I thought I might begin with: As I was saying last time, 36 years and a few months ago ….
But in fact there wasn’t a last time. Some who are old enough may recall that I left without a word of farewell, because I would have found that too emotional an experience. Actually, I left a note for the P.P. to read on my behalf, but he didn’t and instead said whatever he had to say; I have no doubt it was an affectionate farewell. Eddie Randles and I remained close friends up to his death over 4 years ago, and I so much want to pay tribute to him now as the warm, good-humoured, humble and hugely generous man that he was. I do so, knowing that many parishioners of the time, only encountered him on Sundays when he preached here and adopted a very serious tone, but they did appreciate, I’m sure, the serious burden he bore, building a school and a church when the special reduced interest rate for churches was 17 and a half percent.
But that was then, for many years you’ve had the benefit of having as pastor, the very distinguished Monsignor Dermot, whom I won’t embarrass by paying him tribute here; I have long admired him for his unique intellectual and pastoral gifts. I move on to express my delight that Father Jim, my soul-friend, my anam cara of many years, and lover of the monastic life that supports me, is now the pastor of this parish. I couldn’t have wished for a better future for the parish when I abandoned it 36 years ago and went off on my own pilgrimage. It may have seemed like the pursuit of higher studies, but in fact I had a more modest aim; a desire to ‘make my soul’ as they say in Italy, my recognition of the need to live at a deeper spiritual level that, in my case, only monasticism could provide. I had some idea that the onslaught of secularism and scandals on the life of parish communities in subsequent years would be a challenge that I would not as a pastor be able to cope with; no amount of ordinary physical energy would be enough.
And it would not be enough today. One of the great 20th century theologians, Karl Rahner wrote that the future Christian will be a mystic or will not exist at all. A radical suggestion in the 1960s, but a present day theologian sees the future as a competition between Christianity and Islam for dominance among those who still believe.
So, if I said to a young generation, ‘Get on your bikes, and go and see where the Son of God walked – and believe’, now I say to all, ‘Stay here and meet the Lord when he comes among you’. And that’s not simply an encounter in the sacraments but also, and more frequently, in another form. I quote a passage from the Vatican Council that is both very important and very beautiful:
Jesus Christ, … taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn that is sung throughout all ages in the realms above. He joins the entire community of humankind to himself, associating it with himself in singing his divine song of praise. (Liturgy Constitution no. 83)
That passage of the document, based on today’s second reading, as it happens, was to introduce teaching about the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the church at set times during the day. In the early centuries, before the era of daily Eucharist, the Christian community, a minority, was instructed to meet every day for prayer, morning and evening. It’s what a minority community would see the importance of doing, it’s what today’s minority needs to do.
That shared prayer gives us a deeper awareness that all our prayer is in union with Christ’s praise of the Father, as the Council document said. That gives us a vision of the reality in which we are immersed, the reality that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom we have the capacity and the courage to address our prayer through the incarnate Christ. To have a ‘vision of reality’ means that prayer must not be empty words, but the fruit of deep reflection, of contemplation, what I knew I needed, so that my words would not be superficial. For me it required knocking at the monastery door.
And I am very happy that the priests here have a contemplative vision for the parish, a radical vision for the future. Contemplation has always meant looking more deeply, and for us it means looking deeply into the heart of our faith. It is great when you have clergy to lead in realising that vision, leaders of the community in prayer, but there is reason for concern, more and more, that for such a vision to be implemented all members of the community will need to have a contemplative mindset, and will need to communicate it to their children. And that is as feasible a project as instructing children in their religious obligations, more feasible in fact, because it is something done at a deep level, more effective than verbal instruction, where it has to compete with other messages reaching them through social media, and more likely to hold their attention.
The Word of God we have just celebrated brings out wonderfully all I would wish to say: all the living things in creation crying out to God and the risen Christ. To them: ‘all praise, honour, glory and power for ever and ever’. It is our privilege, our vocation, to join in that hymn of praise. And Christ unites us with himself at the Eucharistic meal to empower us to bear witness, like the apostles of old, to his resurrection and continuing presence through his Spirit in today’s world. May the life of this community continue to be one of praise and witness.