Pro-Cathedral, 24th December 2008
It would be foolish for me to say that this is for me the happiest Christmas that I have experienced in my life or to say that this is the happiest Christmas for many in this Archdiocese of Dublin.
It has been a painful year for the diocese as it undergoes the tough process of looking at a period of its recent past. The diocese failed its most vulnerable members. The Archdiocese failed to recognise what was to be done. A false sense of protection of the Church resulted at times in decisions being made and at other times in decisions not being made which resulted in more children being abused. The interests of the ordained were given priority over the needs of the baptised.
It has been a painful year. But the Church today may well be a better and safer place than was the Church of twenty five years ago when all looked well but where deep shadows were kept burried.
The Church in Dublin is called to conversion and to renewal. The origins of the past failings spring in a special way from a false understanding of the Church. They spring from a false understanding of the place of the priest in the Church and from a totally impoverished understanding of the Church as a community of the baptised.
Paradoxically, such a false understanding of the place of the ordained priesthood in the Church has damaged priests. Many survivors of abuse and their families not only had a better understanding of the nature of abuse and its disastrous effects than did the experts of the Church and science. They also had a better understanding of the role and importance of the priest and the vocation of priests to be Christlike in a special way. Survivors turned to a priest sincerely and with idealism and they were met by betrayal of priesthood through abuse or distortion of the priesthood though lack of the care they had a right to receive.
There are great priests in this diocese. They too feel betrayed. Many feel that I have not defended them enough and not supported them adequately at this moment. If I have failed them, from this Mother Church of the Archdiocese I ask their pardon. I recognise their dedication and I am sure that the people of the diocese do too.
Similarly from this Mother Church of the Archdiocese I repeat my words to survivors: “no words of apology will ever be enough for the hurt caused and the way your hurt was brushed aside”.
How does the Church renew itself? Renewal must begin from honestly and brutally recognising what happened in the past. There can be no glossing over the past. Renewal must begin with accepting responsibility for the past. Criminal behaviour must be investigated and pursued. Gross failures in management must be remedied in a transparent way. Current practice must be effectively monitored. Anachronisms left over from past history must be replaced.
But there must be a Church answer to Church problems. What are the Church’s mechanisms of renewal? They must begin by turning again to the word of God. God reveals himself in Jesus as the Word, the concrete expression of who God is. That is the revelation and the message of Christmas. The Jesus whom we recognise and celebrate and ponder in mystery this evening indicates the way towards renewal. His birth to the Virgin Mary was an act of God alone, not due to any human power except the humble acceptance by Mary of God’s design.
Mary knew, pondered on and reflected on the word of God revealed in the scriptures. Her Magnificat is a hymn to what the power of God can do to those who accept his word in lowliness. The power of God can never be revealed through arrogance or power. The Church in Ireland if it wants to renew itself must become a Church in which the word of God is day by day pondered on, in the spirit of revelation itself. We cannot find communion with God only though human experience. God transcends our experience but not in the sense in which the Gods of the ancient pagans became a distant fearful God’s to be found in the harshness and brute force of nature. The Christian God is a God who is other, but who comes towards us and meets us in a way that is always surprising, just as we celebrate here this evening of a God who reveals himself surprisingly in the human powerlessness of an infant. The Christmas story is not a fairy tale. It is a fundamental lesson about who God is and about what humanity is.
Jesus is the Word of God. God reveals himself in communication. God comes out to meet us and invites us to respond in communication, in prayer. Prayer is a second key to renewal. The Church is not just a club of the like-minded. It is not a movement for social reform. It is a community of believers who day after day place themselves humbly before God, recognising his otherness and recognising that the values of our lives must be values that we do not create on our own. Prayer ensures and guarantees that our communication is with God and not with our own interests or desires or personal needs.
The Church’s renewal must pass along the path of rejection of attachment to human power. This is not to say that the Church should vanish from the public square. If the Church follows the path of renewal through abandonment to the demands of God as revealed in Jesus Christ then – but only then - will the Church be strong and will the Church renew itself and allow the message of Jesus, who reveals God’s love, to break into society as a true force for good. As always that message will surprise us and will surprise society. Throughout human history God’s people have been unfaithful, but God’s fidelity to his people has remained and is renewed generation after generation.
In terms of the culture of the day, the humble birth of Jesus did not augur well for a great future. Indeed, Jesus’ life itself was contrary to the cultural mores and values of his time. His entire life was considered by many to be a failure, yet the Spirit was with him and was and is with the community of his followers who throughout the generations followed his path of death to self in order to rise authentically to self. Self is realised through selflessness,
This has not been a good year for the Church. But even saying that can be a bowing to a false reading of reality or even worse a form of self-pity and not allowing the force of renewal which comes from the Spirit of Jesus to change and renew us today as the Spirit has done and will do at any time in the history of the Church.
Christmas transforms! It visibly transforms by bringing the best out of us, through the ability to mend broken relationships, to be caring, to see how simplicity can produce a greater impact than extravagance and exaggeration. Christmas is a time when each of us realises once again that it is often the simplest gift which has the greatest effect. The joy that our self-giving to others can bring greater satisfaction than filing ourselves not just with food but with worthlessness and emptiness. Just the expression of simple happiness in the face of our children makes Christmas worthwhile.
We need to renew our understanding of Christmas and make Christmas simpler and allow that simplicity which springs from the birth of Jesus become the path for our lives and for our Church.
My prayer this evening is that those who suffered and who today survive in pain will tonight receive some of that light from the God who reveals himself to us as child. I pray for the same light for those who have suffered from the current economic crisis; I pray for those who are hurt and wounded in their hearts. May the light of the Christ-child be with them and with all of us.+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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