This homily was given On the Feast of St Peter & St Paul at St Mary’s Church in Harborne, Birmingham. A local ACTA member forwarded it to us, thinking that many other members would be as delighted to read it as she was, since it reminded her of what one hears at ACTA meetings in Birmingham. Father Bernard kindly gave permission for its publication.
The preacher is Father Bernard O’Connor OSA.
I thought it would be appropriate on this feast of Saints Peter and Paul to reflect a little with you on the Church.
I take as my guideline a major document of the Vatican Council of the early 1960s, which Pope John XXIII called to clarify much of what the Church is about and to express it in language intelligible in the second half of the 20th century.
It is almost inevitable in any enterprise involving human beings – and the Church is one such – that from time to time it is necessary to take a good, hard look at itself.
Over the years, various rules and practices can accumulate, the emphasis can shift in response to need or even to convenience, and the overall ideal can become obscured under the cloud of all these appurtenances.
So then to the Church itself: it was, and for many still is, thought of as meaning the Pope, the bishops, priests and religious, with lay people playing a secondary role. The Council set out to correct that distorted image.
First of all, it reclaims the title of the People of God. In the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Abraham – ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God’, and so the family of Abraham and their descendants, all of them, became God’s People.
Jesus Christ renewed this covenant for all those who believe in him and endeavour to follow him – all the followers of Jesus Christ are the People of God. That is the essence of the Church.
St Peter tells us that we are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a people set apart’ – all of us.
Within the Church different groups have their distinctive roles. St Paul uses the image of the human body, where all the different members of the body work in harmony for the overall purpose of the health of the whole body.
Within the Church, as in the human body, there are distinctive groups, each with their distinctive function.
There is the priestly order, there are the lay people, there are the religious congregations.
The priestly order is called the ‘hierarchy’. The first part of that word is spelt h-i-e-r. Unfortunately it is pronounced in the same way as ‘h-i-g-h-e-r’, but means something quite different. ‘Hier’ refers to priest – hierarchy is the order of priests, including bishops and pope. It has nothing to do with superiority. Their role, it is emphasised is one, not of domination but of service.
What needs to be emphasised most of all is the laity. Laypeople are the Church in the world. They are Christ’s presence in the secular world.
The image that I use is that of a journey. Life is often described as a pilgrimage. In modern terms, that would mean a long journey along a motorway. At various intervals there are service stations. The traveller needs to stop occasionally at one or other of these service stations, to rest a while, to refresh and nourish oneself, to fill up the petrol tank, and then move on.
The priests and others are there to provide the necessary service at these stations, which are the churches and all that we associate with the church building. They will provide the teaching, proclaim the Word of God, celebrate the sacraments to help refresh and nourish the traveller.
But the journey is the thing. Refreshed and renewed, we go forth again – as we are encouraged at the end of Mass – to continue our journey, to be Christ’s presence in the world of our family, our work, our recreation, wherever we are.
That aspect of the Church needs to be emphasised. Furthermore, there is a sentence that you will not often hear, but which is worth quoting from paragraph 37. It says:
An individual layperson, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which he or she may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on things which concern the good of the Church.
There is a further chapter that is also worth special notice. It is entitled ‘The Call of the Whole Church to Holiness.’ ‘Holiness’ it describes as ‘a more human way of life.’ In the past there was the belief that holiness was something for priests and religious. Even some diocesan priests felt that holiness was beyond them and was something that could only be achieved by people in convents and monasteries.
But all of us are capable of holiness in the state of life in which we find ourselves – through our family, through our work, through every aspect of our life, through the way we use our talents and our possessions, taking Jesus Christ as our model of truthfulness, of integrity, of concern for those about us.
The Church is the People of God, those who endeavour to follow the way that is Jesus Christ. It is the continuing presence of Christ in the world, bringing something special that will help make the world a better place for everybody.