Homily of Archbishop Francis Duffy for the Vigil Mass in Saint Mary’s Church, Westport, Co Mayo, Archdiocese of Tuam, ahead of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage on Reek Sunday
We are here because of Saint Patrick. The origins of Reek Sunday rest with him, the apostle of the Irish; the man who played a central role in helping to spread the Christian faith on this island. He climbed the ‘Reek’ and fasted for forty days. It is reminiscent of Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments from God. Pilgrims come here, retracing Saint Patrick’s steps, this weekend and throughout the year, for a variety of reasons, each pilgrim knows his or her own. His was a journey of faith in Christ. Saint Patrick had a keen sense of God being with him all the time. That is reflected in the prayer of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate ‘Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me’.
Saint Patrick preached the Good News of Jesus Christ. That was his central mission and purpose: to lead people into faith in the loving and compassionate God. God whose son, Jesus of Nazareth, brought a message about how vital each human life to God is in this life and in the next.
The parable told by Jesus and recorded in today’s gospel, and familiar to Saint Patrick, is saying that no one knows what is around the corner. We cannot predict the future or when God will call us, and call us he will. Eventually and inevitably the Lord will come for us, there is no escape; it is a sobering thought, but not one that could cause us to despair. It is also an opportunity to think of God’s love for us, as reflected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That same message as preached by Saint Patrick to our ancestors all those centuries ago.
Mountains, and one as majestic as this, prompt us to seek a bigger picture. Whether we are at the summit or on the lowlands, this towering piece of earth and rock ushers in thoughts of perspective, things seem different, a new view of a changing landscape. The landscape of the Catholic Church in Ireland, as you know, has been changing for some time and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The Catholic Church in Ireland has formally entered a Synodal Process. I am convinced that this is the way to go and it will be a fruitful new departure. At my installation in Tuam, last January, I said that the Synodal Process is a pathway not a runway. Some people wondered if I was dampening down expectations, I said I was being realistic. It is a new chapter for the Catholic Church in this country. It means learning as we journey together all the while being guided by the Holy Spirit. It means being patient with each other and respectful of differing views, being adventurous and willing to value the new, as well as the traditional, and it calls for being focussed. That focus has to be on Jesus Christ. If faith in Christ is not at the centre of the synodal pathway then what we have is merely a talking shop.
There are no quick fix solutions or approaches as we reflect on and consider our Church. Instead we journey together on a path that will have many twists and turns and will not always be easy. All developments, innovations and continuity must serve Jesus Christ. We can be confident in this because Christ promised the Holy Spirit to be with us and we continue to pray for His guidance.
The context in which we embark on this path has many expectations but there is one certainty, and one key essential component. The one certainty is the ongoing and sustained decline both in the numbers who practice and in the numbers of those who answer the Lord’s call to priesthood and religious life. Each diocese has its own story of this reality. Every parish will be effected by this in terms of the number of clergy available and the number and frequency of Masses. All trends are dramatically downwards with no turning point in sight. I suggest you look at your priest, he may be the last in a long line of resident pastors and may not be replaced. I suggest you look at your church, you may be lucky to have a Sunday Mass or several, but for how much longer? I suggest you look at your fellow parishioners at Mass, who among your neighbours will continue to be the new leaders and carry on pastoral work in your parish, alongside a much smaller number of clergy? Who among them will lead prayer services and keep faith alive and active through catechesis and other initiatives?
Some may think I have painted a somewhat dismal picture, it is the current reality as I see it, and as I know many of you see it too. While we must face it and work with it, we must not lose hope. We have the Lord with us and He will lead us through this time of transition and restructuring.
Should we give up? Certainly not, nor should we let the situation drift. This is a time of decline in some respect but it is a time of great hope. Opportunities are there to be seized.
Is this a good time to be a priest, or, is this a good time to consider becoming a priest, to answer that call? It is the best of times to be a priest, challenging – yes, with risks – yes, with God on our side – yes.
Is this the time to be silent about the Good News of Jesus Christ and to relegate it to the back pages? No, definitely not. This is a time for faith, faith into action, faith into reaching out. ‘I arise today, through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the creator of creation’. Christ be with us, Christ is with us.