September 19, 2014

HOMILY for 24th Fri per annum (II)

1 Cor 15:12-20; Ps 16; Luke 8:1-3

These three verses from St Luke’s Gospel are unique, and they name some of the women who travelled with Jesus on his missionary journeys. It’s easy to miss the significance of this and to see it as just another list of names. And yet, no detail in the Gospels is superfluous, and this detail would have shocked the people of Jesus’ time. That Jesus had women from both rich and poor echelons of society who supported him materially and who were drawn to him was not so unusual; contemporary rabbis of the time were similarly supported by women of means. 

However, in the context of the Middle East – even today – it is highly unusual, even scandalous and shameful, for women to travel openly with men who were not their relatives, and presumably to stay overnight with them in the same place too. Typically, women travelled in groups of women with male relatives and stayed with relatives. So, what does this new reality say about what Jesus is doing; about the kingdom of God that he is inaugurating through his grace? 

Those who travel with the Lord, who walk in his ways, are his disciples. So, the graced call to discipleship is extended to both men and women from all walks of life. As a sign of the new creation brought about by grace, men and women have equal dignity and can walk and sleep together in the same place with no fear of sin and scandal. For men and women in God’s kingdom now walk with God, that is, in his grace, and thus in each other’s company just as in Eden Adam and Eve were naked before one another without lust or shame (cf Gen 2:25), and they walked chastely with God in the garden. This Christian vision is far more challenging than a simplistic application of secular feminist principles to the Church. Rather, the Church is to grace the world with a true modelling of the complementarity and equal dignity of men and women.

This Gospel passage, then, is an image of the pilgrim Church into which we’re called by God’s grace. Christ is the Head and leader of his Church, and she is comprised of both those whom Jesus has called to servant leadership – the Twelve – and also those who are drawn to his teachings and who participate in and facilitate the evangelizing mission of Christ in his Church. Both are essential and united in the Person and in the evangelizing Mission of Christ. 

And this communion of men and women walking with Jesus, united in Christ and his grace, becomes an image of heaven, which is the destination of the pilgrim Church. For here on earth, in the Church, we anticipate and mirror the unity and complementarity that is found in God the Holy Trinity. Here in the Church, we enjoy even now something of the graced friendship with God and one another that will be given to us definitively in heaven. For Christ risen from the dead is the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20) of eternal life. And he gives us a taste of heaven, of the risen life and unity with God and one another, here in the Mass; when men and women of all walks of life come together in “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”.

September 4, 2014

HOMILY for St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

1 Cor 3:18-23; Ps 23; Luke 5:1-11

preached at the Mercy Convent in Edinburgh

"They left everything and followed him" (Lk 5:11). So it was that today’s saint, the 7th-century Apostle of the North, left his life first as a shepherd near Melrose, then as a soldier for the Christian kingdom of Northumbria which was being attacked by the neighbouring pagan king, and he became a monk of Melrose Abbey. 

When a monastery was established in Ripon, Cuthbert was sent there as guest-master but he returned to Melrose Abbey because the monks at Ripon decided to adopt the Roman liturgical customs rather than the Celtic customs that he had grown up with. Even so, when the Synod of Whitby decided in 664 to adopt the Roman customs, St Cuthbert accepted the decision and saw the wisdom of the Synod’s decision. So he was sent to be Prior of Lindisfarne, a great monastery which had been established from the great Celtic Christian centre of Iona. His task in Lindisfarne was to ease the community there into celebrating and living the monastic life according to the Roman discipline. St Bede the Venerable says there was some resistence to this change but “he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view”. His holiness of life not only drew the monks in his care to his side, but the people around Lindisfarne Abbey also flocked to him to hear his teaching, and many were converted to the Faith. 

Thus, St Cuthbert was not just a shepherd but also a “fisher of men” (Lk 5:10), and he did both these tasks so well because he “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4) through fervent prayer, through austere living, and through obedience to Christ. As St Paul said, the apostle, the disciple, “belong[s] to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:23), and so, he is used by our Lord to draw people to himself. 

