LET’S NOT BE AFRAID TO BE CHURCH: Easter Vigil Homily – Fr. John O’Connor SAC

Easter Vigil 2017

Tonight, we celebrate Easter. We celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. We celebrate His victory over sin and death.

Easter is all about life and light and love and joy. It is all about new beginnings and dreams coming true. But then so is Christianity. If we are Christians then we should be Easter People, not just once a year but rather every day of our lives.  Easter can’t be symbolic or a mere reminder of something that happened two thousand years ago.  We should be New People always and everywhere and be a constant reflection of the Risen Christ in the world in which we live.

This is very easy to say but it isn’t easy to do. It is easy to talk about Christianity but it isn’t easy to be Christian. It isn’t easy for us and it wasn’t easy for the Christians who have gone before us. On this most holy of nights it would be well worth our while to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, on what it means to be an Easter People.

In the readings from tonight’s celebration we have a brief account of the history of salvation in the Old Testament and we see that, in part, it is the history of the unfaithfulness of the people of God. When we look at the life of the Church, when we look at our own lives, we can see clearly that things haven’t improved much. Like the people of the Old Testament, we too are often unfaithful people. The readings however also speak of the love and faithfulness of God despite human weakness. In spite of our unfaithfulness He is always faithful. God is love and this inspired Him to send His only begotten Son into the world to save humanity, to save you and me. In the Epistle Saint Paul tells us that “if we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we were baptised in his death”.  He then goes on to say that “having died with Christ we shall return to life with Him” and that we must now consider ourselves to be “dead to sin and alive for God in Christ Jesus”. Unfortunately, our problem is like that the women of the Gospel, we are looking for Jesus in the wrong places. They looked for Him among the dead; they looked for Him in the tomb. Christ was not in the tomb just as He is not in the awful sins committed by so many members of the Church or in the many sins committed by you and me. We must look for Christ where he really is.

The angel that the women met told them not to be afraid and that message is so important for us also as we try to live out our Christian faith in today’s world. The angel told them that Jesus had risen from the dead and He was no longer in the tomb. Surely this is the message that we should learn tonight.  Christ is alive and we are truly alive if we live with Him and in Him. The angel told the women to go quickly to the disciples and to tell them the good news. This is the good news that today’s world needs to hear and this is the good news that each one of us should proclaim with joy and enthusiasm. Just like the women of the Gospel, Christ expects you and me to go quickly to our sisters and brothers and tell them the good news without fear.

The Church in Ireland has gone through very difficult times over the past ten years or so. We must hang our heads in shame for the atrocities committed by many members of the Church, especially by bishops, priests and religious. We have been castigated because of this especially by the press, and rightly so. Hopefully we have learned a lesson.  Now we must look at the causes and not just suffer the consequences of the crisis. We must correct the mistakes of the past. We have been silent for too long. We must learn to speak up, to realise that we are all Church and that each one of us, in virtue of our baptism, must take on ownership of the church and not leave matters in the hands of a few bishops or priests. We must learn to have the courage of our convictions and not be afraid to stand up and be seen. The angel of the gospel told the women not to be afraid and tonight he repeats that message for us. Let’s not be afraid to be Church.

 Last week the results of the 2016 census were published and the press was full of the news that the Catholic Church had shrunk from 84.2% of the population to being a mere 78.3 %. Isn’t it interesting that in spite of the terrible scandals that hit the Church over the past ten years and the rampant materialism that inflicts Ireland today, that 78.3% of the population still profess the Catholic faith. This shows that even though there are huge changes in the way that people live their faith, there is still a great hunger for God in the heart of the Irish Church. Any of our political parties or indeed our newspapers would be very delighted if they had such a following.  We mustn’t let the press, or any form of social media, run us down. We seem to be under the impression that we are 21.7% instead of being 78.3% of the population. Because of the sins of a small number of so called Catholics we are often afraid to defend our Christian values and feel that we have lost our right to express ourselves. But we shouldn’t be interested in numbers or statistics. Quantity isn’t important, quality is.

What we must accept and take on board is that things have changed in society and in the life of the Church. This shouldn’t terrify us. Now the great challenge is to find new answers to the new realities. We should see this as a wonderful opportunity rather than cause for concern. Change is needed and we shouldn’t be afraid of change. Together, young and old, lay people and priests, women and men, we must look for the new way forward. One old priest got it right when he said: “What got us here won’t get us there”. Now together we must ask: “What will get us there?” Let this celebration of Easter be what it should always be. A new beginning.

It is a fact that less people go to Mass on Sundays. It is a fact that many people have been hurt and disillusioned by the institutional church. It is a fact that young people reject the holier than thou way of presenting God’s message. It is a fact that everybody is so very busy with the urgent things of life that they have little or no time for the important things. We must discuss the shortage of priests in the Church, the rightful place of women, the theme of the marginalized, priestly celibacy, the themes of abortion and euthanasia, the patronage of schools in a pluralistic society. There are many questions to be faced up to and we shouldn’t be afraid to face up to them and enter into constructive dialogue about them.

I feel that we are blessed by the Pope we have. He too is looking for the best way forward. He too is facing strong opposition, especially from within the Church itself. He is criticised for speaking of God’s mercy, for reaching out to the poor and marginalised and for living a humble life. But Pope Francis is not afraid. We must support him and follow his leadership.  We should pray for him and welcome him with open arms when he visits Ireland next year.

Christ Himself faced similar opposition and His most vocal opponents were members of the institutional church of His time, the Scribes and the Pharisees.

The structure of tonight’s celebration can help us in our daily life. The East Vigil is divided into four parts: the liturgy of the LIGHT, the liturgy of the WORD, the liturgy of BAPTISM and the liturgy of the EUCHARIST. These four liturgies or parts can be represented by four words: LIGHT, WORD, WATER and BREAD and tell us what Easter is all about, what Christianity should be about.

The novelty that the Easter Liturgy brings to us each year is Christ, the LIGHT to enlighten us, the WORD to teach us, the WATER to purify us and the BREAD to nourish us. In our daily life we must follow the LIGHT and not the temptations of the world. We must hear the WORD of God and not just listen with a closed heart and mind. We must be faithful to our Baptismal promises which we will now renew and which we made through the pouring of WATER and we must feel the need to nourish ourselves with the BREAD of the Eucharist each Sunday at the table of God’s family.

We are sent from here tonight to present to the world the face of the new Christ. We are sent from here to be Church. This is not easy in the materialistic Ireland of 2017 when many people are trying to silence and marginalize the Church. The great challenge is to constantly renew the Church and make it ever more Christ like. Not renew it in the sense of destroying it but rather renew it in the sense of bringing it to its fullness. Renew it from within and not by criticising it from without. Renewing the life of the Church means renewing our own lives because we are Church. We need to build a happier, humbler and more listening Christ based Church. This means that we must come closer to Christ ourselves and be happier, humbler and more listening people. We must feel part of the Church and be responsible for her life. Each one of us must occupy our God given place in the Church.  Let us remember the words of Saint Agustin. “We are Easter people and alleluia is our song”   

Provincial Council

On this most holy of nights, Fr. Mike, Fr. Eamonn and Fr. Jaimie join with me in wishing each one of you the joy of a profound and contagious new life in Christ.

My dear sisters and brothers, for you and for your families and friends, for the poor and for all those who are suffering in any way, for the sick and for those who are lonely, for all who believe in Jesus Christ and for all who are sincerely looking for “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, for all of you, a very happy and fruitful Easter.