by the crowd and by some of his own disciples? What does that reaction of Jesus teach us about how we should live our Christian lives as individuals and as Church, and especially as Christian families, in today’s challenging times?
In the face of rejection, Jesus does not try to accommodate his message to the crowd. He does not try to pacify his listeners who find his message intolerable. Indeed if anything he provokes them. It is Jesus himself who challenges them: “There are some of you who do not believe”, he says and he begins talking about himself as coming from above, as being from heaven, something they are even less willing to hear.
In today’s world there is a temptation on the part of many in the Church to feel that if people have difficulties in believing then we should try and make belief easier, try to remove the things which people find hard to accept and create a religion to which anyone who wants to be “more or less” a good person, can “more or less” belong to the disciples of Jesus.
Rather than attempting to water down the message of Jesus we should present the message of Jesus in its fullness and challenge and provoke people to respond more fully and more generously to that message. Challenge, yes: but we must remember however that we challenge those who find it hard to believe not by condemnation or polemics, but by being witnesses in our own lives to what belief in the love of Jesus can do and what it can bring to society.
In doing that, however, we must be clear that the challenge of following Jesus is never about a “more or less”, it is not about compromise or adapting to public opinion surveys, but about real commitment and about conversion. The challenge is not about a book of rules and moral norms; it is about a person, Jesus Christ, who came among us to witness to a God who is love, so that we can be truly loving people.
When I say that you cannot be a believer in Jesus “more or less”, in a vague manner, I am not saying that belief is only for the perfect. God’s love breaks into our world when we recognise our human weakness. We are all sinners. God is never revealed through arrogance.
This morning we will dedicate and bless a room here at Saint Peter’s which recalls Frank Duff. Frank knew this Church well and came here often for confession and had many links with the Vincentian community here.
Frank Duff was a man who made an extraordinary contribution to the life of the Church. His ideas on the role of the laity were progressive and indeed revolutionary. Yet Frank’s entire life style as a person was far from that of revolution or publicity-seeking, but one of immense humility and total dedication. The first thing however that we notice about Frank Duff was that he was a man of extraordinary humility.
Frank Duff was a layman and never dreamt of being anything other than being a layman. He was immensely proud to have been invited to an Ecumenical Council as a layman. He understood that being a lay person should in no way mean being a sort of second-class Christian. He saw that each of us, lay or cleric, is in the first place called to holiness and that holiness is in no way the privilege of the ordained, or the automatic right of any category within the Church.
His vision of the role of lay people in the Church was not fully understood by Church authorities here in Ireland. He was a person absolutely loyal to the Church, but in no way a yes man. He never gave up when he had asked to see the then Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, in March 1927 and was finally received in January 1935 eight years later. (That makes even me look good!).
The Irish Church needs a new generation of strong and articulate lay men and women. It needs a strong laity which is not inward looking or caught up simply in Church structures and activities or narrow Church politics.
Conformist Catholicism is not the answer to the challenges the Church faces; simply repeating doctrinal formulas is not the answer; an inward-looking Catholicism – liberal or conservative – is not the answer. We need a new generation of Catholic lay men and women who, like Frank Duff, are articulate in understanding their faith and feel called to bring the unique vision which springs from their faith into dialogue with the realities of the world.
Frank noted in his time a fear on the part of the Church authorities of trusting the insights of lay people. At the same time he knew that trust in lay people needed to be accompanied by intense formation of lay people in spirituality, in prayer and in theology and social concern. Frank saw the strengths and the weaknesses of the Church in Ireland. He stressed the need for education in the faith and clearly recognised the inadequacies of the structures of faith formation. He was acutely aware decades ago how the institutional structure of the Catholic Church in Ireland which outwardly appeared so robust, in fact had within itself an innate debilitating factor, namely: the lack of faith formation for and trust in lay men and women.
The small mindedness and lack of trust in lay faithful of a part of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Dublin at the time of Frank Duff should be a lesson to all in the Church today of how easy it can be to become trapped in our own narrow vision. We all – conservative or liberals – have to be aware of the constant danger of becoming fearfully or arrogantly trapped in our own little world and in our own vision of the Church. Such stubbornness will only lead us to the position of “the crowd” in today’s Gospel who refused the teaching of Jesus because it did not fit into their categories.
We need our parishes to become centres of formation in the faith. Here in this diocese in the coming years we will be focussing on formation for families and young people. I am sure that in the years to come the Legion of Mary will be in the vanguard in the formation of a new generation of trained, voluntary catechists and pastoral animators who will place themselves at the service of parishes to make them truly places of faith education. I know of the recent work of the Legion of Mary in visiting all the houses of this parish.
We need a robust laity; we need especially strong families where the fundamental essence of our faith is lived and transmitted and prayed. I do not call for a strong laity simply as a substitute for the challenge of having fewer priests. A strong laity is not a substitute for the fall in the number of priests; it is the answer to that need. Vocations to the priesthood will emerge from healthy Christian families and from strong faith communities.
Frank Duff stands still as a model of robust lay leadership in the Church. He was a humble man, yet in no way obsequious; he respected authority yet could be formidable challenger of authority. His life was focussed in one direction only: he knew, as we heard the true disciples say in today’s Gospel reading, that there was nowhere else to go except to follow Jesus, and day after day he sought to faithfully follow that path. ENDS