But for a lover of God, closeness to God stirs up a desire for still greater intimacy. So, in 676 St Cuthbert was allowed to retreat to one of the Farne Islands as a hermit so that he could spend more time in prayer and contemplation. However, holiness attracts people for Mankind is made for God, and delights in the beauty and goodness of divine things. Hence St Cuthbert could not be left in peace but was called to become Bishop of Lindisfarne; he was consecrated in York at Easter in 685. 

Two years later he died on one of the Farne Islands, and after his death many miracles took place at his tomb; he became called the ‘Wonder-Worker’ and his body was discovered to be incorrupt. In 875, his relics were carried onto the mainland as the monks fled Lindisfarne which was being attacked by the Vikings. They moved to Chester-le-Street, then Ripon, and finally to Durham where a great cathedral was raised over his shrine. Here he is believed to rest behind the High Altar, with St Bede at the other end of the cathedral. 

The ease with which this 7th-century saint moved between what we now call Scotland and England as he carried out Christ’s saving mission, and the patient and gentle manner with which he reconciled and mediated between two Christian cultures are worth keeping in mind at this time. As arguments and debates proliferate about the political future of the United Kingdom, perhaps we Christians can keep in mind who we belong to first of all: Jesus Christ. So, St Paul says: “God is not convinced by the arguments of the wise. So there is nothing to boast about in anything human: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:19-23). 

So, whatever happens, this is of paramount importance: that we belong to Christ, and show this to be true by what we say and do. Then, like St Cuthbert, we too can be fishers of men. May he pray for us.

June 15, 2014

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HOMILY for Trinity Sunday (A)

Exodus 34:4-6,8-9; Daniel 3:52-55; 2 Cor 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

People sometimes say that Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God. And there is some truth in this for we can all say: “I believe in one God”. However, this is not the complete truth. For the one God who we Christians worship and profess in the Creed, who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and who is expounded in Scripture and Tradition, is the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this truth, this great mystery matters. For truth matters, especially when it concerns the highest truths about God and our salvation. Hence the Church struggled and theologians argued for centuries to understand and express its meaning, and the difference it makes is of such import that it would set Christians apart from Judaism, and gave St John of Damascus cause to consider the emerging religion of Islam in the 7th-century to be a heresy. For there is a strict monotheism present in both Islam and Judaism that we Christians cannot profess as the full truth; something essential is lacking. So, from this point of view, we do not worship the same God. Rather, as the prayers of today’s Mass say, we profess “the true faith”, of God the “eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity”. 

In fact, you have probably already professed this truth several times today. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. And at the same time, in tracing the Cross over ourselves we say that God saves us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. So, this one action, which we probably don’t consciously take much note of, says what matters most about the God we worship and about Mankind’s salvation. Indeed this action expresses what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. (Jn 3:16). 

St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, refers to the Triune God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11), and this can be related to the Gospel. For the Father is the God of love, who so loved us that he sent Jesus to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. The Fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it like this: “When through disobedience [Mankind] had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death… And you so loved the world, Father most holy, that in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Saviour”. The Son, then, is the God of peace, who puts an end to the disturbance and rebellion that is sin, and restores Mankind to peace and friendship with God. Indeed, Christ gives his Church his peace, which is freedom from sin and a share in his divine Sonship, union with God. In the Mass it is put this way: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you: look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity…”. But what about the Holy Spirit? He is present, I think, in this: St Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12).

Why? Let’s think about what a kiss is!

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September 13, 2013

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HOMILY for St John Chrysostom

1 Tim 1:2. 12-14; Ps 15; Lk 6:39-42

Today, the Lectionary begins its reading of St Paul’s first letter to St Timothy. But for some reason the readings omit all of chapter 5. As it happens, today is also the feast day of the great 4th-century Patriarch of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, and one of his most memorable sermons commented on that missing chapter 5 of 1 Timothy. Basically, St Paul was giving advice to Timothy that for the sake of his health he should “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine” (1 Tim 5:23). And so, St John Chrysostom said that only heretics would say that drinking wine was shameful, or that wine was bad for us, or wrong, or evil. Indeed, he even said that if anyone said such things, we should smack them on the mouth for blasphemy! So, I notice that that the CSU has happily organized a drinks evening tonight, no doubt to celebrate St John Chrysostom. After all, we wouldn’t want to be deemed heretics here at St Albert’s, would we? Notice, though, that St Paul says: “use a little wine”…

