Pro-Cathedral, 12th November 2011
The Gospel reading we have just heard begins by speaking of Christ’s glorification. But Jesus’ glorification comes in an unexpected way. When the
Saint John speaks about Jesus’ exhalation and glorification, he refers not to the common understanding of being exalted, of being what we would call today a celebrity. For John the exaltation of Jesus comes through him being raised on the cross.
John reminds us that the wheat seed which does not fall into the ground and die, remains just a single seed. If it does however die, then it yields a rich harvest. This echoes what we read in the Gospel Saint Mark about the tiny mustard seed which becomes the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a home where the birds of the earth can make their nests in the shade.
The references here are to the Church. Our Gospel reading was written at a time of great expansion of the Church. The Church was no longer confined to its Jewish origins but was beginning to take root in the various cultures of the surrounding world and to welcome into its branches people of all backgrounds. Saint John is reflecting on the extraordinary results in the expansion of the Church which sprang from humble beginnings. We have to generate the same apostolic spirit today
But again the flourishing of the Church is not to be judged by purely human standards. The growth of the Church is not just the fruit of human effort. Saint Mark notes that mustard seed grows not just when the farmer is tending it, but also when he is asleep. The plant grows and sprouts in ways that are not our work and at times that we do not understand.
We come this morning to remember nine priests who have died in the past year. Taken together they served the Church with well over four hundred years of ministry. I was able to be at the funerals of most of them and it was truly striking to see the huge attendance, an indication of just how many hearts and lives were touched by them in the course of their ministry. A little like the farmer in Saint Marks Gospel they themselves would never have claimed merit for the great ministry they carried out. Their ministry was a ministry of service rather than of celebrity seeking; they ministered in humility, and would have looked on their efforts as being more like the tiny seed than the great tree.
I was reflecting that the two eldest of these priests, Dan Breen and Noel Madden, were both ordained in 1955, sixty five years ago. I was reflecting on the change that they would have experienced over those years. They were ordained into a Church which was not just pre-Vatican II, but a Church in which the very calling of the Council had not yet taken place. All of them were priests who had the ability to adapt to changing times. They – and in their own way each of the others – had that sense of continuity which allowed them to receive what was new in the Council, while also being able to integrate that newness into the spirituality that they had inherited from different times.
Being a priest today is not easy. Those we remember today would have recognised that, but they were not nostalgic about imagined better times of the past. In the typical spirituality of the priests of this diocese they ministered faithfully and enthusiastically in both good times and in difficult times, but they never lost their bearings and never lost their hope.
Being a priest is not easy today. Priests in Dublin face new challenges as numbers decrease and the workload grows and the general cultural climate changes. Priests in Dublin have faced really difficult times in the past years. With all of you, I am saddened and horrified to see the results of a recent survey which showed how misled people have been about the extent of abuse by priests. Some of those questioned for the survey imagined that over twenty percent of priests had abused. The horror we all experience at the dreadful reality of abuse in no ways justifies such injustice to the entire body of priests in this diocese and in this country.
We come to thank God for the ministry of generosity and self giving of nine priests who preached the word of God faithfully and lived it faithfully. They represent what is best in Dublin priests. We pray that having given themselves in total self-giving, they will now enter into eternal life. You will notice how the Gospel says that “They will keep their lives for eternal life”. Each of these nine priests lives now with God, but they live not as anonymised souls without characteristics: the live as the persons they were. The love and the affection and the care they had for us in this life endure. The love they had for the Church endures and their prayer for the Church and for priests is a reality which supports us now.
Being a priest is not easy today. Being a believer in Jesus Christ is not easy today for any of us. We should remember however that difficult times are never alien to the ministry and the life of the Church. There is a sense that the faith of God’s people throughout the history of salvation has been at its most purified during times of exile rather than in the times of affluence and abundance. Our Gospel reading recalls one moment in the life of Jesus himself when he seems to loose that traditional serenity and sense of purpose which usually marked his countenance. “My soul is troubled”, Jesus says. One translation says “My soul is in turmoil”. Faith is not easy. All of us will have experienced and will experience moments in which our faith in God will be stretched almost to breaking point. Right throughout the history of God’s people even his most faithful followers will have experienced moments in which they will have found it hard to believe in God. Faith is not certainty. Finding Jesus in our lives is not given to us on a plate. Our faith has to engage with the hostilities of every generation; our faith has to engage with the weakness and sinfulness of our own identity.
If however we die to self centeredness, if we loose our life, then we will be raised up with Jesus. His cross is the gate to new life.
We thank God for the gifts of ministry and witness of these nine priests. I renew our sympathy to you, family members and friends and priest colleagues, who mourn a loss; I thank you for the support you gave these nine priests in their lives and ministry. Priests need their families and their friends. Priests enrich their lives of their families and friends. Together let us honour the memory of these nine priests through committing ourselves anew to the faith in Jesus Christ which animated their lives. We want to recommit ourselves not in away that is just conformist, much less negative in its outlook, but reflects the faithfulness of these nine priests who know experience the presence of God who is always faithful.