Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell
20th August 2019
St Kieran’s College Priests’ Reunion 2019
I welcome you to St Kieran’s College today for the annual reunion. I especially want to congratulate those who are celebrating diamond, golden and silver jubilees of their ordination to the priesthood.
Today’s readings exemplify the diversity of Scripture. In the First Reading from the Book of Judges (6:11-24), we meet Gideon, who is going to be a great liberator of Israelites against their enemies, the Midianites. In today’s narrative Gideon is being given his “vocation.” He was not too enthusiastic about the job he was invited to perform. He didn’t believe that the Lord would be with him.
I am sure there are times when many of us can identify with the reaction of Gideon, particularly when we are confronted by the massive challenges of life today and ministering in a culture often in opposition to the Gospel. We can sometimes resist such a calling, especially knowing prophets will experience suffering in carrying out their mission. The marks that we bear on our bodies are those of Jesus Christ (see Gal 6:17). Here I am reminded of a notably sharp observation made once by St Bernard of Clairvaux, whose memorial we celebrate today: “Only the man who has misery in his life can console the miserable” (St Bernard of Clairvaux, De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae, 3.6, PL 182).
Gideon had to learn that prophecy is not a simple prediction of the future but a call, right now, in the present, to acknowledge God whose loving mercy is without limit. The purpose of prophecy is not to paralyse us, but to challenge us to play our part in changing ourselves, and our world. It calls us to place our trust in the God who, at the end of history, will make all things new (see Rev 21:15).
Sometimes we can cling to a God of grace and not of truth. When we do, we miss the truth of who God really is. God can be seen as Santa Claus with only an abundance of grace. GRACE and TRUTH are inseparable. “Do not come to me as grace alone” (Bernard of Clairvaux). If God comes as grace and truth we cannot hide from ourselves (see Sermon 74).
An authentic preacher of the Gospel cannot be a preacher either of grace only, or of truth only. Our preaching, on the one hand, cannot be characterised by an active and robust preaching of moral and dogmatic truth and Church law while saying nothing about God’s prodigal kindness and compassion. We cannot speak exclusively, on the other hand, of the grace of God, and of the mercy of God, but say nothing about God’s truth or God’s law.
Like many another great man who had been called by God to some tremendous task, Gideon hesitated from strong feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy. How do we feel when God asks us to do something? Are we challenged? I think of the “rich young man”, the one who walked away sad upon hearing that finding the treasure in heaven would require letting go of his earthy possessions. The treasure of the Church is not financial treasure, but the treasure of life in Christ, especially through the Eucharist.
The real thrust of today’s Gospel comes when Peter, the usual foil in Gospel for misunderstanding, says, in effect, we have left everything, but what’s in it for us? That was Peter’s question, and maybe at times, it has been ours too. For all followers of Jesus, the answer is as challenging as it was for the rich man.
We have been anointed in order to make the kingdom of God present in this world, a kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom of joy and hope, a kingdom of forgiveness and love, a kingdom of rejoicing, a kingdom of reconciliation. Our world is full of ‘little ones’ – people who count for nothing, who are routinely ignored. Do we believe that God has commissioned us to deliver such people from what oppresses them? The kingdom of God, which is inseparable from Jesus, does not come about through being passive. If we are not engaged in constructing the kingdom of God, we are busy constructing one of our own. Today, Jesus continues to come, he continues to make himself present, he continues to speak to the hearts of men and women through His church which is so much more than its bricks and mortar, its doctrines and morality, as important as those are. The exercise of ministry as mission involves more than maintaining institutions—no matter how basic they may be, like the parish or the diocese. We need to come to the realisation that everything we see and build is not the ultimate measure of our life. Our horizon is not the ultimate horizon.
Ministry as mission means ongoing engagement beyond the comfortable associations of our language, culture, social class, age, gender or sexual orientation. It is to that vast, diverse world that Jesus sent his very first followers and to which he still sends them, sends us, today.
What would your reaction be to God’s invitation? Would you be like Gideon and demand a sign? Would you make God wait, as Gideon did? Patience is a fundamental characteristic of God (see 1Cor 13). God waits for us. The future will be fulfilled according to the promise of God, not the planning of ourselves, nor our own wishes. Paul Claudel wrote in his spiritual diary: “the secret of holiness is to let it be God who is at work and not place any obstacle in the way of his will.” Then he adds, “It is a naïvetrust.” The truth is we do make God wait. We place so many barriers in the way of a call, of the original summons which God places in our heart. We become calculating to the extreme, with a prudence that very often is nothing more than an excuse for not accepting and spreading the love of God. “A naïvetrust.” I have to make space for God to go where He wishes to go and not merely where I think He ought to go.
Is there something that God might be asking of us today? If so, how are we going to answer God’s call?