Homily for the Day for Life

Homily for the Day for Life: 5th October 2014
Bishop Kevin Doran

The image of the vineyard is everywhere in this morning’s Scripture readings. It’s a great image of life and fruitfulness. If you have ever walked through a vineyard, you will have seen acres of vines, neatly lined up like soldiers on parade. They are tough, wiry looking plants and, when you see them without in the Spring time without their leaves, it’s hard to imagine that they could be fruitful at all. But in the harvest season, these same vines carry enormous bunches of big juicy grapes. Vineyards like these would have been part of the backdrop to the life and ministry of Jesus, just like the sheep and the shepherds. Everywhere in the Scriptures, the vineyard is used as a symbol for relationship with God.

You may not have much experience of vineyards but, if you have ever done any gardening, you will have no trouble understanding the word of the prophet Isaiah this morning. The owner of the vineyard has done everything he could to make it fruitful.
• First of all it is on a fertile hillside – probably getting the best sunshine
• He has dug the soil and cleared it
• He has planted the best vines available
• He has put in a water tower to collect the rainfall (there were no water meters in those days)
• Finally, to make the best use of the bumper crop, he builds a winepress
All he gets from the vineyard are “sour grapes”. It’s easy to understand why he is disappointed. Most of us have had the same experience with our roses, our tomatoes and so on. You might give it a second year, or even a third, but after that there would be a very strong temptation just to walk away from it.

As I was saying earlier, the vineyard is a symbol for the relationship between a loving creator God and his people. Life is a gift that we have received and, like the owner of the vineyard, God has done everything to make our lives fruitful. He has given us a beautiful and well provided world in which to live. He has given us wisdom and energy to live together and to make the best use of the earth and its resources. He has invited us into relationship with Him.

Sometimes we take life very much for granted. Like children getting pocket money from their parents, we of it as our entitlement, rather than as a gift that we have been given. Where there is no sense of gift, there is usually no gratitude and no desire to return love. Everything is just “sour grapes” to use the words of Isaiah.

But some people seem to be able to see life as a gift even under the most difficult circumstances. You find the most amazing generosity and love in concentration camps, and in cancer wards. We priests generally bring Holy Communion to the sick on the First Friday of every month and it is one of the things I miss now that I am not attached to any particular parish. Sometimes I used to struggle to get started on my communion round, but I always came home feeling enriched by the good humour, the patience and the faith of elderly people and of people who were seriously ill. It was almost as if those who are on the verge of losing life are allowed to see the gift of life with new eyes, to appreciate it more deeply and to live it more intensely.

This brings us back to the question of what makes life fruitful. I am reminded of Michael, who was a 3rd Arts student in UCD, when I was chaplain there. It was his girlfriend who introduced me to him, because he had Leukaemia and he wanted the anointing of the sick. For months afterwards, throughout his chemotherapy and into his remission, we kept in touch. Sometimes we talked and sometimes we prayed. When eventually his cancer came back, and he recognised that the end was near, he asked me to come to his home and to say Mass with his family and friends. “But don’t worry about preaching” he said “I’ll do that”. He spoke most beautifully from his bed that evening about the gift of life, about the love and the care that he had experienced. From a practical point of view, you might say that his life was cut short; that he never got to “bear fruit”. But, on another level, you would have to ask what could be more fruitful than to live and die the way he did, filled with gratitude and surrounded by people who loved him. There is no such thing as a life that is not worth living and it is often those very lives which are thought of as “not worth living” that inspire love in others.

Last year, Pope Francis spoke about the desire of so many young people to build a better world. He invited them to be “protagonists of transformation” and not simply “observers of life”. “Don’t be observers”, he said, “but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did.” Last year, also, we had the remarkable example of Donal Walsh, a young man of sixteen, who was struggling with terminal cancer. He described himself as someone who just “wanted to live, to play for Munster, to travel the whole world, to raise children and die when I’m 100”. In the face of his own struggle for life, he could have given in to despair and turned his face to the wall.

But there were no “sour grapes” where Donal was concerned. He showed great courage in his battle with cancer over a period of four years, struggling to regain his health and to remain active. As time went on, his focus was more on other people than on himself. He used his energy to raise funds for cancer care and to encourage others. He was particularly disturbed by the modern phenomenon of teenage suicide and he wanted to encourage other young people to “live life”, rather than seeing suicide as a solution to anything. His message challenges us all, on this Day for Life, to create a world in which life is cherished and in which people are helped to “live life” with courage rather than to give up on it. This is a responsibility that we all share and it is how we give back to God the first fruits of the harvest, to use the image in today’s Gospel.