Homily at Parish Mass,St. Fergal’s, Ballywaltrim

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30th Sunday of the Year 2013


Homily Notes of  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Saint Fergal’s Ballywaltrim, 27th October 2013


“Last Sunday’s Gospel reminded us that we must pray often without tiring.  In today’s Gospel, Saint Luke places the emphasis on how we pray and what our attitude in prayer should be like.

The Gospel is a little more complex than at first sight.  Our immediate reaction is to find the prayer of the Pharisee haughty and arrogant and we feel a natural sympathy for the tax collector’s simplicity.  There is an evident contrast between the two figures.

But the reality is not quite so black and white.  What we might overlook is the fact that if the Pharisee does all that he says he does, then the Pharisee is certainly an unusually good and generous man.  All the things he boasts of go way beyond what was considered obligatory.  He fasted more often than was necessary; he paid tithes for the poor which were way beyond what was demanded by the law. 

The tax gatherer, on the other hand, was by no means exemplary.  Tax collectors made their money by managing to get a little more tax from their clients than they were really entitled to.   It was a profession which had become fundamentally dishonest and there was no easy way to change that.  When it came to the observance of the law and giving to the poor, the tax-collector would certainly not have been as observant as the Pharisee. 

Is Jesus telling us, then, that a man who is fundamentally dishonest is to be followed rather than a man who tries to follow the law with even greater zeal and generosity than he is called to?  What is Jesus saying?

The problem is not about what each of the two figures does or does not do.  It is about their attitude.  Fundamentally the Pharisee’s prayer is not prayer at all.  He is not thanking God for the fact that he has been able to live a deeply religious life; he is in fact talking to himself, rather than to God; he is not thanking God for what God had done for him, but thanking himself for what he thinks he does for God.

The Pharisee, despite his good intentions, has got it all wrong.  He is trapped into doing things, into religious practices, and feels that because he is exemplary in counting the things he does, then he is entitled to a place of privilege; he looks on his observance of the law as a sort of guarantee of his salvation.   He lists the good things that he does, but he has no sense of any call to conversion.  His perfection is reduced to a self-proclaimed perfection.

The tax-collector/sinner does not dare to go into the place of honour in the Temple, but from a distance he recognises that there is something wrong in his life. He recognises his own sinfulness and realises that on his own he will never find relief from his sinfulness and thus he places all his trust in God and in God’s mercy.

Some weeks ago, Pope Francis gave an interview to an Italian catholic magazine.  The interviewer asked the Pope a first and fundamental question: who are you?  By this he meant: “tell me something about your own self-understanding”.  The Pope’s reply surprised many:  without a moment’s hesitation Pope Francis answered: “I am a sinner”.  And then he pondered for a moment and came back and repeated: “yes the best description of who I am, is that I am a sinner”. 

Why would a Pope and a Pope who is obviously a holy man, present himself as a sinner?   Is he exaggerating?  Is he perhaps falling into the same temptation as the Pharisee of trying to impress through being holy in a different way, rather than being honest.

We are all sinners to a greater or lesser degree. But we find it difficult to address our sinfulness.  Most of us would if anything play down our sinfulness and give ourselves not perhaps full marks, but at least a good honours mark for how we manage our lives.  If anything “sin” is certainly not the flavour of the month.  It is a concept we feel that we, at least in our personal life, could well do without.  

Recognising our sinfulness is, however, not denigrating ourselves.  Faith is not a sort of negative narcissism or masochism.   Faith in God should free us.  But that freedom comes when we stop placing all our trust in ourselves and we open our hearts to the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

A spirituality which focuses only on ourselves and what we consider our own wellness and wellbeing, will in the long term have nothing to do with the spirit, but only about what goes on within our own psyche.  Spirituality must be the fruit of the Spirit, who opens our hearts to who God is, a God who is other and thus challenges us to become daily more like him and so rather than focus on ourselves, leads us to go beyond ourselves.  We do not define holiness and goodness by doing more and more things, like the Pharisee.  He did all the right things, but got it all wrong in the end, because he was too self-focussed. 

This morning we come to recognise the service to education in this parish, and indeed farther afield, of Marie Dunphy, who came to Saint Fergal’s National School in 1980 and has been principal since 1991.  She and her family have been active participants in the life of the parish and she has led a focused and strong school community of parents, teachers, ancillary staff, management and of course young boys and girls with differing backgrounds and talents. 

Her attitude as principal was never to put herself in the limelight.  She encouraged staff and enhanced their formation. Not that she simply stood back and let things go their own way.  She was always a highly respected leader in education and in the life of the community and the parish.  The entire community is aware of her achievements and her innovative and creative work in school and in the community, a work which I am sure will not simply end with her retirement.  Her commitment to children and to education will continue.

Education is not just about enabling young people to pass examinations and follow a curriculum.  It is about constantly working with young people to challenge them not to allow themselves to get blocked in their own limitations and anxieties and mediocrity.  Education is about bringing the very best from within young people; it is about challenging them to go beyond themselves and to be able to dream great things and realise great things. 

Religious education, education in the faith, is not just about commandments and laws, as the unfortunate Pharisee fell into the trap of thinking.  The Pharisee became proud and looked down on others.  Education in the faith is about authenticity which is always marked by a certain modesty in life style.

We live in a society in which authenticity and modesty in life style are being undermined by a culture of empty spin and a culture of celebrity.  In the media, in advertising, in fashion, in politics – so often we are tempted into accepting a view of life and reality which is created by simply spinning words and images, rather than authentically looking at life with its mixture of challenges and successes, opportunity and failure.   A culture of spin, because it is empty, will always end up as a culture of arrogance on the part of those who use it, and of frustration on the part of those who fall for it.   True education is about fostering a culture of mutual interdependence, within which we build up authentic relationships of love and honesty.

The story of the good-living Pharisee reminds us that the Church also must be on guard against thinking that slick spin and publicity campaigns can really transmit and safeguard the Christian message and be the answer to the current crisis of faith.   We do not recognise our sinfulness because we quantify sin; we we think of sin as just about things in our lives, rather than looking into our heart for the great sin of pride and arrogance and placing ourselves above everyone else.  

We pray this morning that we can grow in an awareness of our weaknesses and inadequacies, not in an introspective way, but knowing that that the Spirit will work great things in and through us, when we humbly recognise our weakness and recognise that alone the loving-kindness of the revealed in Jesus Christ can bring us healing and hope.”