Too simple

Jan 22nd, 2007 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the 10 am Mass on 23rd January at Johnstown Parish Church, Killiney, Co Dublin

“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:35

Sometimes I get annoyed enough about something to write to the newspapers!

So it was last September when the Irish Times published its findings on a major survey of the 50+ generation. The poll found that 90% of them were still faithful, practising Catholics. The commentary on the poll results made no mention of how strong the Catholic Church remained, so I wrote the following,

“As an English Protestant only resident in the State for the past seven years, the thing I found most striking in your 50 + Poll was the resilience of the Catholic Church. Despite the scandals caused by those who betrayed the sacred trust placed in them, despite the constant ridicule and abuse from sections of the media, your poll suggests that 90% of the 50 + population hold on to their faith.

To an outsider’s eye, the Church seems considerably stronger than some critics have suggested. As well as the 50 + faithful, the large numbers of those under 50 who still attend Mass regularly confound the prophets who believe that the Church is about to curl up and die. Perhaps the Church’s enduring strength derives from the fact that, when it is at its best, it offers an encounter with the sacred and a true sense of community, neither of which can be found in money, no matter how large one’s salary, or possessions, no matter how exclusive the label.

Fifteen centuries ago, as the Roman Empire collapsed and Christendom disappeared from Western Europe, it was the vocation of the Irish Church to remain faithful. As our current Christendom disappears, the opportunity seems to have arisen to again pursue that vocation”.

The day the letter appeared in the Irish Times I got an email from the priest of a large Catholic parish, thanking me for saying something that he believed no Catholic priest would have been given space to say, or, if they had said it, he thought they would not have been believed. He told me about the continuing large congregations in his church and the warmth and friendship he met with daily in his parish. Other priests who spoke to me talked about a mood of optimism within the Church, “there’s hope for us yet”, one laughed. I had a lovely letter from a man in Co Kerry wishing that the Church could live up to what I had said.

There seems to be a wide gap between the reality of life in the parishes and the picture of the Church that the media want to present. It seems that if the truth doesn’t correspond with the agenda of the journalists, then the truth will be ignored. Here in Johnstown, you know that the picture some writers draw of the Church, as something about to close down, is completely wrong; in countless Catholic parishes around the country, people know that the media picture is wrong. Perhaps there is no longer as great a number of priests as in the past, but God is doing things in different ways.

It is troubling for the Church to be under constant attack from the media, but it is also encouraging because it means that we depend upon the grace of God and the faith of the people to carry on Jesus’ work. Like the First Century Christians, we carry on telling the story of Jesus because we know it to be true and we do not worry about what others think or say.

Reality is not what journalists or commentators say, reality is the day by day experience of people. This is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel this morning, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” People in the streets around us will not judge the Church on what they see on television or read in the newspapers, they will judge the Church on what they see in their own neighbourhood. The people in Johnstown parish will judge the Church on what they see in their own church. They will not judge on what they hear or read, they will judge on whether they experience God’s will being done in their own community.

I heard it said recently that the problem with Jesus’ teaching was not that it was too complicated, the problem, for most people, is that Jesus’ teaching is too simple. Jesus says in plain terms, “love God; love your neighbour”. It is worryingly simple, it means we cannot escape, it means we cannot hide; it means we cannot make excuses. “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”, says Jesus. Being a Christian is that straightforward, it is loving God and loving your neighbour, and, in doing so, being someone who loves Jesus.

I believe that here in Johnstown you are excellent at these things, not because someone told me, not because I have read about it, but because when I come here I experience a sense of your love for God and I experience a sense of the warmth of your welcome.

The Church, when it is at its best, offers an encounter with the sacred and a true sense of community, neither of which can be found in money, no matter how large one’s salary, nor in possessions, no matter how exclusive the label. Johnstown is and can be the Church at its best, people can come here and they can find God’s presence and they can find true neighbours.

But the church is only as good as its members, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”, says Jesus. We have to be the people who do God’s will; we have to be people who are like family to him.

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