Homily at Divine Mercy Conference

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Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle

Homily Notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin 

RDS, Dublin, 22nd February 2014


     “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  That is the question that we heard Jesus put to his disciples in the Gospel.  It is a question that is also put to us today.  The question of ‘who Jesus is’ is the question that men and women have put to themselves, over the centuries, since Jesus first asked the question.  It is a fundamental question about faith, about the Church and about being a Christian means.  

Then as today, the question elicits many different answers.  Many people today will say that they believe in Jesus Christ, but not in the Church or any institution.   Many will say that they are Christians, but when you examine what they say, they are talking about their own version of being a Christian.  Can we have a pick and choose version of Christianity?  What are the essentials of being a Christian?   What does Jesus mean to the young people of our city and our country?  Why do so many young people have a very vague idea of who Jesus really is and what it means to be a Christian?

          These are the vital questions about the future of Christianity in Ireland.  The debates about the place of the Church in social and political life – no matter how important they are – all fall back to this fundamental question about who Jesus really is.  The place of the Church in Irish society is not determined by political reflection or media comment, but on how we live out the faith that has been entrusted to us and how our lives witness to the significance of the  person and the message of Jesus Christ for the world in which we live.

          The question begins with us.  There is little point in bemoaning the loss of the Christian identity of others; there is little point in pointing the finger at those who seem to disagree even with essential ideas of the Christian faith, if we ourselves are not convincingly witnessing to the person of Jesus Christ through the way we live.

Each of us must ask ourselves – is it possible that men and women and young people of today reject Jesus and reject the Church because of the way we live and because of the way we fail to witness authentically to Jesus Christ?  Are our lives as individuals and as a Church partly responsible for the fact that others are disillusioned with the Church?  Pope Francis, albeit in another context, warned Christians not, through their own lives, to: “permanently immunise people from the Church”.

          “Who do people say that I am?”  Jesus puts the question twice in the Gospel.  He asks first who do people say that I am?  We see the variety of answers that the disciples present to Jesus. The conclusion is, however, that “the people” get it wrong.  They ask the question, but they fail to get the correct answer. 

It is only with the second question that the identity of Jesus emerges, when he asks his disciples: who do you say that I am?   Often in the Gospel, Jesus poses a question to the crowd, to people in general, and then to those who have established a bond and a relationship with him.   Jesus then uses the different answers to point to the radical nature of his identity, which can only be discovered within the context of a community of faith.  Finding the answer to questions about the identity of Jesus is not like responding to the question of a quiz Show.  It is not about information and memory:  it can only be answered when we enter into a living relationship with Jesus.  Only then do we know who Jesus really is.

But let us not be too critical of the crowd who get it wrong.   Let us look more closely at their answers.   They do not get it right, but they are not completely off the point.  They do not answer that Jesus is a politician, or a pop star or a fascinating personality.    The answers all refer to biblical figures and all of these biblical figures are figures who, in their way and in their own times, pointed – under God’s inspiration – the way to Jesus. 

Many people today, who may not recognise or understand Jesus, are people who are searching; people who are looking for pointers to direct them to Jesus.  Many may yet be fearful of making the challenging step of fully opening their hearts to the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ.  In our lives, in our witness and in our evangelization we must reach out to them in those moments in their lives which indicate a real search for the meaning of life, even if the answers they chose are the wrong ones or only partial answers.  

Jesus asks his own disciples who they think He is.  Simon Peter, as is his character, rushes in and answers: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”.   He answers with an answer of faith.   Jesus recognises this gesture of faith and tells Peter that he is blessed and happy that he can do this.  But he immediately stresses that Peter can make this affirmation not because this is something that comes from himself, but it comes through the word of the Father.   

Faith is a gift and that gift comes to us when we open our hearts to God, not on our own terms, but in the way God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, as a God who loves us and who never fails to love us in whatever situation we live.  Faith is a path founded in love.   Faith is never just a framework of ideas that we establish for ourselves or around which we set up boundaries and make judgements on others.  God is a God of mercy.  God is a God who created us in love and asks us, in our lives, to mirror that love and to grow to maturity in that love.

Then Jesus takes the dialogue one step further.  He turns to Peter and tells him that he wishes to build his Church around him.   In this way Jesus is telling us that the answer of faith just made by Peter is entrusted now to his Church.   The Church is the place within which the true understanding of who Jesus is will be found and that in all the ups and downs of history Jesus will be with the Church and that the forces of evil will never bring the Church down.

That does not mean that the Church has always lived the teaching of Jesus perfectly.  Those called to belong to the close community of faith in Jesus have not always lived up to that calling. Many elements have crept into the Church as an institution and into the lives of individual Christian which have only distorted the image of Jesus and driven people away from Jesus.    The true disciples of Jesus are those who listen to God’s challenging word and allow the Father to inspire their lives and overcome their own selfish limitations and fearfulness.  

In our first reading, Saint Peter, already in his latter years, reflects on the transmission of the faith.  He is speaking to the Christian community of his own times and to those who have leadership in that community, but his words really apply to all of us who have the task of spreading the faith.   The faith that we are called to transmit is the faith “that has been entrusted to us”.  The faith we have is a faith that we have received from God, not an ideology or a comfort zone that we create for ourselves.

 In today’s Ireland, many wonder why the Church has such difficulty in passing on a living faith to the coming generations.   Saint Peter provides us with some answers – “Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge”, he writes.  We cannot impose faith. We should not attempt to impose faith.   Transmitting the faith comes only when “we are an example that the whole flock can follow”.  Pope Francis reminds us that people come to faith not through compulsion or imposition, but through attraction. No one will come to faith if the Church appears to be an organization which is about defending its own interests or where we as individual believers become trapped within the confines our own views and fears.

Jesus, in whom we encounter the mercy and loving kindness of God, challenges us to break out from our own timidity and fears and reach out to those who seek God.  We are to reach out not with a package of dogmatic formulae or a check list of morality, but first of all with that gladness and eagerness of those who have experienced the Gospel as Good News and whose lives witness to that Good News.   Let us go away from this Conference, then, renewed as joyful and enthusiastic missionary disciples of the God revealed to us in the mercy and loving kindness of Jesus. ENDS