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Bishop Donal McKeown’s homily for the celebration of Mass for the Feast of Saint Brigid

Brigid, Patrick and Columba were key pillars in the young Irish church. Brigid was about 10 when St Patrick died and, if historical dates are correct, then Columba was about 4 when Brigid died, apparently in 525. In about a century, the faith of Patrick has taken hold in so many parts of his island. Today we face a need for huge renewal of Church in our own sad world. What seem to have been key elements in this Irish form of Christianity that became a powerhouse of monasteries and missionaries over the following centuries? 

Firstly, we can look back on those early saints and note how successful their work was. But St Brigid and her friends had no idea how their ministry would work out. But they knew – as last October's document from the Synod on synodality said, 'Rather than saying that the Church has a mission, we affirm that the Church is mission' (Section 8, Convergences a)). Like so many generations of missionaries, the early Irish church did not come to preserve an already existing institution. They came to bring good news and practical healing – and they set up structures that would best deliver that, best promote human hope and dignity. Education and medical care have always been at the forefront of a missionary church that wants to be good news. There is a a role for all the baptised in that mission. But the meeting in Rome acknowledged that there is a tension between the involvement of all in the mission of the Church, the role of the 'some' in a sacramental church with ordained members; and the role of the 'one' in the unique ministry of the Pope. There is the temptation to excessively distinguish the difference between laity and clergy – or to forget that we are a sacramental church and replace a clerical elite with a lay elite. An excessively politicised church forgets that we belong to Christ, not to those in our midst who might want to think they are stronger or smarter. Even the apostles thought sometimes that they knew better than Jesus. That temptation has not gone away. St Brigid and her contemporaries knew that they had to be prayerful and let the Holy Spirit lead the young church. Otherwise, they would be building on sand and not on rock. Brigid would want to warn us about the purpose of Christ's church.

Secondly, Brigid lived a life of consecrated virginity. And she founded monasteries for those who wanted to join her. Such communities provide both support and protection. And it seems that the early Irish church was based around leadership by abbots and abbesses rather than by bishops alone. That has been another strength of the church. We have been able to accommodate a whole range of different spiritual traditions under one umbrella, seeing diversity as a gift rather than as a threat. The synodal document wants to encourage the different charisma for renewal that religious congregations and lay movements have brought to the church. Thus, the members of the Assembly wrote:

The Church's charismatic dimension is made manifest in the rich and varied forms of consecrated life. This testimony has contributed to renewing the life of the ecclesial community in every age and provides an antidote to the perennial temptation towards worldliness…Those in consecrated life have often been the first to sense important historical changes and to heed the promptings of the Spirit.(Section 10, Convergences b))

A few generations ago, we had a flourishing national church rich with various charisms – religious communities providing hospital and education service, as well as movements such as the Legion of Mary. Brigid would remind us that communities are vital for renewal, not just because of the work that they do but because of the witness value of committed celibate communities in a fragmented and highly sexualised world.

Thirdly, it doesn't take much historical research to know that Brigid was a woman! Right from the beginning, that early church in our country had room for leadership roles for strong women of faith. Even 100 years ago, when women played huge roles in running schools, hospitals and other institutions, lay women were also heavily involved in pastoral initiatives such as the Apostolic Workers and the Legion of Mary. In recent decades, we have lost that vision of church. The Assembly document wrote:

Many women expressed deep gratitude for the work of priests and bishops. They also spoke of a Church that wounds. Clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority continue to scar the face of the Church and damage its communion. A profound spiritual conversion is needed as the foundation for any effective structural change. (Section 9, Convergences f))

And they add:

Where dignity and justice are undermined in relationships between men and women in the Church, we weaken the credibility of our proclamation to the world. Our synodal path shows the need for relational renewal and structural changes. (Section 9, Convergences g))

That does not merely mean that we change who has power. It also challenges us to discern how we can all use and abuse power and to seek the Holy Spirit's guidance and not merely what comes from current secular agendas. St Brigid would call us to be credible witnesses to Jesus and not merely social conformists.

St Brigid lived at a time of birth for the young Irish church. She had no idea what she was preparing for. But she knew that missionaries in every age are seed planters. Who plants and who waters are unimportant, writes St Paul. It is God who gives the growth. Our job is to plant the seed in the soil and, in God's own good time, somebody else will reap. Some seed will fall on rocky ground or amid briars. That does not matter, keep sowing, for – as the psalm tells us, those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap (Psalm 126).

As we begin this year leading up to the centenary of St Brigid's death, we ask for the same Spirit that filled her heart.

+ Donal

This Mass was celebrated at 7.00pm at the Church of Saint Brigid, Carnhill, Three Patrons parish, Diocese of Derry

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