Like most priests, from time to time I have organised ‘special’ Masses. Typically, these take place to mark a particular occasion or anniversary, held in a parish hall or school or other venue. One question those organising these Masses always faces is: “What readings will we use?” A wise pastor once suggested to me that one should always use the readings of the day. I have discovered that he was right. The Spirit of surprises can make even the most obscure readings amazingly apt, often in unexpected ways.
Take the Gospel readings of the last two Sundays. On the Sunday of the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park, the Gospel was about how Jesus dealt with followers who chose to walk away. These former disciples had heard Jesus talking about eating the flesh of the Son of Man, and it all seemed too demanding, too much.
In our day, we see people choosing other paths too. They are hurt by abuse scandals, they feel disappointed and let down by the Church leaders they expected more from. These formerly loyal Catholics then choose to walk other paths.
In that Gospel, Jesus asks his closest followers if they want to walk away too. And they say something like “Sure where would we be going?” I think Jesus would get a similar response from the people who endured the wind and rain of the Phoenix Park that Sunday, walking miles, queueing endlessly for toilets and water and food. Did we want to choose another path as people who lapse from Faith do? ‘Sure where would we be going?’
What an apt Gospel for that Phoenix Park Mass with Pope Francis. It is unlikely the organisers checked the Gospel when they decided the World Meeting of Families would end that weekend, but the Spirit was steering them, as ever.
The Gospel for the following Sunday (last Sunday, September 2) was even more apt. We’d had weeks in which the failures of Church leaders were painfully sketched out for us, in Pennsylvania, in Washington, even in Rome itself. Those who should have looked after victims of abuse chose too often to value the institution first. Corruption and hypocrisy were all too visible in the Church of Christ, and still are. And the Gospel found Christ decrying just such an outcome.
He berated the Pharisees for putting aside the commandments of God while clinging to human traditions. And he quoted Isaiah, making the point that unworthy leadership was nothing new, not even 2,000 years ago.
The events of the weeks leading up to that Sunday provided a magnificant backdrop, better than whoever put the Lectionary together could ever have planned. This was proof, for me, of the Spirit ever at work, placing before us a Word from God ever relevant to the circumstances of the day.
When you hear next Sunday’s Gospel, think of it in the context of that day’s news, and often the Spirit will show you how one speaks to the other.
Maeve Binchy once said that she got the best lines for novels sitting on a bus. There she heard fragments of conversations that gave her an insight into people’s lives. As I walked my three-mile hike between the bus and the Phoenix Park, I got an inkling of what Maeve meant. I heard bits of stories of people’s lives, of sickness, success and loss; songs were sung, jokes told. Images of family life were revealed: a perfect illustration of the event that drew us together, a meeting of Irish families.
There would be a great book in all the stories!
Topsy-turvy flag was a cry for help
l Dublin was full of wayside shrines over the weekend of the papal visit, some holy, others less so. One that caught my eye had a line of papal flags upside down, the standard international cry for help.
It seemed ironic then that when Pope Francis’ plane came to rest on the Dublin tarmac that Saturday morning, the Vatican flag next to the Irish flag was also flying upside down (until a disembodied cockpit arm reached out and corrected it).
Or maybe it was originally deliberate: a cry for help from a Pope realising what was ahead of him in Ireland!