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Homily - Novena to St Therese of Lisieux - Bishop McKeown

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Concluding Ceremony - May 17th 2020 

It is now two months exactly – on the Feast of St Patrick - since I celebrated a public Mass to which people could freely come, albeit with a smallish congregation. Then we had little idea what lay ahead. But one of the striking features of the last eight weeks has been the dedication of those who keep society and church running. The medical services have inspired, the Council employees are out from 6am keeping our streets clean, the Post office staff go from door to door and those in shops so often greet us with a smile. And I am amazed at how active our parishes have remained. There is both great creativity and a huge level of response on various media platforms. It would have taken us years to learn many of the new tricks of the communications trade – but a passion for the Gospel has been a good teacher. And we are blessed in our Church family that we have such a rich variety of prayer traditions that can enrich our spiritual life, even online. In the absence of access to the sacraments, we can still fall back on our wonderful treasury of sacramentals. These include the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, novenas, vigils, feast days in sacred time, all of which are deeply biblical.

So today, after two months as enforced migrants to this strange new world, I want to thank all those clergy, religious and laity who have done so much to bring encouragement and hope in confusing times. That work should not surprise anyone. We would do a great disservice to history if we forget that so many quiet heroes of the conflict were those who held parishes, communities, schools, workplaces, hospitals, sports clubs and entertainment together despite the chaos all around. It is easy to destroy. But real heroes are those who build in hope, trusting that they can lay apparently unspectacular foundations on which other can erect an unseen future.

As you know, St Therese died at the age of 24, having reached remarkable maturity in such a short time. And just about a month ago on April 16th, we celebrated the feast of St Bernadette of Lourdes who died at 35 and the fourth anniversary of Sr Clare Crockett who was called to the Lord aged 34. And on April 29th we remembered St Catherine of Siena who died when she was 33.

These are not plaster cast figures from the past whom we can admire. They are flesh and blood statements that ordinary people can do extraordinary things - and that all church renewal ultimately comes from the young, not from the old. My generation may have messed up many things as we stammered and stumbled through the end of one way of being Church. We may be a sort of sorbet generation between two strong courses. Or perhaps we are the springtime generation – pulling up the weeds, tilling the ground, sowing seed for a future that we will probably not see. But if we are not courageous workers, trusting in the Lord of the harvest, then we will have failed in our mission. Our job is to hold the ground so that new shoots of God-given renewal can spring up, as they have always done.

Down through history, young people have given all for Christ. We easily think of Columba, Columbanus, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Edmund Rice and waves of Irish missionaries in every generation. But while men may have championed truth and mission, women have been champions of the God of tenderness. Great strong women figures have included Brigid and the Irish women saints, young St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Therese, and founders of religious families such as Catherine McAuley who gave us the Sisters of Mercy. Most of the creative and rebellious initiatives in education and health care came from dedicated women whose passion would not allow them to merely serve the past, its assumptions and its structures.

In his document to young people of this generation Pope Francis issued a number of strong challenges. His words are especially valid now that this pandemic has opened the door to a new way of being society and Church. He wrote to young people just over 12 month ago,

Avoid the paralysis of the living dead, who have no life because they are afraid to take risks, to make mistakes or to persevere in their commitments… Don't go through life anaesthetised or approach the world like tourists…. Please, don't take early retirement. (Christus Vivit 142-3)

That is what young saints in every generation have always done. In the ashes of collapsed certainties, they have seen a rich soil for new life. In this pandemic, more space has been created for silence where young people can hear better where their hearts are calling them, where they can be true to themselves, where they can become who God calls them to be and not merely a copy of someone else. Those great young saints from the church's history have been able to blend silence and prayer with mission and passion.

Can I invite you to pray at the end of this novena that our Church communities will go beyond asking "How can we hand on faith to young people?" – important though that question may be – and also ask "How can we of this generation help our young people to renew the Church?". From the young man Jesus and his young followers to new saints of the recent centuries and decades, Resurrection has come from the most unlikely of places, where many people had expected to see only the dead bones of their dreams. Young people have always rebelled at what offers them not nourishment buy candyfloss. As Pope Francis wrote, Christus Vivit – Christ is alive. The Little Flower knew that. And that was why she blossomed, quietly in her own short lifetime and powerfully since her death. Holiness is not just for the end of life. Holiness is a call to young people of all ages. It bursts into the globalisation of superficiality, into the culture of the helpless, couch potato consumer, into the culture of death that pretends that the lonely individual must be the master of life and death, the author of all truth but ultimately signifying nothing.

Can we find ways to till the ground to let new little flowers bloom in our garden? That has always been God's little way. Following it can make saints of us all.

+ Donal McKeown

World Communications Day 2020
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