St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Last Sunday, I officiated at the funeral of Harry, one of my numerous cousins. Harry was a single man and a quiet, diligent farmer. When his elder sister was dying some years ago, she had one final message for the Harry as the next oldest in the family – 'keep the family together and look after the children'. The heartbroken nephews and nieces at his funeral bore witness to how Harry, without children of his own, had become the hub that held the spokes of the extended family together.
People live in family circumstances that vary radically – broken relationships, violence, illness and deprivation are not far from any of our family trees. And we know from the Gospel that Jesus called people to greatness while, at the same time, standing beside those whose lives were in a mess. God loves us where we are but loves us too much to leave us where we are.
That is the context in which the World Meeting of Families takes place. The Meeting is much bigger than the 33 hours that Pope Francis will spend in Ireland this weekend. The Congress from Wednesday till Friday at the RDS will involve nearly 100,000 people of all ages and from all over the world in lectures, debates, exhibitions and liturgies. And this world event – hosted by Dublin - comes at a critical time in many countries where society and politicians are wrestling with big questions
-Why are we losing too many people, young and not so young, for want of a reason for living?
-How do we create a home environment that will help our young people to thrive?
-How do we develop an economy that serves people and not just the system?
-How do we balance the desires and rights of adults with the needs of children?
-How do we provide healthy role models that will inspire society rather than merely boost the egos of the celebrities?
-How do we defend the weakest despite pressure to prioritise the voice of the strong?
In the face of these questions, I hope that Pope Francis will place a mirror in front of both Church and state. It is always better to be unhappy with the right questions than happy with the wrong answers.I hope he will ask awkward questions and speak the truth in love about how the Church needs to repent and equip itself if it is to be a credible witness of God's mercy and love in 2018. I hope he will encourage civil society to look beyond the gloss and the jingles if it is to cherish all the children of the country equally. I hope and pray that Church and state learn from the mistakes of the past but not be trapped by only looking backwards. The blame game always seeks the fault in somebody else. The uncomfortable Gospel asks leaders of all sorts in society to take the plank out of their own eyes first so that they can see where the uncomfortable truth lies.
So I don't want the WMOF and the visit of Pope Francis to strengthen the Church as an organisation. Power corrupts and nourishes arrogance. But I do pray that this week will inspire dioceses, parishes and families to build community in the face of an epidemic of loneliness. I pray that faith communities will be places of God's hope in a frightened world. I pray that churches will promote a gracious way of having difficult conversations in a world where harsh words often seem to dominate. The Church does not exist for its own sake. It exists only to continue the mission of Jesus in the service of finding peace with the past so that we can create a hope-filled future. Like Jesus, the Church of Christ exists not to be served but to serve. I am sure that Pope Francis will call us to that.
The call to sanctity and to self-sacrificing heroism, to chastity and faithfulness will not be welcome in some quarters where the logic of the self-indulgent market dominates. Some will seek to criticise the messenger in order to avoid engagement with the message. But as we approach important decisions about the future of this island, this World Meeting will challenge us all to prioritise building a healthy society and not just growing market share, to inspire a new generation of Irish people with a vision for the future as we learn from the past. Changing hard borders will not heal hard hearts. Tired, hollow mantras and self-righteous condemnations serve no-one. Young people are not inspired by angry adults.
This week's events in Dublin are an invitation for us all to reflect. It is not a time for quick, smart answers but for thoughtful listening. It is a moment of divine grace where we can together seek the truth that alone can set us free. It is a precious God-given opportunity that we waste at our peril. It is an important stage in an adult conversation about what a new Ireland would look like. It is a key moment in discerning what a renewed Irish Church will look like as it seeks to play a positive and prophetic role in civic society.
With gratitude I remember my cousin Harry and thousands like him who kept families together and looked after the children. These remain the real heroes and role models for a modern Ireland. The Gospel of the Family is still joy for the world.
St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry
21st August 2018