GOLDEN JUBILEE OF THE CHURCH OF THE GUARDIAN ANGELS
Homily notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Church of the Guardian Angels, Newtownpark Avenue, 5th November 2017
In November 1967, when this Church was opened, I was coming towards the end of my time as a seminarian in Clonliffe College. It was a very interesting time in the life of the Church. The Second Vatican Council had ended just two years earlier and its effects were being felt in the Church right across the world. The seminary at Clonliffe was changing. The teaching of theology was changing. For someone of my age it was a good time to be a seminarian.
It was a time of change, even if at times that change was not universally appreciated. Archbishop McQuaid, who blessed and opened this Church in 1967, was anxious that change might trouble people’s consciences. For others change was too slow.
Change is an essential dimension of the life of the Church. I am not denying the unchangeable elements of Christ’s teaching. There are indeed those who would accuse Pope Francis of wanting subtly to change the teaching of the Church on aspects of marriage and the family. That is not the case. That does not mean, however, that he wishes everything in the Church to be as before.
Why change? I find it interesting to go back to the opening of the Second Vatican Council, back in 1962, and re-read the homily of Pope John XXIII on that occasion. They are words that could easily be penned by Pope Francis today. Pope John stressed that: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”
Pope John never denied that there were errors in doctrine within the Church nor did he deny that clashes with certain elements of modern culture could indeed lead to confusion about doctrine. The approach of the Council, however, Pope John proclaimed, should not be one just of condemnation and correction. “Nowadays the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”.
Change in the Church is not just about structures. Change in the Church is about renewal and conversion. The Church is called to witness to the unchanging teaching of Jesus Christ within the ever-changing cultures in which the Church lives. This is a delicate and challenging process. It applies to the Church in every dimension of its existence and to each one of us individually.
It is not a matter of simple acceptance of contemporary culture. The Church will always live, to use the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams “at an angle to the mainstream”. Change must be guided by a process of evangelical discernment about how we live authentic faith in any culture.
These reflections came to me as I read the history of this Church and of this parish community. This Church of the Guardian Angels was built to respond to changing demographics in this area. Very soon after its completion, the arrangement of the altar was changed to conform to the new liturgical culture of Vatican II. Over the past fifty years, the building has seen continuous change and adaptation. Most recently, the Gathering Space and Baptismal Font were introduced and a “Stay and Pray” space was introduced. The future foresees a Parish Pastoral Centre to respond to new needs of faith formation and education.
A Church that does not respond to changing situations is failing in its mission. A Church Jubilee and anniversary that simply looks back to the past – no matter how justified – is a church that is gridlocked in its vision. An anniversary must be a moment of looking forward and planning to take up the best of the past and integrate it into a vision of the future. That vision must be one which opens out to younger generations and gives them a sense of being welcome in the Church community and which challengingly offers them for their lives the vision of Jesus Christ.
The teaching of the Church is not just a teaching of abstract principles. It is a call to be disciples of a God who is love, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The call to Christian love takes us beyond the normal understanding of love. It is not just a love based on mutual feeling or simply on what we have in common with someone. That is the message of our Gospel reading.
Jesus presents us with a new definition of love and of friendship. Jesus’ natural relationship with the disciples would have been that of master and disciple. But he chooses them as friends and loves them with a love that reaches out beyond conventional boundaries. The fundamental law of Christianity is the law of a love that breaks out beyond the boundaries of common interest and mutual sympathy. It is a love that mirrors the unhesitating generosity of God, never restricting ourselves to loving just those who are familiar to us or similar to us.
The Church can thus never be the closed community of the like-minded. It can never be simply a comfort zone. The Church must be a dynamic community that lives in a specific culture but is marked by a Gospel freedom that allows us as believers to discern values that endure.
These last fifty years have seen great changes in Irish culture and in the place of the Church in society. Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church in Ireland played a dominant and at time domineering role in so many aspects of Irish society, aspects ranging from the public square to the private bedroom.
Where do we root the future of the Church in Ireland? We have to rediscover a faith that integrates our lives. We need a faith where theology, prayer and witness belong together. I quote again from Archbishop Rowan Williams: “we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine… when we are less clear about our priorities as a community or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about the true and eternal character of God”.
Faith involves a different way of living within any culture. What is involved is not a negative reaction or simple rejection of a changing world. What is involved is forming a believing community that sees beyond superficial confines and recognizes God’s presence and purpose in all persons and things.
Again to quote Archbishop Williams, the Christian must learn “to know better what life really is and what must be let go of in order for life to flourish… Faith helps us to grasp what astonishing gifts are opened up for those who find the courage to step beyond what is conventionally and religiously taken for granted”.
The Christian life is not easy. Belief in Jesus Christ, however, opens the way to new freedom. The Christian life is not about blindly following a pre-established rulebook, but of attaining the freedom to renounce prosperity and security for ourselves in order to live for others as Jesus did.
To do this we can never see ourselves just as individuals. We must begin to form new communities of faith where believers attempt authentically to live the faith of yesterday in new ways. The Church is the community that becomes today the body of Christ present in our times, nourished by the Eucharist that forms us in unity.
We pray on this anniversary that this Church building in the years to come will continue to be a place where community built around the altar of the Lord is formed, bringing the message of Jesus to a changing world. These are changing and challenging times, but just as 1957 was a good time to be a seminarian, 2017 is a great time to be a believer in Jesus Christ.
We give thanks to God for all those who have served and ministered in this Church over the past fifty years and for the many who by the way they lived their lives have quietly shown us what Christian life is about.