Homily of Bishop Niall Coll at the First Anniversary Mass for Bishop Séamus Freeman
in St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, Sunday 20th August 2023
Usually when people approach Jesus to ask for something – the poor, the sick, the rejected, the disadvantaged – he responds immediately and generously. But look at how Jesus treats this foreign woman, a Canaanite, in today’s gospel when she comes to him begging for help. Her daughter is terribly sick, and she entreats Jesus to cure her. Recall how Jesus first reacts. First, he ignores her, then the disciples want to send her away because she is being so annoying and persistent. Then Jesus says, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In other words, I haven’t come for foreign people like you! Then comes the final insult when Jesus says, ‘It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to dogs’, in effect, using a common pejorative term – ‘dogs’ for foreigners among his own people. And through it all, insult after insult, rejection after rejection, she keeps coming back. She is persistent and won’t be dismissed. This woman is truly remarkable.
She reminds me of the many people who on a daily basis have to deal with being ignored, brushed off, sent away, insulted. She calls to mind the poor, the marginalised, the foreigners, the little people who have to deal with official silence, bureaucratic brush-offs and hostility, whether direct or indirect.
What is the lesson in this Gospel story for us? To things spring readily to mind for me. First, think of the times when you pray and pray, begging from the very bottom of your soul, pouring out your heart, asking God over and over again, and your prayer is not being answered. You are met with silence, and you begin to think God is ignoring you. You feel rejected, perhaps not good enough or not holy enough, to have your prayers answered. Or indeed you ask God for something and there is no answer, and then you give up and begin the slow walking away from God, prayer and practice of faith.
I would ask you to ponder the wise teaching of the great St Augustine when a woman confided to him her worries because God was silent to her petitions; her prayers were not being answered. He reminded her that we pray over and over again – persistently – so as to expand our capacity to receive what God is willing to give us. In other words, God is giving all the time but often the fault is with us: either we are asking for the wrong thing, or we are not able to receive what God wants to give us. We are akin to a very narrow opening through which God is wanting to pour in so much: we have to prise open that opening! Think of it this way, you pray for something big, something serious and it is given right away. But you might not be able to receive it or appreciate it right away. We need to train ourselves to be able to receive and use what is being given for good purposes – for God’s purposes – not for our own selfish, self-centred ones. Prayer expands our capacity to receive what God wants to give us.
The second thing I would invite you to reflect about, and it comes from something that St John Henry Newman said: ‘Things do by opposition grow’. Weightlifters know how the muscles develop by pressing against heavy weights. And those who are into physical training know the importance of resistance training, working muscles and abilities against something. Or to become a good hurler or camogie player, you can’t do it without training. What is needed is not arrived at immediately nor easily. The skills don’t drop miraculously out of the sky falling onto our laps as soon as we ask. It takes time, patience, persistence and training, stretching ourselves to reach our potential. In short, training is needed, and by extension, spiritual training is absolutely essential in life too.
The faith is something we don’t just have. It is like a muscle that needs training. We do ourselves a terrible injustice, and won’t develop to our full potential, if we don’t train spiritually: spiritual exercises like prayer, Mass, devotional practices, charitable outreach, spiritual reading, meditating on the scriptures and always more. Such training opens up our capacity to receive what God is giving. It expands and opens up depths in us that would lie closed and dormant. It makes us able for that ultimate union with God which alone can make us complete.
That quest for completeness, for friendship with God was at the centre of the life and ministry of Bishop Seamus Freeman whose first anniversary Mass we now celebrate. In his first pastoral letter on his appointment to Ossory, Bishop Seamus urged the people and clergy of the diocese to communicate the joy of Christian faith and the power of Christian love of the other. A humble, sincere and deeply spiritual man with a great respect for people, he had a vision for the diocese and an important dimension of this is apparent as we look around us now and marvel at the beauty of the work of restoration of this cathedral which he inaugurated.
Like the Canaanite women he showed faith, a faith that persisted in the face of the challenges of ministry, leadership and poor health right to the end. Let me finish with a line from St Paul that was particularly important to Bishop Seamus in this life and to all in his Pallotine family, as it expresses succinctly that which grounds his life now in the eternity of God: “For the love of Christ urges us on …” (2 Cor. 5:14). Yes, it is all God’s work. May Bishop Seamus rest in peace.