The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

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That we will (be allowed to) use our gifts (Homily for 2nd Sunday of the Year)

On October 5th, 2011, Steve Jobs died. I’m sure you remember who he was – the co-founder of Apple. He was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. A visionary and technology genius who made his company one of the most valuable in the world.

Steve Jobs was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPad, all those gadgets starting with the letter i. I wrote this homily on an iMac computer as I was checking football scores on an iPhone listening to iTunes on an iPad. At the time he died, Jobs was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies.

Steve Jobs was a gifted man who used his gifts to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s almost a decade ago now, but those who witnessed it will never forget the moment. It was Britain’s Got Talent and a frumpy, middle-aged woman with a goofy smile and dreadful hairstyle, came out to sing. The judges sniggered, as did many of those watching. Here was another desperate wannabe who would make a fool of herself in public. But then she began to sing and people’s jaws dropped. This dowdy-looking woman could sing – beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully. She was blessed with a rare talent – and now, at last, the entire world could hear it and appreciate it. Susan Boyle’s gift.

When Christopher Nolan was born in 1966, his parents Bernadette and Joseph, were devastated to discover he had severe brain damage. The doctors told them he would not be able to talk, or to walk or use his hands; he would never be independent.

His parents did all they could to make Christopher’s life as normal as possible. They involved him in daily events; took him to the park, read to him, told him stories, prayed over him, surrounded him with love and laughter – though it seemed he couldn’t really engage or respond. When he was about 10, they bought him an electric typewriter. Bernadette strapped a unicorn stick to his forehead, like a pencil, and holding his head in her hands, encouraged him to stab at the keys. She did that day after day, and nothing happened.

And then one day, August 20, 1977, Bernadette watched, as slowly Christopher began to put words together. It was a poem, beautifully written, called “I learn to bow.” Christopher was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 he had published a book of poems called ‘Damburst of Dreams’ and six years later an amazing autobiography, called ‘Under the eye of the clock.’

This boy, whom people thought couldn’t communicate, was able to write. So good a writer was he that he won the Whitbread Prize for literature. Inside that broken body was an extraordinary literary talent. Christopher Nolan’s gift.

In today’s second reading, St Paul speaks about gifts. There are a variety of gifts, he says, working in different ways in different people, and these gifts are given to us by God. They are given to each person for a good purpose – to give glory to God. One person may have the gift of preaching; another of teaching or instructing in the faith; another of healing, another of being prophetic, and so on. All these, St Paul says, are the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different people for the sake of the kingdom.

We are given a similar message in the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana. The miracle Jesus works of turning water into wine has been described as a gift miracle. It wasn’t just Jesus getting the bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation – one barrel of cheap wine would have achieved that. It is the sheer abundance of wine and its quality that is the significant thing. All that wine is an image of God’s generosity to us. God has gifted us abundantly; gifted us in so many ways, and Jesus’ life and ministry is a sign of that.

What do today’s readings say to us?

First, to acknowledge our gifts. We are all gifted. God has gifted every one of us. We don’t all have the same gifts – but we are all gifted. Many of us have a hard time believing this. In a world obsessed with celebrity and money and looks, we can find it hard to believe that we amount to anything much. If we have low self-esteem, we can find it really hard to believe. Yet the truth is, we are all gifted. God has blessed each of us with an abundance of gifts. We, you and I, are gifted.

Second, help those you love to identify their gifts. Nobody is good for nothing; we are all good at lots of things. Sometimes we just need to be prodded, encouraged, reminded. Make it a point to point out to those you love the gifts they possess. Point out to them what God sees in them.

Third, use your gifts. Let the Spirit work in you to bring your gifts out. Use them to build up the body of Christ, as St Paul instructs. Let your gifts flow abundantly, like the new wine at Cana. Maybe you’re good at music – can you use that gift in church and outside too? Maybe you’re good with young people. Maybe you’re a good public speaker. Maybe you’ve a gift for helping others a local charity could use. Maybe you’ve the gift of prophecy, of being able to draw attention to injustice in society and in the church. Use your gifts for goodness sake.

Finally, pray that our church will acknowledge the gifts and potential of all its members, women and men, and allow them full expression.

Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Christopher Nolan had gifts inside that, released, brought pleasure to many and glory to God.

The invitation to us today is to let our gifts flow.

The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.