But why did St John have such esteem for wine? Is it not because wine is one of the elements for the Eucharist? As he says: “What is in the chalice is the same as that which flowed from Christ’s side”. It is the precious blood of Jesus Christ, given to us to drink, which heals us and takes away our sins. And this, perhaps, is why Jesus is so insistent in today’s Gospel that we should look firstly at our own many sins rather than focus on the faults of others. Because it is only when we recognize our own sinfulness that we also realize our need of Christ, our Saviour; that we can benefit and be transformed in grace by the blood of Christ; that this wine can bring joy to our hearts (cf Ps 104:15).

Moreover, there is a sense that if we are concentrated on the failings of another, then we have begun to judge them, or think ourselves superior to them (cf James 4:11). Jesus warns against this because this attitude harms Christian charity. St John Chrysostom’s antidote to such a problem is, again, the wine of the Eucharist. As he says: “our Father, desiring to lead us to a kindly affection, has devised this also, that we should drink out of one cup; a thing which belongs to intense love.” Because when we come for Holy Communion conscientiously, we realize that we express not only our unity as sinners in need of God’s mercy, but we also make a sign of our “intense love” love for one another – a love that forgives, that is “patient and kind… [that] “is not irritable or resentful… [that] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (cf 1 Cor 13:4-7).

This, surely, is Christ-like love, the same love poured into our hearts in the Eucharist, given to us under the appearance of bread and wine. It’s a demanding love if we’re to become what we consume in the Mass. For what Love requires is that I “take the log out of [my] own eye” and fashion it into a cross. Only united with Christ Crucified, seeing with his eyes of sacrificial love, can I then, “see clearly to take out the speck that is in [my] brother’s eye”.

May 15, 2013

HOMILY for Wed 7 of Easter

Acts 20:28-38; Ps 67; John 17:11-19

There seems to be, even among Catholics, a contemporary tendency toward agnosticism about God and the articles of faith, because it is thought that the truth about God and faith cannot be known with certainty. So, to make dogmatic statements of faith would be arrogant because we cannot really say what is true. And yet, today, Jesus says: “Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17b). This is to say, that truth can be known and found in him, the Word of God. And truth, as such, is discovered with and through the Church who continues and incarnates in every place, culture and age, the Word of God. 

But how do we know this to be true? Jesus says: “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19). The first sense of ‘consecrate’ in this sentence is that of a sacrificial offering set aside for God. So, Jesus is referring to his Passion, to his sacrifice on the Cross, and to his resurrection. And Jesus says that he undergoes this Paschal Mystery for our sake, in order that we might be “consecrated in truth”, that is to say, that we may know; be certain of; be set apart for God through the truth. And the truth that we know from the historical fact of Jesus’ sacrificial death and re-creating resurrection is that God is Love. All who witness to this and profess this, are thus united. For we are one through this truth that God is Love, one in our faith in the incarnate Word of God; made one Body, one Church in Christ. Since this unity comes from our common witness to the truth of the Cross, St Paul can thus say in today’s First Reading that “the church of God [is] obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28b). For the Church who is consecrated in truth is born from Christ’s witness on the Cross, born from his sacrificial witness to the truth of God’s undying love. 

And the fruit of knowing the truth, of being consecrated in the testimony of God’s Word, is two-fold. Firstly, the Church is held in unity. For there is a unity between what is and what we believe, such that all who hold to the faith also concur on what is, and are united. And the second fruit is that we are kept from the Evil One. For the devil is the Father of Lies (Jn 8:44) who seduces us through un-truths and half-truths, through agnosticism about the faith. So, we are kept safe from the devil’s trickery if we seek and find truth where it is to be found, namely in God’s Word and in the Church of the incarnate Word. 

Hence, to learn and to expound the doctrines of the Church, to contemplate her dogmas, is not arrogance, as some seem to think. This might be so – indeed, it would be dangerous foolishness – were the Church’s doctrine merely opinion, or if truth were a weapon of the Church which she can manipulate at will. But the Church of the incarnate Word does not possess truth. Rather, she is possessed by Truth, in love with her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and so, treasuring every word that he speaks. Through the centuries, then, all who have loved Christ have desired to know the Word of God intimately; to study and share the Church’s dogmas; to ask questions so as to deepen our understanding of them. The task of theology, and especially dogmatic theology, as such, is not arrogance but a humble desire to be consecrated in the truth, to be protected from the Evil One, and to seek unity in Jesus Christ. 

