Homily at Jubilarians’ Mass, Bushey, 25 April 2015
Feast of Saint Mark
There are some happy coincidences that help us in today’s celebration. It happens to be the feast of Saint Mark, one of the four evangelists, and that is a very good coincidence. The opening prayer of the Mass says that Mark received ‘the grace to preach the gospel’. It is simple and profound. All Christians receive the grace to preach the gospel. Everyone who is baptized and confirmed receives this grace and the responsibility it brings with it, to bear witness to what they have received. In those of us who have made profession in the Order of Preachers, this grace is given an added strength, a specific flavor. In virtue of our profession, following Christ in the way of Saint Dominic, we receive again the grace to preach the gospel and we want to give ourselves completely to this central task of the Church’s life.
Another happy coincidence is that the air seems to be full of ‘jubilees’ these days. Obviously we are celebrating today’s, Margaret’s platinum jubilee and the diamond jubilees of Anne, Rose and Ursula. But we are also close now to beginning our celebrations of the Order’s Jubilee, the eight hundred years since its confirmation by Pope Honorius in 1216. And Pope Francis has just announced that this coming year will also be a Jubilee Year for the whole Church, a Holy Year, focused on the theme of Mercy. We have Jubilees within Jubilees!
The last general chapter of the friars, held two years ago, spent a lot of time thinking about the Order’s Jubilee, thinking in particular about how we ought to celebrate it, what is the right spirit or disposition in which to celebrate these eight hundred years of the Order’s life.
It decided that the motto or theme of the Jubilee would be ‘sent to preach the gospel’. Again it is simple and profound. The acts of the general chapter unpacked that phrase a little bit with a series of questions. We are sent to preach the gospel. By whom are we sent? To whom are we sent? With whom are we sent? And what do we bring with us in being sent?
By whom are we sent? The mission that has taken over our lives is a mission that originates in God. The Father sent the Son and the Son breathes the Spirit and sends the apostles and disciples, and we are sent by the Church and by Dominic, by the Order and the Congregation. And so the mission we receive in becoming Dominicans in a province or a congregation reaches all the way back to this mission which has its roots in God, in God loving the world so much that he sent his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but might have eternal life. In being sent by the Order or the Congregation we believe we are sent also by the Church and, ultimately, by God working His purpose out even in our lives.
To whom are we sent? We heard the answer to this question in today’s gospel reading: ‘go out to the whole world, proclaim the good news to all creation’. We are sent to everybody and anybody, here, there and everywhere, at any time, in any place. Like the sower in the parable we are to cast the seeds of the gospel everywhere, all the time. There is no particular group or class of people to whom we are sent, no discrimination among those who might hear and believe, it is not for any particular race, class, colour or nation. We are sent simply to everybody, everywhere, at all times.
With whom are we sent? We are sent with the companions and colleagues, brothers and sisters, who happen to receive the same mission as we do in the same place and at the same time. We live together not because we would naturally have been friends if we had met in some other circumstances. We live together because we share the same mission and have received the same call, to be preachers of the gospel as Dominicans in this province or congregation at this time. The basis, the ground, of our shared life is the vocation each of us has received to follow Christ in this way, as Dominicans. And that shared life is part of our preaching. Our fraternity – sorority – is not something we do before we preach or after we preach. Our common life is itself the first part of our preaching, part of the ‘sancta praedicatio’, the holy preaching which is in the first place simply our life together. This is because our life together is centred on the Word of God which we contemplate and study, which we celebrate in our liturgies, which we seek to live out in our common life, and which we then share through our preaching and teaching. Our sorority gives us companionship on the way but it also keeps our preaching grounded and realistic. In living closely with others we experience limitation and routine, likes and dislikes, we learn about virtues and vices, in ourselves and in others, and we hope that this will inform our preaching, to incarnate it in the ordinary difficulties and rewards of building communion.
What do we bring with us in being sent? The answer is simple: we bring the joyful news of the resurrection. We bring the gospel message, that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to be its Saviour. We bring the news that ‘Christ is truly risen from the dead’ and that this news changes everything. We are to preach the end of the old and the beginning of the new, a new creation, a new day, a new life – all that is opened up in the joy and promise of the Resurrection. We are heralds of this good news, bearers of this message.
