Novena to St Therese – Closing evening – 1st October 2011
Isaiah 5: 1-7
Ph 4: 6-9
Matt 21: 33-43
We celebrate the Feast of St Therese, Patroness of the Missions, and we also celebrate the 27th Sunday of the Year. Because it is a Sunday Mass our readings are taken not from the Feast but from the Sunday. However, these incorporate a mission theme.
Today, 1st October, we begin Mission Month. Our focus throughout this month will be on mission, at home and abroad. The highlight of the month of mission is the celebration of Mission Sunday, this year on October 23rd. There is a danger when we think of mission that we focus only on the ‘professional’ missionary, the full-time lay-missionary, sister or brother or priest; but mission is the vocation of all of us by virtue of our baptism. And, as we shall see, it is less about what we do than about what and who we are.
It is always interesting to reflect on the fact that Therese was declared patroness of the missions eventhough she never left her convent. However, as we listened to the different reflections on various dimensions of Therese’s life over these past eight days – and many of you have commented to me how nourishing you have found these reflections – we will all have learned that the heart of mission is not activity but rather prayer and love. As we have heard repeated a number of times during this novena, Therese desired to be: “Love at the very heart of the church”. “Jesus, my love!”, she said, “I have found my vocation, and my vocation is love”.
Love is the very foundation stone of God’s kingdom on earth. When there is an absence of love it is impossible for that kingdom to flourish. This is illustrated for us in our readings tonight.
The 1st reading + the gospel provide us with the same powerful image, that of the Vineyard.
1st Reading – in spite of all the work done by the owner to prepare and maintain the vineyard no good fruit is produced. This is because the fruit itself is bad. The fruit here refers to the people of Israel. The people of Israel have rejected God’s promptings and so God is angry with them.
In the gospel – it is not the fruit itself that’s bad but those tasked to steward, protect and maintain the vineyard. The image of vineyard stands for God’s kingdom and the tenants are the leaders of the Israelite people.
And the owner’s son who is sent stands, of course, for Jesus. In the gospel story not only do the leaders not protect and maintain the vineyard properly but they go so far as to kill all those sent to reform them, even the son himself.
Because of their actions the owner takes the vineyard from these leaders and gives it to a totally different set of people.
This is St Matthew’s way of saying that the Jewish leaders put the prophets and Jesus to death instead of reforming their own lives. However, through Jesus’ victory over death by his resurrection from the dead God’s kingdom is shared with a whole new set of people and the criterion for admission into this kingdom is not a birth right through membership of the Jewish race but rather acceptance of Jesus and following in his way.
This of course is a very missionary theme. Acceptance into the kingdom of God is open to all peoples and is no longer exclusive to the Jewish race. And this is what we experience in our world today: God’s kingdom being present among all peoples irrespective of race or colour of skin.
That has been possible through men and women cooperating with God in God’s mission of making his kingdom present among all peoples. That mission work still continues today, e.g over 1750 Irish missionaries on mission in foreign lands. Among them are our own OLA and SMA missionaries.
What is a cause of great joy today is the fact that those countries that were once considered mission territories are now sending missionaries themselves into other lands. e.g. While Kevin is going on mission to Nigeria there are young Nigerian SMAs going on mission to other parts of Africa. This is a very good illustration of the fact that mission is everywhere. Indeed, it could be said that Ireland itself has become mission territory.
There is an echo of tonight’s gospel in our lived experience today:
Missionary activity has greatly diminished in the established churches while it is exploding in the newer churches. It seems as if God has allowed his kingdom to be removed from its established places and to be known and lived among a whole new set of people.
There is a challenge to us members of the church here in Ireland to ask ourselves: what kind of fruit are we really producing? And those of us in church leadership have to ask ourselves: what kind of stewards have we been and what is the quality of our stewardship now?
Should such questions make us anxious and afraid? No, the constant refrain of Jesus in the Gospel, and repeated by St Therese, is “Do not be afraid”. Yes, it should make us reflect on the quality of our response but it should not make us anxious or afraid.
This is borne out by St Paul in our 2nd Reading, where he reminds the Philippians that dangers from without and bickering within the community has caused them to lose their trust in God. Are there echoes of this in our Irish church today?
Paul’s answer is that diminishing trust in God can only be countered by direct prayer to God. Such genuine prayer will result in deep Peace, God’s Peace. And God’s peace is remarkable because – as Fr Damian reminded us last night – it is present to us not by shielding us from trials and tribulations but is with us in the very midst of such trials and tribulations.
This brings us back again to Therese. We have heard of her many struggles, even struggles of faith, and yet, in the midst of these, her extraordinary hope and trust in God was not diminished and won through in the end.
We pray in trustful confidence through the intercession of St Therese that we too can live our mission by being love in the heart of the communities in which we live, in our homes, our workplaces, our parish, our country.