Moreover, in this theological quest for truth, one is merely being human, for Mankind has a natural desire for truth. Thus, as St Thomas says, Truth, especially the ultimate truth of God and being, of life, death, and our final end must be knowable, if Mankind is not to be simply absurd. Thus, Jesus consecrates himself, revealing the truth of who God is, “for [our] sake” (Jn 17:19a), so that humanity might not be absurd but have meaning, purpose, and direction. 

April 30, 2013

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HOMILY for the Feast of Pope St Pius V

Acts 14:19-28; Ps 144; John 14:27-31

“Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), says the Lord in today’s Gospel. And some might say that the pope we remember today, an Italian Dominican friar, wasn’t a man of peace. After all, Pope Pius V is remembered in England for excommunicating Elizabeth I and releasing Catholic subjects of their allegiance to the queen (in 1570), and he is also credited with having rallied the forces of Christendom, the so-called Holy League, in a great naval battle at Lepanto in 1571 against the Muslim Turks who threatened to overrun Europe. 

And yet, St Pius V wasn’t really a belligerent man. He had been a shepherd before he joined the Dominicans, and he remained at heart a conscientious, austere and diligent shepherd, eager to maintain the safety and the peace of his flock. Even when he was serving as grand inquisitor under the previous pope, Paul IV, as Eamon Duffy notes, “he had fallen foul of Paul IV for excessive leniency”. And during the battle of Lepanto he had remained in Rome and gathered the people of the city in prayer, saying the Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October was instituted by Pope Pius V in thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, which he ascribed to Mary’s intercession. 

For St Pius V’s primary concern wasn’t so much with the peace of the world – perhaps he felt this was not his duty. After all Christ had said: “Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you” (Jn 14:27). Rather, Pius V’s concern and duty as pope, to whom Christ had entrusted his little flock, was to secure for God’s people the peace that only Jesus Christ could give; the peace that comes through a saving faith in him, through knowledge of the fullness of the Truth he taught, through a loving communion with Christ’s holy Church. So, as far as Pius V could see, Elizabeth I and the other Protestant leaders disrupted the peace and unity of the Church, and would prevent Catholics from practicing the fullness of the Christian faith in peace. This was even more certain with the Turkish forces who threatened the future of Christianity in Europe. Hence, St Pius bravely did what he felt he had to on these two fronts in order to secure peace for the Catholic faithful.

But even among his Catholic flock there was disturbance and turmoil brought about by moral laxity, poor theological formation, and corruption among the clergy. This seems to be a recurring theme in Church history, for the Church was once more in need of reform, and  Pius V was elected in 1566 to implement the decrees of the reforming Council of Trent.  In his six year pontificate, he radically reformed the Roman curia, reduced its costs, and disciplined wayward cardinals and clergy. Looking to the faith education of the laity and clergy, he published the Roman Catechism and promoted as a solid formation for seminarians the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. He also promoted the unity and renewal of the Liturgy, putting in place an edition of the Roman Missal that remained essentially unchanged until Vatican II. Finally, he upheld the unity of theology in both the Eastern and Western Church. 

All these works, which St Pius V laboured over until his death in 1572 were aimed at restoring unity and peace to Christ’s Church so that all within her Body might experience the unity and peace that Christ gave to his disciples. For Christ’s peace is found through the unity of faith, in the one saving Truth that Christ entrusted to his Church, and also in the consolation of her Liturgy and sacraments, for in these we encounter Jesus Christ who is our peace.

So, today, we give thanks to God for Pope St Pius V who shepherded Christ’s flock with such diligence and personal holiness of life, and we ask him to pray for the Church that she may be ever more united in the peace of Christ.

