I wonder how many times over the last ten years you have heard me use phrases like, ‘a church fit for the 21st century’ or ‘a Church fit for the age we live in.’, or ‘the kind of church God is calling us to be.’ Hundreds of times, I suspect. And I have tried to spell our what these phrases mean: a more mature, adult Church; a Church where lay men and women exercise their responsibilities as a baptized people; a Church which enables its members to develop a faith rooted in a deep personal encounter with Jesus; a Church open to the world; a Church which has something relevant and meaningful to say the men and women who share this moment in history with us, and so on. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and that, if we lose our taste or our light grows dim, then we are, to use another of those phrases, ‘a Church not fit for purpose’.
But, as Pope Francis tells us over and over and over again, there’s one quality above all others that a Church which claims to represent Jesus must have. And we read about it today in the first reading. “Shelter the homeless poor, clothe the man you see to be naked, then your light will shine like the dawn,’ the prophet of the Exile writes. ‘If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will shine in the darkness and your shadows become like noon.’ We can attend all the courses we want. We can have theologically litterate lay people doing all kinds of great things in our parishes. We can build strong communities and develop prayerful liturgies. But, if we are not reaching out to those in need, those on the margins of society, then, in the words of St Paul, we are like a cymbal clashing or a gong booming.
So how are we doing in this area? How fit for purpose are we as a parish at a time when Pope Francis never stops encouraging us, as followers of Jesus, to reach out to those on the margins of society? Well, at one level, I think we are doing OK. There are all the things, not seen by others, that we do as individuals in our daily lives. Soon, Lent will begin and we will reach out to the poor around the world through the wee boxes, along with all the other causes we support in the course of a year. Then there is the St Vincent de Paul Society in the parish who, thanks to the financial support you give them, do a wonderful job quietly reaching out to all kinds of people in the village who need help. But there is another level of giving I invite you think about today. And not just think about. What I invite you to do is dream a little, think, as they say, outside the box, imagine for a moment a possibility we may not have thought of before. And it begins with the minutes of the last Council of Priests meeting with the bishop last month under the heading ‘Use of underutilised church property to help the poor.’ There a number of such properties in the diocese, and the minutes contain updates of the current situation with twelve of them. And then, at the very end, it says ‘St Bride’s, West Kilbride will become vacant soon.’ And that is what I invite to think about today and in the weeks and months ahead. When people ask me what is going to happen to the house after I retire, I usually say that it will be sold or lett. But could we do more with it than that? If we put our heads, our imaginations and our energy together, could we do something completely different with it, something we haven’t thought about before? Could we use it to reach out in some way to those in need? And I offer you, just to get us started, four ideas. They are not thought through. They would require a lot of planning and working out. But let’s at least think about them and not dismiss them out of hand.
A few years ago, for example, at the height of the refugee crisis, Pope Francis asked every parish in the developed world to take in and provide support for one family. In fact, the parish where my Spanish friends live in Madrid has actually done that. So could we? There would be problems, but put them to one side for a moment. Could you do it? I say ‘you’ because I won’t be here. Would you be willing to get involved in and support such a project? If you could do it, would it be worth doing? Could you imagine it actually happening?
And the second idea is that the house could be used as a temporary emergency respite for women and children fleeing domestic abuse. I know this has happened in other places in conjunction with agencies like Social Work and Women’s Aid. So, with a lot of work, could it happen here? Would you like it to happen here? As I put the idea before you, how are you responding inside yourself? Is the Spirit of God moving in you?
And the third idea takes me back to the St Vincent de Paul Society. The Society nationally has a caravan in Nairn which is available to families who need a holiday. Our own S.V. de P. has used it in the past, but it’s miles away. So could we use the house in the same way, welcoming struggling families into our midst for a week or two here in West Kilbride.
And my fourth thought concerns the wonderful garden you have at the back. Could you open it up to the rest of the community in some way. One possibility might be allotments, a very environmentally friendly way of using the land in the current situation. Or could you develop it as a recreationally facility of some kind which could be enjoyed by everyone in the wider community?
On Tuesday, Bishop Nolan is coming to talk to me about the future of the parish. But he has also expressed a desire to meet with all of you sometime. So why not think about these things? You may have your own ideas about the future. So talk to him about them when he comes? He also wants underutilized diocesan properties to be used to help those on the margins. Maybe it will never happen. Maybe there will be too many problems.
But for today at least, let’s dream a little.
Bidding Prayers :
Faith is a gift given for the sake of others. It is not given to be kept, as in ‘keeping the faith’, but to be shared with others. Often, as happened with the prophets in the Old Testament, it can feel like a burden to the person who has received it, bringing as it has done time and time again throughout history, persecution and suffering. And so we pray for the courage we need to embrace the demands of faith in the world today…. Lord hear us
If we are to the salt of the earth and the light of the world, there must be something different about us. We cannot be salt or light if we are just like everyone else, living by the false values of the world and just doing what everyone else does. There must be something distinctive about us, something that challenges the false values of the modern world. And so we pray for the courage we need to be different in this way…. Lord hear us
Salt is what brings out the taste in our food. And so, when Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth, he is inviting us to develop a sensitivity and feel for the often subtle movement of God in the world around us. To maintain this sensitivity we need to be men and women of prayer and reflection who take time to savour and taste the things of God, and we pray for the grace to do this always…. Lord hear us
If the Church is to have credibility in the world today, then people must be able to see some evidence that our faith is more than just words or religious actions. It must bear fruit in the real world. The way we live must draw others to God. And so we pray for the wisdom we need as a parish to develop new ways of doing things which enable us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world Jesus speaks of…. Lord hear us
In the first reading, the prophet of the Exile in Babylon promises us that, if we give our bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, our shadows will become like noon. The Church today has many shadows, as its weaknesses are mercilessly exposed for all to see. But these shadows can become a source of light if we face up to them and see them for what they are. And we pray for the grace to do this…. Lord hear us