A jubilee is a celebration. A Church jubilee is always a celebration of the blessings of God.
A diocesan celebration is a celebration of God’s blessings, received through the ministry of Christ, in the parish communities and Mass centres that make up the broader diocesan community.
Tonight, we give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received as individuals and as communities these past fifty years within the Bunbury Diocese. On this occasion, we need to pause to appreciate these blessings more deeply, as we too easily can take them for granted.
On this occasion too, we need to ponder to question: ‘What is God’s plan for our immediate future?’
The blessings of God upon us
Let us ponder together the blessings of God we have received as a diocese through our worship, our people and the various programmes of the last half century.
Blessings received through worship
First, there are the blessings received through our worship, such as divine guidance and enlightenment for our daily lives, received through the liturgies of the Word, through scripture studies and through scripture reflection and prayer.
Second, there are blessings such as:
Through these sacraments, Jesus has ministered to us. He has been empowering us to live as he taught. While none of us would claim to be perfect, we could not be the people we are today without Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.
Then there have been:
A jubilee invites us to stop, to pause, and to avoid taking these blessings for granted.
Finally, there are:
For all of these blessings, tonight we say ‘thank you’ to God.
Blessings received through people
Tonight we think also of all the people through whom Christ has ministered to others in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. One advantage of being a Bishop is that you get ‘a helicopter view’ of the diocese, an overview no one else can experience. We are especially mindful of those with special roles in our parishes and diocesan communities:
These and all who have contributed to our diocese in any way over the past fifty years, are blessings of God. There are countless individuals – each is a blessing of God, for which we say ‘thank you’.
Blessing received through programmes
We also recall tonight the many programmes that have been undertaken across our diocese over the past half century. There have been so many initiatives in adult education, liturgy, youth and pastoral planning, particularly under the leadership of my predecessors, the then Bishop Goody, Bishop McKeon and Bishop Quinn.
The seeds of the Gospel sown across our diocese are the blessings God has given us through the liturgies, the preaching and teaching, and the lives of all who have contributed to the life of our Diocese these past fifty years. In the words of the Second Reading, some in our diocese have done the planting, others have done the watering.
Yet, today, in our part of the world, we are going through one of the periods of decline in religious practice in the history of the Church. Given the decline in religious practice across our Diocese, some have questioned why the past fifty years seem to have produced limited fruit. Here we need to remember two of Jesus’ parables.
The Parable of the Sower
The first is the Parable of the Sower [Mark 4:1-9, 13-20]. This is to do with ‘planting’ the Word.
This parable teaches that the seed of the Word bears fruit in the hearts of all open to receiving it [Mark 4:20]. And across our Diocese, there are so many people of great faith who are living signs of this teaching. The groups I have just mentioned are just a small percentage. There can be no doubt about the tremendous faith of a great number of people across our Diocese!
Yet, in the parable of the Sower, Jesus also warned that the seed of the word would not grow in everyone. It would be choked, for example, in those for whom material goods were the first priority in life, and those whose lives were so busy they had little time for God [Mark 4:19].
The Church’s pastoral experience teaches us that the seeds of the Word can remain in these people’s memories, and then penetrate into their hearts in times of joy. These times may be the birth of a child or a marriage, a child’s First Communion or Confirmation, a Christmas Mass. This is why the Church invites parents especially at such times to think about the practice of their faith.
Our pastoral experience also teaches us that the seeds of the Word in people’s memories can also penetrate their hearts in times of adversity – the death of a loved one, a funeral Mass, being diagnosed with a serious illness, becoming unemployed, and a period in hospital. Such times invite the kind of reflection that can open the heart to a seed of the Word.
The Parable of the Seed Growing by Itself
The second parable we need to remember is the one in tonight’s Gospel. The Parable of ‘The Seed Growing by Itself’. Mark seems to have inserted this parable in his Gospel to answer the question: ‘If Christ’s Kingdom is so powerful, why can’t we see its fruits?’ This parable is to do with ‘watering’ the Word, something that is needed while seeds lie in the ground. The Seed of the Word of God will have been planted in the hearts of many in our Diocese, and it will bear fruit in God’s time.
As our farmers know, planted seeds germinate within the soil. On the surface, nothing seems to be happening. But beneath the surface, new life is beginning.
