Every year in Derry Diocese, we have Mass in the local football stadium for all the children who have been confirmed during the course of the year. Last June we had a stand packed with 2,700 children and their teachers – complete with banners, hats, painted T-shirts and lots of music. For my homily, I asked whether they all remembered what the bishop had said. Not surprisingly, the answer was a resounding ‘no’! And then I told them what I remembered from all the Confirmation ceremonies – of all the children who had been photographed with me at their local Confirmation ceremonies, only one had held my hand and then given me a hug afterward. In some ways, she was the smartest child of all of them because she had a big heart and knew how to show it. This, I suggested, is what the Holy Spirit desires for each of us. And then I pointed out that this girl had Down’s Syndrome. Of course, since she was the smartest child there, we invited her down to the front – and the whole crowd stood to cheer her.
There is much discussion about the future of organized Christianity in Ireland. My own take on that is simple. I am not the slightest bit concerned about making the Church strong again. I am interested only in whether we are fit for purpose in bringing Good News to the vast numbers who are in need of mercy and healing. Jesus did not set up the Church to look after itself. The People of God exist only to seek out the lost and to offer them love and healing in Jesus’ name. Jesus was not interested in setting up groups of self-referential followers who would be concerned mainly with providing services for their own dwindling numbers. Pentecost put an end to that notion. Faith means encouraging people to have big hearts and knowing how to show it.
And there is a huge need for big hearts.
It seems increasingly clear that, in such a cultural context, Christ’s disciples are called by the Good Shepherd, not to catch up with everybody else, but to seek out the thousands who pay the price for the fragmentation, uncertainty, suicide and loneliness that seems to benefit some – but infects many with ‘an epidemic of loneliness’. In his own day, Jesus’ eye fell on those who were harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Anything less than that is a betrayal of the mission that Jesus gave his disciples. That needs big hearts.
And how is Church expected to carry out that ministry? It seems to me that there are three areas.
Firstly, Jesus was concerned with building relationships, bridges not walls. One core ministry of God’s people is to build welcoming communities. The Gospels are clear that Jesus went out to lepers, gentiles and public sinners. He told them that the Father loved them where they were – but loved them too much to leave them where they were. Pope Francis calls us to be a Church that is going out from itself and to build up our unity within the Body of Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ can never prioritize lifting the drawbridge to keep people away from encountering the Good Shepherd. That needs big hearts.
Secondly, Jesus was also known as the Teacher. He spoke to His followers by proclaiming their dignity and the mercy of the Father. He spoke about sin and forgiveness, right and wrong – and our shared call to be holy as God the Father is holy. Because He was so clear in his teaching, many hated Him. The Church is called to be a place where individuals and groups can grow in uncomfortable faith together, as disciples of the Rabbi from Nazareth. That needs big hearts.
Thirdly, Jesus wanted to make the Father known and loved. One of the Gospels tells us that Jesus gathered disciples to be with Him and to go out (Mk 3:14). The first emphasis was not merely on teaching laws, though Jesus was also clear that, if anyone keeps His words, the Father and Jesus will make their home in that person (Jn 14:23). Those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd follow His ways and not merely their own. The Gospel not only comforts the afflicted but afflicts the comfortable. That needs big hearts.
In a changing Irish Church, some people imagine that lay involvement means laity doing more ‘to help poor Father do all his jobs’. I prefer to see the Good Shepherd model of Church as one where those in leadership roles (be they ordained, consecrated or lay like the great Jean Vanier) – by proclaiming the Word, by the liturgical celebration of the mystery of faith and a prophetic way of life – form the whole people of God for their mission of bringing Good News to every hurting corner of their parish and of the world. That calls for heroism and generosity to a fault. But Jesus’ example called for nothing else. Any changes in Church structure must serve that mission and nothing else.
We face many challenges in making organized Irish Christianity fit for purpose. But on this Sunday, the big-hearted Good Shepherd who has sought us out sends us out. If we expect something different for the Church, perhaps we haven’t really heard today’s Gospel.