200th Anniversary of St. Finian’s Church, Newcastle, Homily Notes of Archbishop Martin, 16th June 2013
Since accepting to be come here to Newcastle for this celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of this Church of Saint Finian, I have been trying to imagine something of what Newcastle must have been like two hundred years ago. It is hard to imagine the changes that have taken place over these years.
Indeed if I had wanted simply to look at changes that have taken place in this community I would not have to go that far back at all. This is a community which has greatly changed in the past thirty years, with extensive building and the arrival of new residents into what was not so long ago a small rural community,.
The first thing that we can thank God for this afternoon is that the change that has taken place has resulted in a new sense of community. Newcastle has worked to maintain the best both of its rural origins and its integration into an expanding city. Those who have come here in recent years have not just been welcomed and integrated but have worked hard at building community, even in the face of the difficult economic times that people on all sides are facing. I would like especially to express my appreciation of how much the school has contributed to building community. This parish is blessed with great teachers.
Today we hear much criticism of the Church. As Archbishop I visit very diverse parishes that make up this large archdiocese. Last evening I was in a rural parish much of which is in country Wexford. I can tell you first hand that going round these parishes I can see the real contribution that the activities of our parishes bring to building community. Housing estates are not changed into communities without effort and animation. This afternoon we are not just celebrating the history of a building, but the history of a building which has been at the heart of the community and which like a healthy heart has pulsed values and solidarity, care and good neighbourliness, spirituality and faith into the wider community. This house of prayer in the heart of the community is a focal point in generating a community of care for all. Today we hear much criticism of the Church. I can tell you that today the Church is alive and well and bringing to a society which seeks fundamental values the extraordinary answer which comes from the message of Jesus Christ.
For two hundred years now the Eucharist has been celebrated in this building. For two hundred years now the community that celebrated the Eucharist has then gone out bringing the message of Jesus Christ into homes, into schools and into communities, to those who were alone and troubled, to young and old alike.
My efforts to find out something of the Ireland of 1813 were not very successful. Google provided me with very few results. Two events struck me. One, a pure curiosity, was that the largest meteroite ever to fall in Ireland landed in County Limerick. The other was about violent tensions between Catholics and Protestants in various parts of Ireland. I mention this because the building of a Catholic Church here in Newcastle, sixteen years before Catholic emancipation, was a sign that this was already a community which rose above traditional divides and the historical animosities of the day.
A jubilee like this inevitably means that we look back on what has been achieved but even more that we look forward. So much has changed over two hundred years and we can be very sure that in the years to come the pace of change will be even greater. Our younger generations will be called to live their faith in Jesus Christ is a very different culture and atmosphere. The challenge of the parish is to ensure that for the future, priests and people, will address these challenges with the same determination as did the poor rural community of Newcastle in 1813. We have to ensure that the good which radiated from this building and the life of the parish continues to flourish and that is translated into the language of today and tomorrow.
We have heard a wonderful Gospel reading. It is a reading which speaks to us about what it means to be a Christian. It contrasts two very different people with two different attitudes. Let us look more closely at them.
The first is the Pharisee. He was obviously a good man. Jesus knew him. Jesus calls him by his first name. Jesus was quite willing to accept not just to visit his home but to a formal meal and we can read this as a clear sign of his respect and even of admiration for Jesus.
The tradition at the time of Jesus was that a formal meal of this kind would not be held in a private room. It would have been something at which many people would have been able to participate or simply observe, like when we set up an open marquee. Some would be there to serve. Others would be there just curiously watching or listening. Anyone could be a spectator. Even beggars would have been around in order to pick up some scraps which might fall from the table.
There were no security guards in those times. This is where the second central figure of the Gospel appears: the woman. Different to the upright Pharisee, this uninvited woman was a public sinner – a woman who had a bad name in the town.
Jesus encounters these two central figures: his host, a good, upright, generous and correct public figure; and the gatecrasher, a woman well-known for her immorality. Jesus seems in his judgement to turn the tables around and to make of the sinner the unlikely hero of the day.
It is not quite so simple. Jesus is not saying that the Pharisee is a bad man. The Pharisee is a good man and he does everything in the most carefully correct way. The woman does the more unorthodox thing, but what is really important is the way she does it: she does things not out of conformity with etiquette, but out of love.
What is Jesus teaching us? He is bringing us back to some essential dimensions of the Christian life which we often tend to forget. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not a God who sets out a handbook of rules and norms and etiquette and rubrics. True faith in Jesus Christ cannot just be a tired faith based just on pure habit. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who loves us, who gives himself for us. Our faith must be an energetic faith which blossoms forth in actions of love and is always marked by actions of love.
I feel that this is important to remember in the current debates about abortion. We are called unhesitatingly to present the Church’s teaching with clarity and vigour, but always in a way which reflects the caring message of Jesus Christ, avoiding the use of intemperate language and gestures. But this is neither a moment in which the hunting season is open for anyone and all to take cheap pot-shots at the Church.
The Gospel reading helps us to understand how we should live our Christian life. It reminds us that our faith must be energetic but never arrogant. The followers of Jesus Christ must put aside any trace arrogance and self-affirmation. The woman in the Gospel reminds all of us that no one is perfect. We are all sinners. Only the arrogant deny that. I would not like to live in a world of only those who consider themselves perfect. It would not be a happy place. It would be a world of unqualified competition, rather than a world of solidarity and caring. Being good is not about keeping rules; it is about being a loving person.
We have to have the humility to recognise our inadequacies. The Pharisee of today’s Gospel was a highly regarded, successful citizen who scrupulously followed the norms of etiquette and respectability. The poor woman who had a bad name in the town recognised her human weakness and trusted in the forgiveness of God and attained it. We too could easily go through life keeping all the rules on an external level and not be loving, forgiving people ourselves.
The Christian life is thankfully not just a celebration of human performance. The pursuit of human performance through wealth, power, fame or pleasure, left on their own, only lead us to false gods. It is only when we allow the unconditional love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to reach us in our sinfulness that human performance can be definitively directed to making us loving persons.
A jubilee like this inevitably means that we look back on what has been achieved but also that we look forward. The Church of the future will only win hearts and minds if it more clearly witnesses to how we live our faith and how the truth and the love of Jesus message is reflected in the way we live.
We give thanks to God for all who have made this parish community so strong in the faith. We remember the priests who worked her; we think of the faith of parents and grandparents; we think of the new ways in which lay men and women take on leadership in the parish and I greet the parish pastoral council and the parish pastoral worker. I thank the parents and the teachers who have stood with their priests in passing on the faith from one generation to the next. In the years to come the role of parents in the education of their children to the faith will be more and more vital. As the numbers of priests decline, we commit ourselves and the entire community to ensuing that the message of Jesus will be lived and transmitted effectively and with enthusiasm to the coming generations. This house of prayer in the heart of the community must continue to be a place where the loving kindness of our God will be celebrated and lived out.