God provides the increase
As we ponder our experience as a Diocese in the light of these Parables, we must never forget that, as St Paul tells us in tonight’s Second Reading; though we are called to plant and water the seeds of the word, it is God who ultimately provides the increase [1 Corinthians 3:6,7]. God alone provides the growth.
All of us need to keep praying in faith, therefore, that the seeds of the Gospel will bear fruit in those in whom they have been successfully planted. We need to pray too that the hearts of those that are closed to the Word at present, will be opened. Let us pray in particular for family members, friends, young and old.
The apparent failure of the dying Jesus
Let us remember too the lesson of the dying Jesus, the one who had sown the seeds of his Gospel to multitudes of people, but who, in human terms, seemed at that point to have failed. Before his dying eyes were only Mary his mother, the other Marys, John and a few others standing in the distance [eg Matthew 27:55-56; John 19:25-26].
The seeds Jesus planted bore fruit later, at Pentecost, with the conversion of the three thousand. Yet, these people had seen and heard Jesus. Peter described Jesus as [Acts 2:22]:
… the one commended to you by the miracles and portents and signs God worked through him when he was among you, as you know.
The need for continuing prayer and self offering, like Jesus
The lesson of the dying Jesus is that we need to keep praying and offering our lives to God as he did, that the seeds of the Gospel sown in our families, parishes and schools across our diocese eventually will bear fruit.
Let us tonight renew our commitment to prayer to God who gives the increase. Let us all, but especially the sick and the suffering, unite our sufferings with Jesus on the cross.
B. Where to from here?
Yet, while a jubilee looks back in thanks and celebration, it also looks forward. What is God’s plan, then, for the immediate future direction of our Diocese?
Our Christian mission: the size of our diocesan challenge
Jesus told his followers [Matthew 28:19]:
Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them… and teach them all my commands…
There are around three hundred thousand people across the South West, the Great Southern and the South Coastal regions of Western Australia. Most of these people have little connection with God. Our future mission is to lead these people to God so that their lives grow in peace and blessings.
The critical priority
Yet in saying this, we have to acknowledge that, currently, there is a religious decline within the Catholic community in our Diocese, as there is a decline across the materialistic world (even though, world-wide, the Church’s growth is reported to be four to five percent greater than the world population growth).
If our mission is to lead others to God, therefore, one critical priority must be to help those in our Catholic community who have given up their religious practice to return to the fullness of their faith. They too need to be evangelisers.
What are the ‘signs of the time’?
How are we to do this? To answer this question, we need to do two things.
First, we need to look at what Jesus referred to as ‘the signs of the times’ in our Diocese [eg Matthew 16:3; Luke 12:56]. Then we need to ask ourselves: ‘What should be our response to these signs?’
The Second Vatican Council, the most significant Church event over the past fifty years, reminds us that the signs of the times are the signs of God’s presence and purpose in the Church and the world. What, then, is God’s purpose in our Diocese?
To call all into deep personal relationship
The Council reminded us that God’s most basic purpose is to call every human being to share in God’s own life, to enter into the most intimate relationship possible with God [Divine Revelation 3].
It is this closeness to God that brings inner peace. Personal relationship with God is the only channel for receiving God’s guidance and blessings in our daily lives. The call to personal relationship, then, is also the call to personal conversion.
The Signs of God calling our people into personal relationship
The Council taught us too that God fulfils this purpose of calling people into relationship in various ways. Let us reflect briefly on three to see some of the ways God perhaps is reaching out and calling into relationship any in your family, or among your friends, who have given up the practice of their faith.
God calls into relationship through creation
The most basic of these ways is through creation. How often people are struck by the beauty of the beach, the bush, the vast spaces, wild flowers and many other natural beauties across our diocese?
Then there is the variety of beauties in the colours and sounds of birds, the shapes of fish and many other creatures. There is the spectacle of the stars in the night. So many people are moving into our diocese because they want more of a rural life-style, to retire by the sea, to be close to nature.
Through creation, God is seeking to make people in our Diocese aware of their Creator’s presence. Why? To call them into relationship. As one teenager put it, ‘when the sun is setting and you are on your surf board while the ocean is calm, you know Someone Big is there’.
This, then, is one way God is calling those who have given up their religious practice into deepening relationship. One of our tasks is to help them realise this.
God calls through the human heart
Then there is a deeper level through which God calls people into relationship – the deeper yearnings and questions of the human heart. Examples of these yearnings include those for perfect love, for goodness, for inner harmony and peace, the yearning for the inner freedom to become the ideals that reflect whom God created us to be.
