24th Sunday of the Year 2013, CENTENARY OF THE PARISH OF OUR LADY OF DOLOURS, GLASNEVIN
Homily Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Church of Our Lady of Dolours, 15th September 2013
“We all know the Gospel of the Prodigal Son. However our familiarity with the story can sometimes prevent us from really understanding its meaning. It is also a parable with many different dimensions which require that we look at it with attention to detail, without of course loosing the striking central point of the story.
It is interesting that today’s liturgy presents the story of the prodigal son along with two other parables – that of the lost sheep and that of the woman who lost the small coin – even though the story of the prodigal son is on its own quite a lengthy text which would well have been long enough to make a full Sunday Gospel.
Why is this? The liturgy obviously wishes to make it quite clear that these texts belong together and that taken together they teach us something very significant and fundamental about the message and the logic of Jesus and thus about the Christian life and about the Church.
Then there is something else. The three stories are prompted by a short introduction which we could easily overlook; that of the reaction of the Pharisees to the fact that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. Why are the Pharisees so annoyed and scandalised? They too wanted sinners to change their ways. Why would they then object to Jesus welcoming sinners?
The three parables set out to give us the answer to this question. The fundamental difference between the practice of the Pharisees and what Jesus proposes is that the Pharisees demanded a whole series of conditions for a sinner to fulfil in order to be welcomed back into the believing community. The sinner was expected to take the initiative in following a detailed path of repentance and prove in some public way that he or she had repented and that that repentance was solid and consistent.
What annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was that he acted in another way: he reaches out to sinners even in their sinfulness and welcomes them back even at the first signs of contact and interest. The emphasis in all three parables is about the joy of Jesus when an encounter with him and his teaching changes someone’s life. Rather than setting out clinically the details of a path which the sinner had to take in order to be welcomed back, Jesus himself takes the first step. Jesus goes out to meet the sinner before the sinner. With the lost sheep he leaves the ninety-nine and goes out to seek the lost one. And when the lost sheep is found Jesus does not set out a programme of reprimand and reform. He takes the lost sheep up on his own shoulders and caries him lovingly back.
The woman who looses the small coin spends days – all the time that it necessary – to seek what is lost and rejoices so much when she finds it that she brings in all the neighbours to rejoice with her.
Not only is the attitude of Jesus radically different to that of the Pharisees, it is so different that it often challenges even ordinary human good sense. The women who lost the coin spends much more in celebrating its return than the original coin was worth. Jesus turns our human values and our human caution upside down. For Jesus what is vital is that the individual who has gone astray can come back joyfully and be once again fully the person that God wants them to be.
The story of the prodigal son takes this a step further. The prodigal son is a figure who inspires both indignation and pity. He wants to go his own way but he wastes all his money and his talents in order just to enjoy himself in a totally thoughtless way. He places his hope for happiness in the wrong place. It does not take long before his selfish dream-world collapses. Just as his money runs out, a famine hits the country and the cost of food rises beyond his possibilities. He is left with nothing except his humiliation. The only job he can find is to feed pigs, a job which would be particularly repugnant to a Jew. His humiliation is total.
He returns home, not out of any great loyalty to his father and a true sense of repentance but because it is the only way he can survive. He prepares his words to ask his father for at least minimal help. What happens? His father overwhelms him with kindness. There is no sense of calculation and punishment but quite the opposite. The father goes out to meet him and receives him. He embraces the son. He greets him with the signs not of being simply accepted, but of being restored. He receives the best clothes and shoes and a ring and the best food and the entire community of his father’s household joins in the rejoicing.
The only shadow is the complicated reaction of the other brother who feels that the father had done him wrong by giving the reckless and irresponsible brother such a lavish welcome back. What is the father’s reaction? Again it is noteworthy that when the Father learns of this resentment, he once again goes out to the brother. He does not wait for the resentful brother to come in. He explains how his love and respect for him remains. He tries to convince the elder brother that there was no other way in which he could respond. “It was only right” the Gospel says. “How could I have done otherwise?” is another translation. Jesus reacts to both the waster younger brother and the resentful older one by going out to encounter them where they are and being for them the embrace of God’s mercy. This is Jesus answer to the Pharisees who want evidence and guarantees and proof of repentance. Jesus changes sinners not by testing them but by embracing them, by welcoming them, by assuring them.
As a Church we have to rediscover that notion of rejoicing in repentance and in welcoming the sinner, in reaching out to encounter the sinner and the unbeliever, rather than setting out conditions in advance. We have all too often developed sort of puritanical, harsh and demanding Church. We have set out complicated lists of sins and have often made return so much harder and humanly more difficult. We have made the sinner into a category to be punished and managed by rules and norms rather than a person who had gone astray, who had tarnished his or her own dignity, whereas the only way back is to reach out, embrace and restore that dignity.
Pope Francis has an amazing ability to find simple words to pose fundamental questions about the life of the Christian and of the Church. He challenges us to become “the tender embrace of the Jesus” for all who are marginalised and on the fringes and on the frontiers of the society in which we live. He does not simply say, as a theological statement, that the Church is the tender embrace of Christ’s love. He challenges us to become that tender embrace.
We can repeat doctrinal formulae ad nauseam. We can enounce moral teaching with clinical clarity. But all of that will be worthless and the Church’s teaching will appear to others like any other ideology, if we do not reflect in our lives – personal and institutional – the tender embrace of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis has noted that at times we feel that the failures in our evangelising efforts are due to the fact that so many in today’s world are closed to God; they do not hear the call of Jesus; that when Jesus knocks on our doors we do not let him in. The Pope however counters that by adding: “we also fail at times when Jesus knocks from within and we do not let him out”. The Church must reach out. An inward looking, self-centred, narcissistic Church will never witness to the generosity and care of Jesus Christ.
We come here today to celebrate the centenary of the founding of this parish of Our Lady of Dolours in Glasnevin. The history of a parish is the history of a community which has attempted over time to be the focal point in society of what the teaching of Jesus Christ means and how that teaching is a teaching about the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a teaching which sets out not to condemn the sinner and those who are weak or those who think differently but to reach out to then and to embrace them.
I leave it to the historians to set out the important events in the history of the parish: to list the names of those priests and religious and lay people who were the building blocks of this community over the past century in a changing world and a changing culture. We remember all of them today in our prayers. We remember those who ministered here; we remember the educators and the teachers; we remember the Christian parents; we remember those who built up the tradition of worship and prayer and sacred music which have been a particular part of the history of this parish.
I wish to recall especially those who unobtrusively witnessed to the caring embrace of Jesus: those who fostered care and reconciliation; those who reached out to and stood by others in poverty and anxiety and distress; those who encouraged young people to find the right direction in their lives and to rediscover their self-worth and dignity when they got lost. The walls of this Church and of the earlier Church buildings could easily tell us the stories of so many lives that have been changed through encountering in this parish community not just the texts of the word of God, but those words incarnated in the goodness and generosity of truly Christian believers.
At an anniversary we look back, but we also look forward. In the years to come we have to forge a new commitment to a Church which is not a comfort zone for the like minded, but one where we deepen day by day our understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. That is not an easy task. It involves a shaking up of our lives and our own selves to go out beyond our own comfort to witness in our world to different values. Living our faith is not easy in today’s world. All of us require an on-going deepening of our faith; we need to know the Jesus of the Gospels; we need to know the Creeds of our faith. But we need to know them not as formulae, but as the inspiration of lives which witness to God’s love. To do that we need a deep sense of prayer and personal communion with the Lord, continuing in the tradition of those who went before us in shaping this wonderful parish community.