November 12, 2012

HOMILY for 32nd Monday per annum (II)

Titus 1:1-9; Ps 23; Luke 17:1-6

Today’s feast is a reminder to us that the Catholic Church has, as Blessed John Paul II, put it, “two lungs”: the Western or Latin Church, to which many  – if not all – of us belong, and the Eastern or Oriental Church. And the Catholic Church is called to breath with both these lungs, although for many centuries the Church has been, or maybe still is, asphyxiated because of disunity and inequality between the Eastern and Western wings of the one holy Catholic Church. All too often, we think that our Western Catholic ways are the only way, or the superior way of being Christian. 

But there is a bigger, more truly Catholic picture of the whole Church, and what unites East and West is the papacy. As the Second Vatican Council said: “These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves… in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St Peter in primacy over the universal Church” (Orientalium Ecclesiarium, 3). And it is for this unity with the Pope that today’s saint, Josaphat died in 1623.

Born in what is now Lithuania, St Josaphat had Orthodox parents but he later became a Catholic. What is meant by this - becoming a Catholic - is accepting the shepherding authority of the Pope. Because Christ entrusted the role of holding all Christians in a unity of Faith to St Peter and his successors, and Jesus’ desire is that we remain united to him through the ministry of the Pope. Hence, to be Catholic; to seek the unity that Christ desires for his Church; to have full communion in the One Faith means to be of one mind and heart with the Pope. This, at least is what St Josaphat’s life and death was about. 

As Archbishop of Polotsk, he was mindful of the duties of a bishop, as we heard in our first reading. He was a prayerful, ascetic, and reforming bishop; fervent in preaching, and in works of mercy with the needy of his diocese. But these words of St Paul must have been especially striking to him: “[the bishop must] hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it”. And the “sure word” that St Josaphat taught with his life and death is that the visible unity of Christians with the Pope is vital; it is what Christ desires for our good, and for our salvation. And as a shepherd, a good bishop, he strove to bring about this unity even at the cost of his life. For he believed that to do anything less would be to cause scandal, to do the one thing Jesus condemns in today’s Gospel, which is to lead others into the temptation to sin: the grave sin of disunity   

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November 9, 2012

HOMILY for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Eze 47:1-2. 8-9. 12; Ps 45; John 2:13-22

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome. The church was built by the Emperor Constantine, completed in 324, and is in an area of Rome near the Colosseum called the Lateran, hence it is commonly called the Lateran Basilica. Because the cathedra, the teaching seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope, is kept inside the basilica, it is regarded as the “Mother and Head of all the churches in the City and in the World”. So, we celebrate today’s feast as a sign of our unity with the Holy Father, and our love for him. We pray that he might exercise his infallible teaching office with courage and compassion so as to draw all people to Christ, who alone is the way, the truth and the life. 

The official name of the Lateran basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. In this name we note the spiritual significance of today’s feast and of any church building. For the church building is a symbol of Christ our Saviour into whom we are incorporated through baptism, and who is made known to us through the evangelists. For through the living water which flows from the side of the Temple, that is, from Christ’s pierced side on the Cross, we are washed of our sins, healed and saved by grace, and raised to a new life with Christ, as members of his Body, the Church. So, the Catechism says that “churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180). 

Hence, in recalling the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, and thus, of all churches, we recall that each one of us, as Christians, were dedicated to God at our baptism; we became living temples of his Holy Spirit, and became spiritual stones that make up Christ’s holy Church. Every time we enter a church building, and bless ourselves with holy water, we remind ourselves of this: through baptism, we are incorporated into Christ’s Body, and have communion with him. All of us have received this grace through and in the Church, for we are never saved apart from Christ’s holy Church. As St Cyprian said in the 3rd century: “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the Church as your Mother”. So, in celebrating today’s feast, we also give God thanks for the gift of Holy Mother Church, that through her sacraments and her preaching of the Gospel, all people may come to a knowledge and love of the Most Holy Saviour. 

But perhaps in thinking of the Church, we see also her institutional shortcomings and the sins of her leaders, and we wonder if Christ will cleanse the temple of his Church. These words from the 6th-century saint Caesarius of Arles, which are read at Matins, should give us pause for thought: “Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us” so that the world may see our charity and give glory to our Father in heaven.  

