Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. Each year about the beginning or middle of June, many priests celebrate the anniversary of their ordinations. It is a happy time but also a time to recall and note the huge changes that have taken place in Church and society in the years that have passed. For many of us, the choice to become a priest or religious was encouraged and supported by the society and culture of the time. It is more than stating the obvious that the same levels of support are not there today for anyone discerning a vocation as a priest, religious or for a committed member of the Church.
Now before we get too depressed and lament the decline in this support, it is worth pausing and listening carefully to the Gospel for this Fifteenth Sunday of ordinary time. In the Gospel today, Jesus summons the twelve to himself before he sends them out on mission. Imagine the scene – they will be travelling on foot, moving from place to place and will be in need of provisions. So when Jesus gathers them for a ‘pep talk’ we might think that he would spell out to them what they need to take with them for what lay ahead. But instead, he does the opposite. Before they are sent out on mission, he names what they should not take with them. The very things he names are the things we think might be of support but Jesus insists that they do without them. What is Jesus saying here?
The Gospel is a timely word of encouragement to the Church of today on how we go about our common mission. Jesus asks his followers to go without bread, a haversack, coppers and a spare tunic. What might he ask us to go without day? He might ask us to go without the social standing we had in the past but no longer enjoy; he might ask us to go without the power and influence we once had that has all but disappeared; he might ask us to go without the certainties of the past, the big numbers that were once there, the support and privileges we once enjoyed but no longer have. These are just some of the things the Lord might ask us to leave behind as we go forward on mission.
But when all these things are taken way, what do we have left? Nothing but the pure message of the Gospel which is how it was meant to be from the beginning. All we have is our faith and conviction in the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we are asked to witness to and share within our culture.
We know of course that this is not easy. Look at the example of Amos in the first reading. He too had no status or support for his unwelcome message of repentance that he preached without compromise or fear. We too face a challenge and battle to be faithful to the Gospel today. In modern times, it is risky and dangerous to admit you are a committed Catholic Christian with the possibly of being ridiculed and criticised. But our faith must be engaging if it is to grow and develop. It is a time not to be timid or weak but to be bold and brave – never to give up and to have confidence in the message we have to offer. In the words of journalist Breda O’Brien, ‘the temptation for Catholics is to withdraw to a comfortable space where the like-minded can huddle, tolerated only because they are so utterly harmless…An assimilated religion too terrified to stand up for what it believes will die fast’ (Irish Times, 16th June 2018).
As the Church, we might not have the supports we had in the past but this does not mean our message is less needed or important. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 265).
We might not have the bread of influence, the haversack of power or the coppers of wealth we once had. But we still have what is most important of all. The Gospel of life, of goodness, of beauty and truth found in Jesus Christ our Lord. Do not be afraid as you bring that Gospel to the world!