The general chapter also decided that we will seek to celebrate this Jubilee of the Order with gratitude and humility. When Margaret, Anne, Rose and Ursula think back on the 250 years of Dominican religious life which we celebrate today I’m sure they find many reasons for gratitude and many people to whom they are forever grateful. Recently a friend who is about my own age told me that he has been diagnosed with cancer. He told me that his first reaction on hearing this news was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for his life. I was taken aback by this, it was a bit unexpected as a first reaction to such news, but it was a small moment of powerful preaching by him to me, a striking witness to the good news: in the face of this reality, to be filled with gratitude. In a happier context it must be the same also for Margaret, Anne, Rose and Ursula – gratitude for having been given this extraordinary experience of human life, of Christian life, of life as a Dominican – these are all wonderful gifts, reasons to be deeply grateful.
So too will it be with the Order’s Jubilee. While we remember with pride and gratitude our great men and women, Dominic and Thomas, Catherine and Eckhart, Las Casas and Vitoria, and all the rest of them, we want to do it with humility, accepting the full truth of our story, a story that has not always been glorious. As in every human life and in every human community there are shadows and ambiguities, losses and suffering, sins and failures, times when selfishness triumphs and when healing and reconciliation are needed. A Jubilee is a time for gratitude for all that has been, and it is also a time for truth, for accepting realistically and humbly the weaknesses and darkness that have also marked the journey.
A final happy coincidence is that the Order’s Jubilee year, as well as the Jubilees we celebrate today, will now coincide with a Holy Year for the whole Church dedicated to the theme of mercy. The Dominican Jubilee begins before it and ends after it, so the Church’s Holy Year will literally be included within ours. Mercy or grace, God’s loving kindness and tender compassion: we will all agree, very quickly I think, that this is a central theme in Dominican spirituality and theology. At least we would want it to be. We would want to stress, as Dominic did, the goodness of creation, the gift of God that creation is, as well as God’s gift of His Son sent, not to condemn the world, but so that all who believe in him might have eternal life.
The first works undertaken by the Order were concerned with mercy. The first apostolates, it seems, were preaching and hearing confessions. The preaching was undertaken always with a view to mercy. It was towards the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. It was aimed at reconciling people with the truth, with the Church, and with God. It was to encourage and invite people into the mercy of God, to restore their communion with God and with the Church. It will be relatively easy for us to find good texts and great preaching about mercy, in Thomas, in Catherine, in Eckhart, in all the great Dominicans. In the south of France to this day there is a rich Dominican spirituality of mercy centred on the figure of Mary Magdalene, patroness of the Order, the first preacher of the Resurrection, and one who in her own life, as traditionally told, experienced so directly the loving kindness and tender compassion of God.
Saint Thomas for his part has some wonderful comments about the mercy of God and it will be great if we can inform the Church’s celebration of this Holy Year with thoughts like his. ‘Every divine action’, he says, ‘has its root in mercy’ (Summa theologiae I 21,4). Creation itself is a work of God’s mercy, as ‘the one who is’ takes pity on ‘the one who is not’, falls in love with her as Catherine says, and therefore brings her into being. And then when she falls ill and becomes sinful God has mercy on her again and takes steps to bring about her healing and salvation.
Some people are expressing concern that Pope Francis is not talking enough about justice when he talks about mercy, that he is not talking enough about repentance when he talks about forgiveness and reconciliation. They fear perhaps that grace is being cheapened and that God’s mercy is being made superficial. Herbert McCabe reminded us often that it is impossible to cheapen grace just as it is impossible to make it dearer simply because grace is always absolutely free.
Saint Thomas’s way of putting this is to say that mercy is not a mode of God’s justice, a kind of icing or cream that can be added to some cakes. It is the other way round: justice is a mode of God’s mercy (Summa theologiae I 21,4). It is mercy that is fundamental and mercy is the cake itself. (A poor analogy but I hope it helps to make the point clear!) In the second part of the Summa Thomas returns to the theme of mercy and there says that mercy is, in effect, God’s ‘moral’ name. From the point of view of moral theology, the first name of God is mercy (Summa theologiae II.II 30,4). Mercy is not just one of the names of God: it is the name of God. Mercy is not just a fruit of virtue, a disposition or a way of acting. Adapting Saint John’s first letter we can say that ‘God is mercy’.
Those are some comments from Thomas but there are beautiful texts also in Catherine and Eckhart and many other Dominican authors. There are these wonderful resources in our tradition on the theme of mercy, resources which I hope we can bring out and bring to bear on the Church’s appreciation and celebration of mercy during this Jubilee Year.
As we celebrate the Jubilees of Margaret, Anne, Rose and Ursula we ask God to help us to prepare for these other Jubilees that are coming, to experience again, and even more deeply, the loving kindness and tender compassion of God. Using the words of Saint Peter from today’s first reading, ‘may the God of all grace who called you to eternal glory in Christ … confirm, strengthen and support you’ every day of your lives so that you ‘never let go this true grace of God to which your lives bear witness’.