The questions of the human heart include: ‘What is the purpose and meaning of my life?’ ‘What is the meaning of suffering?’ ‘Of death?’ ‘What is the secret to a lasting relationship?’ ‘How can I overcome my human failings to live my ideals as a spouse, a parent, a priest, a religious, a friend?’
God created the human heart to seek its Creator. Its yearnings and questions can only be satisfied fully by God. As St Augustine put it:
You made our hearts for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
God also calls people into relationship through their heart-felt desires for consolation and care in times of suffering and weakness. These may be times of illness, of grief, of marriage breaking up, of experiences of failure. God’s call is echoed in the words of Jesus [Matthew 11:28]:
Come to me all you who labour and overburdened, and I will give you rest.
Do we not see these kinds of human heart yearnings and questions in our families and others in our diocese? These are the second way God is calling them into deeper relationship.
God Calls through yearnings for Christian Salvation
The climax of God’s call into relationship was the coming of Jesus, Son of God and Son of man. In Jesus, human beings can experience and relate with God directly as God’s own sons and daughters.
Through Jesus, people can experience Christian Salvation.
Yearnings for peace within and with others
This is the salvation that brings growing harmony with God. In turn, harmony with God leads to increasing harmony within. And, in turn again, this leads to growing harmony with others. This is the ‘Peace on Earth’ the angels sang of at Jesus’ birth [Luke 2:14].
Across our diocese, do we not see people yearning for Jesus, though they may not realise it? Do we not see in them signs of yearning for inner peace, and for peace and harmony with others?
Our response: New Evangelisation
Our future mission as a diocese, therefore, is to continue to proclaim the Gospel in ways that connect it with people’s experiences of God calling them into relationship through creation, through their human heart yearnings and questions, and through their desires for inner peace and peace with others.
We need to do this in our families, our schools, our friendship groups, our parishes and our wider communities. A major priority here needs to be those who have given up their religious practice.
Christian Witness: the faces of Christ’s love
In our diocesan pastoral plan for the next few years, our first step in this mission is to renew the Christian Witness of our parishes. We need to reflect the faces of Christ’s love, as described in the Lenten Pastoral Letter Do They Know us by our Love? – especially the faces of Christ’s humble service, of Christ the Good Shepherd, of the welcoming Christ open to all, and the Christ who challenged his society.
Then, we need to help people understand how God is calling them into ever deepening relationship, especially through the three ways I have described – creation, their hearts, and their yearnings for peace within and with others.
To proclaim Christ as Saviour, and Christian conversion
Second, we need to proclaim Jesus as Saviour, and the power of his Kingdom for their lives. Only this can give the Salvation that satisfies the human heart.
We need to call people to personal conversion to Jesus himself. Without this, there can be no Christian Salvation. The basic human yearnings for peace within, and peace with others, cannot be fulfilled.
This call to personal conversion needs to be repeated constantly also in our parish communities. A parish community is as strong as the personal conversion of each of its members to Jesus himself. Without this, ultimately, no other community building pastoral strategies can succeed.
To hand on the Christian experiences of God
Finally, we need to share, with all who convert to him, the experiences of God that Jesus alone makes possible – the experiences that are the basis of the Creed, the Sacraments, the Christian living of God’s Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. We need to relate these experiences also to the yearnings and questions in people’s hearts.
And we need to help all who do convert to Jesus to believe in the teachings and values of Jesus. These are the paths into the experiences of God he alone makes possible.
Let us plant and water – and pray for the increase
These are the broad steps of what Pope John Paul II calls New Evangelisation. These are the ‘new methods and new ways’ of planting the seeds of the Word of God in others’ hearts.
For many who have given up their religious practice, these are the ways we need to finish planting the Word of God. These too are the ways we need to keep ‘watering’ the seeds of the Word already planted across our Diocese, seeds that are still germinating beneath the soil.
But in all this, each of us needs to keep trying to perfect his or her own conversion. We need to keep nurturing our own faith.
Only God can give the growth
Let us pause now for a few moments silent prayer, thanking God for our past and asking God to help us build on the signs of the times in our future.
And let our prayer continue beyond this celebration because, in the words of St Paul [1 Corinthians 3]:
In this… only God… gives the growth.