November 5, 2012

HOMILY for 31st Mon per annum (II)

Phil 2:1-4;  Ps 130; Luke 14:12-14

We say that someone is “single-minded” if that person is determined, purposeful, and has a clear aim that he or she is moving towards. This is why St Paul exhorts the Philippians to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. Because only if we, as a Church, are single-minded will be serve our purpose, and move towards our common goal as one body. 

The goal of the Church, our common aim, is salvation, that is, union with God. Our same love, then, is for Christ and his teachings, because he alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, who unites us to God. And the purpose of the Church is to manifest this union with God in Christ, to make known by example and preaching our “participation in the Spirit”, or, more accurately translated, our communion in the Spirit. This is what we mean by evangelization, and our salvation in Christ is for everyone. Hence, Vatican II said: “[Christ] sent His life-giving Spirit upon His disciples and through Him has established His Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium,48) . 

Which is why, if we’re to serve our purpose as a Church, if we’re to be effective evangelizers, if we’re to be good disciples of Christ who are alive in the Holy Spirit, then we must first be converted to Christ and become single-minded. We’re called to think with the mind of the whole Christ, that is, the Head always in union with his Body, the Church, so that we truly participate and have communion in the life of Christ. Thus, our whole way of thinking and behaving is transformed. And it will inevitably be different from the world’s; it will involve leaving behind former ways of thinking and acting. If we, as a Church, are good at this, we will transform the world and change whole cultures. 

But often, it seems like some Catholics expect things to work the other way round: Christ and the teachings of his Church must change to stay in step with the world’s teachings. Or we lack conviction and conversion to the Truth. And so, we aren’t single-minded and become a Church that is confused and stagnant, too tired by internal squabbling to attract, inspire and evangelize. Who would want to invest time, energy, and indeed give their lives to such a Church? 

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June 28, 2012

HOMILY for the Memorial of St Irenaeus of Lyons

2 Kings 24:8-17; Ps 78; Matt 7:21-29

In every Mass we pray after the Our Father for “peace and unity” to be granted to God’s holy Church, and today we celebrate a saint and martyr whose life was devoted to safeguarding the unity and peace of the Church. In this way, he was true to his name, Irenaeus, which means ‘peace’. 

Born around 135-40 in Smyrna, which is now called Izmir in Turkey, Irenaeus was mentored by bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle St John. By 177 he had moved to Lyons in Gaul, where he is one of the priests ministering to the Greek-speaking Christian community there. That community sent him to Rome to take a letter to the pope, and while he was in Rome, the church in Lyons was attacked by Marcus Aurelius. 48 were martyred including the bishop. So, when Irenaeus returned to Lyons he was appointed bishop, and he taught the Faith, and defended it against the Gnosticism – a dualist heresy that set a good spiritual God against a negative Principle that produced all matter, that was thus, evil, in the world. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was sent to liberate Man from matter, setting his spirit free, but this superior and secret knowledge (gnosis) was only given to some Christians called the spirituals. This heresy was prevalent throughout the 2nd century and it divided the Church. These dualistic ideas probably sound familiar since versions of it crop up repeatedly, and St Dominic and his Order arose to respond to the 13th-century version of it called Catharism. So, St Irenaeus arose in the 2nd century to counteract Gnosticism, and he laboured until his death around 202-3 during another wave of persecution by the Emperor Septimus Severus. 

Given the violence and persecution in Irenaeus’ lifetime and his own martyrdom, evidently, the peace that he is credited with bringing to the Church is not temporal peace. Rather, it is a peace that comes from being built upon the rock that is our one true Faith in Jesus Christ. As bishop and teacher of this Faith, then, St Irenaeus defended the people of God from the violence and divisiveness of heretical ideas, and united the Church in Lyons to the wider Church of his mentor St Polycarp: the Church of St John and the apostles, who, unlike the Gnostics, openly taught the common faith and knowledge of salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. So, in an unbroken line, the Apostolic Fathers taught with Christ’s authority, and their successors continue to do so today.

As St Irenaeus wrote in his book, Against Heresies, “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2).

It is this unity and peace, coming from an adherence to the one Faith in the one Lord that we pray for in the Mass. For it is this unity and peace that is signified when we receive the one Bread and the one Cup that makes us “one body, one spirit in Christ”. 

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