St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
Tel: 028 7126 2302
They say that you know the health of any organisation when it has to face an unexpected crisis. Pressures can reveal both weakness and remarkable resilience. These last two years have certainly tested us as a diocesan church with our parishes and organisations.
In the first place, it has been very encouraging to see great creativity in using on-line platforms to reach very many people when our doors were closed, and parishioners could not gather in person. The dedication of many parishes and groups meant that an almost monastic timetable was offered in many places, enabling people to tune in and structure their often lonely or cramped days. I thank God for the new skills that we have learned. So many of us older people have now become adopted digital natives. We have also discovered that faith in God is still remarkably close to the surface for many people. A gentle rhythm of prayer has a power far beyond the content of the words used.
On the other hand, I know that the lockdowns have taken their toll on many people – including families, businesses, schools and clergy. Many people were unable to celebrate the funeral of their loved ones. Since March 2020, we celebrated the funeral of 10 diocesan priests, one Carmelite from Termonbacca and one bishop. Clergy were unable to mark the loss of a brother with the usual ceremonies. We will see some of the effects only as the time goes on, prices rise, and we struggle to re-energise our parishes.
The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, the One who nourishes us with the Eucharist wants us to build communities of disciples, not merely to offer religious-themed entertainment.+ Donal McKeown
This Mass of Chrism gives us a chance to focus on the way forward because we gather as representatives of the rich family of the diocese of Derry with its many God-given gifts and talents. While the Mass of the Lord's Supper this evening will invite us to be amazed at the gift of the Eucharist which Jesus left us as the memorial of his death, the Chrism Mass focuses us on the fact that all the baptised have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. All of us have been gifted in a unique way for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.
This all-pervasive presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst is the context for the Synodal Pathway in the universal church and in our Irish church. Christ's followers in every generation have always fought the temptation to complain about where they found themselves. The Irish monks and the families of the Penal Days will certainly have acknowledged the problems that they faced and been aware how hard it was to keep going. Our thousands of missionaries over the decades had to tackle impossible odds in many foreign countries. But they sowed the good seed with trust and hard work. Christ's followers have always found ways of dealing with changing circumstances, disappointments and apparently insurmountable odds.
Thus, our starting point is never a gloomy analysis of how awful things are going to be. As the People of God, we start with the assumption that, though things will be difficult, if we do our bit, the Lord will multiply our efforts beyond imagination. Our commitment in the face of challenges is part of our preaching. A gloomy message negates the value of the good we might do or any sweet words that we might use.
Thus, the core question of all our synodal discussions in church is not 'what should somebody else change or do?' but 'what we do together to make Christ's grace visible in our time and place?' For Christ's followers, there is no other question. There may well be the temptation to focus on other intellectual questions beyond our control – and talk away about ideas and theories. There is the temptation to ask how we soften our message to make the Gospel more like the message of our secular culture. Our task is to be faithful to Jesus in the fulness of his challenging message. There is no future in dumbing down the Gospel to make the Church popular. In a context of prayer and in faithfulness to Jesus, each parish community has to discern what challenges it faces, what resources it has and what initiatives can be taken.
And today's readings tell us that we are rich in spiritual gifts, if only we had eyes to see them and hearts to appreciate them. Good leadership means discerning with others how to seek out those gifts and challenging people to use them for the good of the whole Church's mission to bring good news to the poor. Thus, in our Church tradition there is a multitude of ministries that any parish could offer. Yes, central to that mission is the role of the ordained priest. But ask any returned missionary and they will tell you about the range of gifts that come to the fore when the ordained minister doesn't complain about having to do everything. The synodal conversations are about how we might together do the best that we can in the face of the real challenges that our communities, families and young people have to live with. Jesus came to build the Kingdom of God, to let the mustard seed grow. Preparing to downsize was never his vision. Thus, our local communities face huge financial pressures, the temptation to despair, worry about addiction and a very violent culture. But Christ's missionaries of the 21st century have better things to do than sit around worrying about ourselves.
These central days of our church's year tell us about Jesus who does not shirk from the Cross, despite what he knew about its horrors. He faced the reality of betrayal, rejection and brutality, trusting that the Father would see him through it, even when everybody else though that everything was lost. That is a model for the sort of people we are to be in our time and place.
In these days, recognise the Cross in our personal and church lives. Pray for strength and for individuals who will be open to the call for service in our parishes. Please pray that, in the midst of discovering other ministries, we do not forget the central role of those who give their whole lives in imitation of Christ for the salvation of the world. Pray specifically for vocations to the ordained priesthood and to consecrated life. God has great things in mind for our local and national church. Pray in these intense days that we will all acknowledge that we are a chrism-ed, an anointed people, called to bring good news to the poor. And not be afraid to take up the mission. So much of the secular world is waking up after Covid. This is certainly not a time for us to go to sleep.
+ Donal McKeown
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