Homily by Bishop Kevin – 51st International Eucharistic Congress – Parish of our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cebu
Homily given by Bishop Kevin – 51st International Eucharistic Congress
Parish of our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cebu
1. A Challenging Gospel:
The Gospel reading of the Sower to which we have listened this evening is the one that was proclaimed at the Mass of my episcopal ordination in July 2014. It is a very challenging passage, but I think it is also very encouraging and I am happy to have this opportunity to share it with you.
2. The Sower: Hope is Reasonable but Uncertain
I don’t know how many of you have any experience of sowing seed, but I think it may be helpful for us just to reflect on that image that Jesus uses, before we rush into trying to understand what he meant.
Seed is sown in hope. Hope must be the attitude of the sower, because otherwise he would be wasting his time. I think there are two characteristics of hope that we can identify, both of which will be well known to farmers and indeed to people who grow their own vegetables and flowers. The first is that hope corresponds with reason. The farmer can hope for a good crop if the ground has been well prepared and, of course, if he has actually taken the trouble to sow the seed. Otherwise, we are not talking about hope, we are talking about wishful thinking. In this parable, Jesus seems to be telling us that the sower has done his part. He has not been mean with the seed; quite the contrary, he has scattered it everywhere.
A second characteristic of hope is that, while it is realistic it also carries with it an element of uncertainty. In the ordinary course of things, there will always be circumstances over which the sower has no control; (flooding, drought etc.).
For many of us who live in the cities, agriculture is not part of our experience. We buy our bread in a wrapper, but we never see the wheat growing; our milk comes in a carton not from a cow. We live in an instant society which, in some ways, does not lend itself to hope. We look for things with a kind of certainty that would be unfamiliar to the sower. Then, if our expectations are not fulfilled in the way that we expect, we can very easily lose hope.
Two years ago in Rome, we gathered to reflect on the theme of IEC2016 and I was struck by something that was said to us by the Italian theologian, Enzo Bianchi. He commented that Pope Benedict wrote an encyclical letter called “Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) and it became a best seller. Later on, Pope Benedict wrote another encyclical letter called (Spes Salvi) on the theme of hope, and there was much less public interest. Enzo Bianchi suggested that this is because modern man and woman find it very difficult to engage with hope.
3. The Seed is the Word of God:
When we listen to the parable of the Sower, we have the benefit also of having Jesus’ own explanation of the parable. “The seed” he tells us “is the Word of God”. The sower is God himself. Just as the farmer invests his hope in his seed, so the proclamation of God’s Word is a hope-filled activity. It is hope-filled in the first place because God’s word is true and he is true to his Word. God is also generous with his Word, scattering it everywhere. Jesus tells us quite plainly, however, that even where God’s word is concerned, there is always an element of uncertainty. This is because:
• we receive it with joy, but lack the commitment to make a home for it in our hearts.
• some of us are preoccupied with other things, even things which may be good in themselves, but which absorb too much of our time and energy
• all of us, including the priests and bishops who preach God’s word, have to acknowledge that the Un-holy Spirit can steal away our hope and then we too become part of the hard ground.
This, then, is part of the mystery of salvation. God allows the fruitfulness of his Word to depend on our response. “Hope, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God”. St Paul tells us that “our hope is not deceptive, because the love of God is poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit who is given to us.”(Rom. 5.5). This is all very encouraging, and we should be encouraged by it.
There was, however, an old Catechism that we used when I went to school, and we had to learn the answers by heart. “Presumption” is described there as “the foolish expectation of salvation, without making use of the means necessary to obtain it” (As you can see I did learn it off). I suppose that is the difference. Hope is reasonable and, in human terms, uncertain. Presumption is foolish in its certainty.
4. Europe and North Africa
I come from Europe which has a very rich Christian tradition. The countryside is dotted with old monasteries and great cathedrals. There have been many holy men and women, who preached the Gospel, established religious congregations and cared for the poor. These were people who listened to the word of God and allowed it to bear fruit in their lives, often at the expense of great personal sacrifice. My own country Ireland, was once known as the land of saints and scholars and produced thousands of missionaries down through the ages, including some of those who originally ministered in this parish community. All of this is something for which we can give thanks.
