21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, St. Nicholas’ Parish Vigil Mass
There’s something very poignant about today’s Gospel. Crowds had been following Jesus but at a certain point, they begin to vanish. And then some of his closest followers, his disciplines decide they’ve had enough. They just find Jesus’ teaching too much. And they leave. It must have been such a painful moment for Jesus. He had loved them, was laying down his life for them; he had listened to them, helped them, provided them with consolation, light, hope, joy…but now they were abandoning him. And we find a very vulnerable Jesus say to the Twelve. “What about you, do you want to go away too?” Peter provides what must have been a wonderfully consoling reply to Jesus: “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe”.
It is a mystery. God really wants us to follow him but he leaves us completely free. He doesn’t force us. Faith, following Jesus, is a free act on our part. It is a choice. Of course, the Holy Spirit helps us but we are still free to make our minds up about whether to believe or not.
Then, if we believe, as the Second Reading puts it, we have to live in a certain way, imitating Jesus, listening to each other, loving one another. It is what Jesus Christ did for the Church. The Church is the body of Christ that he feeds with the Eucharist and looks after us day by day.
And Jesus also invites us to recognise that his body is not just the Church in the sense of us gathered here this evening. The Church is some way extends to all those Jesus lay down his life for. And that’s everyone. That’s why when Christians hear news of disasters, wars, violence in the world, we feel it inside us because it’s Christ’s body that is suffering and so feel it as impacting on us. Somehow, we are hearing Jesus’ call to care for them. And we too have choices to make.
An example of that came this past week. We’ve been watching almost in disbelief many scenes from Afghanistan. We know that hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced in the past week alone. We don’t know yet what will be the extent of the exodus out of the country. But we know it’s a major crisis.
All of this raises the question for us of how we in Ireland want to be a country that welcomes migrants. While we have our own many problems, the fact is that we are still one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Migration is a growing worldwide phenomenon and Christians cannot but feel there is something of God’s call reaching us in this situation. The United Nations has reported that at the end of 2020 there were 82.4m forcibly displaced people worldwide. Yet 85% of these are being looked after in the least wealthy nations, with only 15% being accommodated in the wealthier countries of the world, including Ireland.
Pope Francis reminds Catholics we are called to respond to the phenomenon of migrants in our country by welcoming them, protecting them, promoting their well-being and helping them integrate. It’s some years now since Pope Francis, himself the grandson of Italian emigrants to Argentina, called on every European church parish to take in one refugee family in a gesture of solidarity. He probably didn’t mean literally every parish, but certainly his point was clear. Where possible, yes.
It’s something that as Bishop I often ask himself how we might achieve that. I appreciate there are difficulties and complexities. I know that in personal contacts many Catholics do a lot. I know parishes have been active in reaching out to migrants. But I wonder can we do more?
In particular, I believe we could engage more with the Community sponsorship programme that is a collaboration between Government, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), NGOs and civil society. The idea is that rather than the State trying to provide integration services directly, groups such as parishes might become the face of welcome in their local community and to take on the responsibility for providing a range of integration supports to a refugee family. The State provides considerable resources but the parish would be the human face of welcome. It’s a model of resettlement that was pioneered in Canada in 1979 and has seen hugely positive outcomes since then, transforming the lives of both refugees and volunteers. I know of parishes in Canada, England and here in Ireland that have taken this project on and have discovered the truth of the Gospel – it is in giving we receive. The message of eternal life that Jesus gives us is not just for our personal consolation but is a call to follow him also as a community.