11th & 12th November, 2006
I extend a very warm welcome to each one of you to our Eucharist as we celebrate our pastoral assembly. We are the Church of Tuam. The Church exists for the sake of humanity; it is always most alive and vibrant and authentic when it is not thinking much about itself. When we are baptised into the Church, it is not so that Church gets bigger and increases, rather it is that we may be a better sign of the unity of humanity. Each one of us adds something to that sign.
We do not know anything for certain about the immediate future of the Church. We should not be surprised at this. We have no road map for the future. Life can be full of risk and yet still be a blessing. Faith does not mean living with certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty, knowing that God is with us, giving us the courage to meet any challenge that tomorrow may bring.
In a sense as Christians we ought to be at ease with facing an unknown future. As one takes a look at history one recognises that the challenges which the Church faces make it young again. The problems which we have faced here in Ireland and in Western society in general in recent years, even these promise us rejuvenation and spiritual renewal.
The only thing that the Bible tells us about the future of the Church is that it has one; it will endure until the end of time, but what that future is we do not know. Perhaps the publicly weakened Church may understand afresh that its first task is not to change the world but to be present in it, making its dwelling place with sinners and outcasts, just as the crucified Christ dwelt among us in the flesh, full of grace and truth to be sure, yet unknown and invisible to those who lacked faith.
The present loss of prestige and power within the mainstream Church in many Western nations may represent a spirit-given opportunity for the Church of Christ. As with Christ, the Church must die to itself, be crucified to popularity and trendiness and – over throwing the cultural idols of relevance, effectiveness and growth – live solely with radical courage and faith in the power of Christ crucified.
The first and third readings in today’s Mass might seem superficially simple. We are confronted with two Jewish widows. Each is dreadfully poor, yet each gives all she has. One gives from her last handful of meal, her last drops of oil; the other puts her last two coins in the collection. In this gospel you find startling contrasts. On the one hand, impressive appearances but shallowness; on the other hand stark simplicity but hidden depths. The location is the ornate temple in Jerusalem. The Scribes in their trendy outfits are at home in this situation. They preach but do not practice. How different from the poor widow; no pomp or parade, no show or display; just a small gift to the Lord. No big deal you might say. This destitute widow becomes an ideal symbol for Christian generosity, since the two copper coins she gave represented all she had. Here we have surface show verses inner substance. But there is more.
Jesus’ praise of the widow tells us something about human living, about the risk in giving. The others gave, and it was good. They had given a good deal, but there was more where that came from. For the widow however, nothing was left but to cast all her cares on God. The response is similar to the widow in the first reading from the first book of Kings. A handful of meal and a spot of oil – enough to bake a cake for herself and her son before they lie down to die, and yet they give up even that. Jesus enters into today’s gospel story not only as a commentator but as one who gives expression to what is happening here.
In Jesus’ offering there was also a terrible risk. All human security was gone: his mother, his disciples, his friends; not one of them could help. He was alone, face to face with death. In this moment Jesus gives up literally everything to the Father for us. Out of his poverty, he put in the treasury of the Father everything he had, his whole living, his whole dying. No security….total risk…..trust in God alone.
You and I fit into this liturgy of the two widows. The key words are “gift” and “risk”. We are most Christian, most Christ-like when our giving affects our existence, when it threatens our security, when it is ultimately ourselves we are giving away. It is the crucified Christ who is the model for Christian living and for Christian giving.
The renewal of the Church will take place through the generous giving of ourselves. What we could easily forget is that renewal in the Church has come about, time and again in its history, in and through the inspiration of small groups – monastic, missionary, lay communities, communities of women, all fired by the Holy Spirit. It is in these faith clusters, or communities, that a whole mix of people, married, single, separated, religious, ordained, young and not so young, discover a new and deeper experience of faith through prayer, scripture, community and service to others. These communities bring something new, new life and hope, to a parish, a deanery, a diocese in a very real and tangible way.
I am convinced that small Christian communities like the ones we have experienced in the lead up to the assembly, are a source of great hope in the Church today. Within smaller groups where a greater degree of trust and confidence can be built up, people are encouraged and inspired to go further and deeper on their journey of faith than they might otherwise. People begin to discover, and then to share more openly their relationship with God, with each other and with the whole of creation. Out of these kinds of reflection a greater conviction of the importance of putting faith into action can develop. So too can a desire to become more closely involved in the liturgy, in youth work, in catechetics and in other aspects of the pastoral, spiritual life of the Church.
Very important in our time is the sense of belonging and being accepted, and the radical change that occurs in peoples lives when they begin to lay their own lives alongside the scriptures. This will not come about easily; it demands commitment and courage, but I have great hope. If we are generous in our response to the Lord’s invitation to “launch out into the deep” then he will provide a catch beyond our wildest imaginings.
During the lead up to this assembly I have witnessed the effectiveness of small communities and I do not doubt their effectiveness for renewal. These are indispensable missionaries of the Church and it is only through their full understanding of God’s call to each of them that the Church can truly engage with and influence the world around us.
If I might ring the changes on the words of the Vietnamese Cardinal Van Thuau: I dream of a Church of Tuam that is the Holy Door, always open, embracing all, full of compassion; and that understands the pains and sufferings of humanity, protecting and consoling all people. I dream of a Church that is a concrete witness of hope and of love.