It is possible, however, for fertile land to become barren if it is not cared for. Christianity has all but disappeared from North Africa. Christian communities in the middle-East have become tiny minorities. Yet it was in these very places that the Christian faith first took root. Likewise, in Europe, while there is certainly fresh growth here and there, the Church has grown tired and needs to be renewed. I don’t say these things to be discouraging, but simply to remind all of us that the soil always needs to be prepared to receive God’s Word.
5. Nourishing the Soil
St. Paul uses the image of the seed (1 Cor. 3:5), to describe how the faith of the people of Corinth is both a gift from God and the fruit of human effort. “I sowed the seed” he says, “and Apollos watered the ground, but God gives the growth”. Nothing happens without God’s gift, but the preparation of the ground is essential. It is one of the conditions of a healthy crop.
What might “preparing the ground” mean in the world of today, whether in Ireland or here in the Philippines? It seems to me that we must first prepare the soil of our own hearts, by making a home there for God’s Word. Pope Benedict wrote a very rich document (Verbum Domini) on the Word of God and our response to it. Quoting St. Jerome, he urges us to think of the Gospel as the Body of Christ. Just as we would not allow a crumb of the Eucharist to fall to the ground, we must also be attentive to God’s Word, so that nothing of what he wants to say to us is lost. Pope Benedict encourages us, especially to listen to the Word of God in the communion of the Church, because it is in that communion that the power of God’s Word is most effective.
But it does not stop with ourselves! We also need to take some responsibility for preparing the soil of other people, beginning with our own children and grandchildren. If you do not prepare their hearts to hear God’s Word, who will? I believe the mistake we have made in Ireland is to leave it to other people. Even the best of people are no substitute for the living transmission of faith from parents to their children. And what about our parish community; our work place; our whole society? Whose responsibility is that? We can have confidence that God will give the growth, but he is waiting for us to prepare the ground and to sow the seed in His name, for our children, our wider family, our whole community.
6. A Missionary Church
Pope Francis, writing in Evangelium Vitae, encourages us to be missionary disciples. He wants us to define ourselves in terms of the mission that is entrusted to us in Baptism. It is often said, and I believe it is true, that a missionary Church will be a living Church. Like the Irish, the Filippinos have gone everywhere in the world. As the Papal Legate, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo (of Myanmar -Burma), said on Sunday at the opening Mass, in many countries, the presence of Filippinos in the Church is making an enormous difference. I want to thank you for the contribution that so many Filippino people are making in Ireland on a daily basis, as members of our parish communities and, in a particular way, in the care of the sick and the elderly, which is part of the mission of Christ. It is a joyful presence, which is not always easy when people are far from home and when sometimes they feel the burden of economic responsibility to provide for family members here in the Philippines. What gives us the courage to stand up and be counted? What would nourish our hope?
7. The Sower, The Word and the Word made Flesh
I now want to make a connection between what I have been saying and the theme of the Eucharistic Congress: Christ in you the Hope of Glory.
God is the Sower and the Seed is His Word. That much is already clear. But remember that St. John describes Jesus as “the Word, who was with God in the beginning”. Then, a few verses later, he talks about How “The Word became Flesh; He lived in us and we saw his glory”. The sower, the seed and the soil are, in a very real sense, all found in the person of Jesus. The crop of our lives is the result of what he has done, and it was not without sacrifice. Remember his own words: “unless a grain of what falls to the earth and dies it remains but a single grain, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit (Jn. 12.24)
God’s Word – His Wisdom and His Truth are already fruitful in the person of Jesus Christ, who not only proclaims the Word, but shows us in himself what it means to live the Word; to be the Word made flesh. To use the words of St. Ireneus, one of the early Fathers of the Church: the glory of God is man fully alive. Jesus is that man and in himself, he carries the hope of what we can be at our best. That is the basis of our hope; each one of us individually and all of us together as a community, can in our turn be carriers of hope for one another. We can say, with confidence, that “Christ in us, is the Hope of Glory”.