Reflections on the visit of Pope Francis

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22nd Sunday of the Year 2018




Homily Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin

Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, 2 September 2018


One week after the visit of Pope Francis to Dublin, I would like publicly to express my gratitude to all those who helped prepare that visit.  I thank those who were responsible for the great events in Croke Park and in the Phoenix Park as well as in Knock.  I thank President Higgins, the Taoiseach, the public authorities, the media and of course our great volunteers.

I thank especially the people of Dublin who thronged the streets in welcoming Pope Francis as he journeyed across our city.  I was really pleased that Pope Francis made that short stop at the Parish of Our Lady of Lourdes and at his visit to the Capuchin Food Centre. These visits meant so much.

Some weeks ago, I posed the question: what would Pope Francis leave as a legacy to the Church in Ireland after his short yet intense thirty-six hour visit for the World Meeting of Families?

My answer was simple: My hope is that Pope Francis “will challenge the Church in Ireland to be more authentically the Church of Jesus Christ in a culture that is different.”

I was and am very much aware of the fact that Pope Francis could not provide all the answers himself. The future of the Church in Ireland remains very much the responsibility of the entire Church community in Ireland.  Now we must be asking ourselves: where should we be going in the years to come?

I am not advocating, as some seem to be saying, that we establish a sort of Irish Catholic Church separate from a Roman Catholic Church.  There is one Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, built on apostolic succession and the unity of the bishops with and under the Bishop of Rome.  We belong to a single yet diverse faith community, united through pondering the word of God and the teaching of the Apostles, through prayer and the Sacraments and through the life of charity.

What then does being more authentically Church mean?   Let us look at today’s Gospel.  It reminds us that the message of Jesus Christ is not always as easy to understand as might appear at first sight.  It is possible for people to misuse religion as a way to back up a personal agenda. Forms of Christian fundamentalism use religious ideas to defend agendas far from the authentic Christian vision.

It is possible that we set out from a mind-set that effectively makes it impossible for us to understand what the scriptures are saying, because our own prejudices or institutional protectionism divert our ability to understand anything beyond our own viewpoints.  At other times, our ability to understand and accept scripture is impeded by aspects of our dominant culture.

The text of today’s Gospel reading shows how difficult it was for the hearers of Jesus to understand his message.   The Pharisees and the legal experts find Jesus’ arguments hard to follow, especially because what he is fundamentally asking of them requires a radical change in the way they think, they act and how they understand religion and faith in God.

It is interesting that those who do not understand are not the pagans and unbelievers but those who consider themselves deeply religious, the Pharisees and the legal experts.

What is the difficulty?  The original question that the Pharisees and the scribes had asked Jesus seemed apparently to be just about the Jewish rules of purification before meals and why Jesus’ disciples did not observe them.

Jesus, however, is really talking about something much deeper.  He is not criticising rules and norms and traditions as part of religion and belief.  He is saying that there is need for discernment to ensure that what we practice and what we teach is really coming from God and is not just a complex set of human rules that have been given a religious aura but are not the essence of what religion is about.

We can see here one challenge facing the Church in Ireland in the years to come, that of discerning where the essentials of the Christian life lie and how our institutions, in their daily life, witness to what is essential.

There are those who still today believe that the Christian life is about protecting ourselves from a complex world through a going back to the safe and protective norms and traditions of the past.  There are those, on the other hand, who end up throwing away with the superficial norms of the past many other dimensions of what the Church must be, and feel that all that is necessary is to follow the instincts of our own hearts and of contemporary thought.

The logic of Jesus challenges each of these temptations.  Jesus teaches us that we must discern what is right and just and true and loving, and that this is not just an external ritual nor is it just the fruit of our own feeling of goodness, much less the fruits of a public opinion survey.

The Christian message is not just a message of comfort or conformity. Every generation has thought in various ways that progress would permit or even demand that believers throw aside faith, judged to be no longer relevant to the thought patterns of the day.

Human progress however has shown itself to be ambiguous and human reason can indeed deceive itself under pressure from strong cultural undercurrents that seem to be attractive, but can be dangerously deceptive.   True faith in Jesus Christ allows us rather to be purified through the liberating truth of the Gospel.

I would like to invite every parish in the diocese of Dublin to find concrete ways of reflecting on this challenge, perhaps in the weeks around the Feast of Saint Laurence O’Toole, Principal Patron of the Diocese, on the 14th November.   It is not a question of a political style consultation, but a call to each believer and faith community radically to interiorise what the challenge of faith in Jesus entails.

Each parish and parish community can find its own path of reflection, with the help of the Parish Pastoral Council. The aim is not to provide instant answers but at least to begin to set out a realistic agenda for renewal of the Church in the years to come.

For me the questions that should be addressed are the deeper questions about faith in Jesus Christ.  Why are we no longer captivating so many of our young people for the message of Jesus Christ?   Which models of pastoral activity and reflection are most likely to win the hearts of young people for the message of Jesus?  How do we teach young people about prayer?  How can our parishes respond to these challenges? Which aspects of our dominant culture make it harder for people to understand the message of Jesus?  I am thinking, for example, about a widespread individualism that invades everything from personal life to our economic vision.

I was very much struck by the gathering in this Pro-Cathedral of young couples preparing for or who had recently celebrated the sacrament of matrimony.  It was a unique sign of a future of faith, of goodness and of love.  This was a unique vision of a Church for the future, as these young couples reflected on the Pope’s vision of lifelong commitment and on the beauty of passing on faith in Jesus Christ to the next generation.

Over the past few weeks, I have repeatedly asked believers to reflect on a troublesome harshness which pervaded Irish Catholicism in the past and which was witnessed especially in many schools and institutions for children and vulnerable women.  Every occasion on which this happened was a betrayal of the call to witness to loving kindness of our God.  It must never happen again.

Being authentically the Church goes beyond having the necessary safeguarding norms in place. It calls for a real renewal of the entire Church as the community that witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ especially to the poorest and most vulnerable.

Our Gospel reading calls on each one of us to allow the teaching of the Gospel to liberate us and to empower us to recognise our failings and to allow our hearts to be purified through the at times painful yet liberating truth and mercy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.   Only in this way will the Church in Ireland be authentically Church in a changing Ireland.