One of the great mistakes that we make nowadays is that when we think about our faith we tend to think about the Church and not about Jesus Christ. And you don’t need me to tell you that if your faith is based only on the Church, on what it does and how it lives, your faith is set on a shaky foundation. The experience of Church for very many people in recent decades is often one of pain, disillusionment, inability to understand and at the least, occasional frustration. Criticism of the Church, its teaching on celibacy, the ordination of women and many other issues, have all drawn people away from a feeling of close connection with Church. For many, we have become a church of issues rather than a community of faith, a community of those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ.
The reality is that your faith and my faith is centered on a person, the person of Jesus Christ; who he was, what he said and how he lived. Recently, when the Pope was speaking about Confirmation he reminded the young people that they must learn to live like Jesus. “You must think about the way he lived and you must try to live like him.” Yes, this is a message for all of us; we must think about the way Jesus lived and we must try to live like him.
I chose the story of the blind man, Bartimaeus, for this evening’s reflection because, in many ways, it sums up where we find ourselves today. ‘What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asked him. The blind man said; Rabbi, I want to see.’ Yes, we also want to see. We want to see the way forward, in the face of the collapse in the number of men going forward for priesthood. We want to see the future when, within the next ten years the number of priests in this diocese will have fallen dramatically. As lay people, you want to see how faith in Jesus Christ can recover and made more relevant in today’s world; especially for young families and for the generations yet to be born. We want to see our way through illness, through grief and through the host of the ordinary events of our lives that worry us.
Pope Francis, when thinking about Bartimaeus said: “There are, however, some temptations for those who follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel shows at least two of them. None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did. They continued to walk, going on as if nothing were happening. If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf: his problem was not their problem. This can be a danger for us: in the face of constant problems, it is better to move on, instead of letting ourselves be bothered. In this way, just like the disciples, we are with Jesus but we do not think like him. We are in his group, but our hearts are not open. We lose wonder, gratitude and enthusiasm, and risk becoming habitually unmoved by grace. We are able to speak about him and work for him, but we live far from his heart”.
At this Mass of Chrism, when we renew our dedication to Christ in the priesthood and to the service of the people of this diocese, which of us can ignore those challenging words of Pope Francis?
In this Gospel there is a difference between Jesus and his disciples. He stopped. They went on. He engaged with Bartimaeus. They scolded the blind man for shouting, for disturbing the peace, for bothering them. The disciples knew where they were going to, their heads down, their ‘sat-nav’ set, their agenda fixed. They knew how long it would take them to get there and Bartimaeus was knocking their schedule out of kilter. Jesus recognized that Bartimaeus was a man of faith and he stopped to meet him. He recognized him as a man who knew his need for salvation, for getting his sight back, and Jesus wanted to give him this. In the end, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on his path (cf. v. 52). He did not only regain his sight, but he joined the community of those who walk with Jesus.
All of us gathered here this evening are part of the community of faith of those who walk with Jesus. Yes, within the Church we have different roles to play and responsibilities to carry. But, at heart, each of us is a pilgrim; blind like Bartimaeus for much of the time, in need of faith and spiritual nourishment, aware of our sinfulness and yet wanting to meet Christ. The gap between Jesus and his disciples is also with us; between the Church as an institution and the community of those who follow Christ in faith. As we move to the future, like Christ, our task is faith; nourishing faith through our words, actions and attitudes, encouraging faith by the way we live, transmitting faith by the rediscovery of wonder, gratitude, enthusiasm and grace in our own lives. The joy of the Gospel reverberates through the entire ministry of Pope Francis. Like Jesus in today’s Gospel, his example is a challenge to us.
Each year, the Mass of Chrism offers an opportunity for the entire diocese to come together as the community of faith. It is also an opportunity for me, as bishop, and for you, the people, to acknowledge and to say ‘thank you’ to the priests for the outstanding service which they give to this diocese.
The people and I are fully aware of the challenges that you face and the burdens that you carry. We are conscious of your decreasing numbers and you aging profile. We recognize the increasing demands on your time and the diminishing levels of energy, which come with the passing of time. We share your anxiety for the future. On behalf of all the people of this diocese, I say a simple and sincere ‘thank you’ to you for your ministry. ‘Thank you’ is a word you may not often hear but it is a sentiment that is genuine and expressed with great gratitude. Thank you.