Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell
St Kieran’s College Chapel, 18th August 2020
I welcome you to St Kieran’s College today for the annual reunion. I especially want to congratulate those priests who are celebrating diamond, golden, ruby and china jubilees of their ordination to the priesthood.
The upheaval of the past few months has curtailed many of the celebrations. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March we have moved from times of orientation to disorientation or dislocation and on to a new orientation, and last week disorder for our parishes in Laois and Offaly.
When we were ordained we had no crystal ball to reveal forty, fifty or sixty years to come. We could not have suspected that the seminary would be closed, the challenge posed by dearth of vocations for the Church’s mission, the promise and threat of modernity, priests leave the priesthood by the dozen, the advances in digital technology, priests and religious prove guilty of abusing children physically, emotionally, sexually or through neglect, shifting the message from judgement and rules to welcome, accompaniment, and mercy, financial regulation of the charity sector, a multi-cultural, multi-racial society, GDPR and more recently a crisis period caused by COVID-19, a global pandemic that has unmasked “our vulnerability and leaves uncovered those false and superfluous certainties with which we have constructed our agendas, our projects, our habits and our priorities” ( Pope Francis, Homily, 27th March 2020). Peter’s question, “we have left everything and followed you. What are we to have, then?” maybe at times, it has been ours too. But after many years of following Jesus and living in his friendship, Peter no longer asked that question. He already knew the answer. At times, his following of Jesus certainly involved hardships. Those are always part of life. But can’t we imagine that it also brought him great joy. Even if the present is arduous, we know in our hearts that there has been real overflowing joy for the things that God brought about in us.
In the face of many pastoral challenges, our once-clear answers and pathetic certainties dissolved into unnerving questions. All of this reminds us today of a crucial element in discipleship. To follow Jesus is to encounter change, cope with change. Since the beginning, the entire history of salvation is an antidote to the tendency to give up trying. We live in a society of less deference, and there’s more and more critical reporting of the Church. We make mistakes, we get anxious, and being responsible for other people’s lives seems very wonderful, but it comes with a huge price.
We know there has been an enormous change in Irish culture that is having a significant impact on the role and understanding of the church in Irish society. This is reflected on the form that ministry itself will take in this evolving environment. The understandings, activities, and pastoral strategies of the past are all being refashioned in the cauldron of the contemporary situation. We had to constantly adapt to new realities and to refine pastoral methods to serve the Church in the twenty-first century. As men who are ‘in’ the world yet not ‘of’ the world (cf. Jn 17,15f.), we are called in our present cultural and spiritual situation to be a sign of contradiction and of hope. For the Church to ignore the society in which it lives seriously impairs its mission. As priests we are more believable when we understand both the graced joy of faith in daily life, and the need for hope in a world at once graced and tragic.
In recent months, the first global pandemic in our lifetime propelled us to find the courage for a new imagination of the possible. “Without vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The coronavirus crisis is a turning point: it could either weaken us or make us respond effectively to new challenges. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis presents us with personal, existential and religious challenges.
We are accustomed to the probable, to what we think should happen. But with the realism of the Gospel we transcended our fixed and failing patterns, modes and structures and were able to imagine a different world. You comforted your parishioners from Seir Kieran to Mulinavat, from Aghaboe to Piltown—with Masses celebrated in the parish church. With the aid of digital technology there has been a proclamation of the Gospel in the silence of our homes, blessing with the Eucharist, mourning of suffering and death. Consolation, comfort and prayer entered the homes of so many people.
In the words of Pope Francis you were shepherds, with the ‘odour of the sheep.’ As priests you contemplated both the word and your people. Over these last few months, we have been reminded all too clearly of who are the least in our society: the hungry, the sick, the elderly, refugees, those experiencing discrimination because of race, and those who are forgotten and ignored.
A new feature of Irish culture is the growing diversity that is evident at every level of society. Over the last twenty years it has been remarkable to observe Ireland becoming a multi-religious, multi-racial, and multi-cultural society. This is changing, significantly, the cultural setting of ministry, where the background now includes a series of options as regards religious affiliation.
The position of the priest, in particular in Irish society, is changing, together with the understanding of his role in the community. He has gone from being a dominant figure at the very centre of an all-encompassing parish life to being one voice among others in community leadership. His role as a leader is still very important, but the manner in which it is exercised is changing in harmony with the demands of the ambient culture.
The world is looking for credible proclaimers of the word. However, its postmodern culture can manifest itself in a suspicion of institutions and great projects which, in turn, results in a hesitation to embrace unchanging, eternal truths. Proclaiming the word in such a culture, is a call to humble service (see Mark 10:43–45). Ultimately, every priest responds to that call, and is inspired by that vision: in serving others priests are serving Christ our Lord, who is himself the embodiment of the God we cannot see. As a priest I need to be constantly reminded that I am a pastor in the Church, for the Church and of the Church.
In humility and simplicity, the Church offers a gift to the world. That gift is a treasure the Church has itself received: the good news of God’s love proclaimed in the Gospel that the apostles were charged to preach to the world. This precious treasure, however, is carried in the fragile, so easily breakable, vessels of the proclaimers’ humanity. Here is a mystery that St Paul captured so wonderfully in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We are only the earthenware vessels that hold this treasure to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7). In common with all believers, priests carry the knowledge of Jesus Christ within the earthenware vessels of their own fragile humanity. It is not different for the gift of their priestly identity and mission: this too is embodied in lives that are human and fragile. All of us celebrating this evening are men who have offered their lives in the service of Our Lord and the Church to carry the ‘treasure’ they have been given the immense privilege of carrying in the ‘earthenware vessels’ of their humanity and communicating to the world, their knowledge of Jesus Christ and the good news of God’s love and the hope that this brings into the world.
A concluding thought: In recent decades some have been concerned about the number of candidates coming forward to offer themselves for priesthood, and to serve the sacramental and pastoral needs of our Church. Our call is not to lose heart, but to hold on to the Lord’s promise that he “will be with us until the end of the age” (see Matthew 28.20). Beloved disciples, we are held close to the Lord (see John 13:23), always in his providential embrace. He is the one who guides our feet on the way of discipleship and peace (see Luke 1:79). And so, although we may be concerned, we lose neither hope nor trust in his loving care for us and his Church.
 St John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis, 7 and 18.