Wash the feet – Golden Jubilee homily 2016

Fr Dan Cashman SMA preached at the Golden Jubilee celebrations for SMA Fathers Lee Cahill, Ali Kelly, Fionnbarra O’Cuilleanáin and Michael Waters at a Thanksgiving Mass celebrated at the SMA House on Blackrock Road, Cork on Saturday, 16 July 2016.

Cardinal Basil Hume when asked what makes a good homily gave the following advice ‘first there must be a good beginning, secondly a suitable ending and thirdly the two should be as close together as possible’. Well I will leave it to you to judge if I have taken his advice. Today is a special celebration as we thank God and honour Lee, Fionnbarra, Ally and Michael on their Golden Jubilee.

In his book ‘Jesus’, Fr. James Martin reflected on the ‘Washing of the Feet’ as an action that often gets overlooked  when we study the life of Christ.  Fr Martin says that Theologians pay more heed to explaining the intricacies of transubstantiation than to the more mundane item of Jesus washing his disciples feet. He then asks the question if our Church today might be a different place had we paid more attention to that humble act. 

I would feel that our Jubilarians are representative of missionaries who have taken the message of the washing of the feet to heart and have dedicated their whole lives to that work of mercy in difficult and challenging places in East and West Africa. The simplicity of their life style and the inclusive nature of their work are signs of this humble service.

The people whose lives we are celebrating today spent their fifty years of priesthood fulfilling the works of mercy that Christ speaks of and performed during his life and which he also requires of all his followers

The importance of the works of mercy in a missionary context can sometimes get lost in the many missiological guidelines and changes that we have been faced with over the years

From time to time we need to remind ourselves that the works of mercy include the acts of compassion through which we help others with their emotional and spiritual needs:

  • converting and instructing;
  • comforting the sorrowful;
  • and praying for the living and the dead.

These works are a kind of preventative medicine for the spiritual poverty which drains life of all energy, joy and sense of purpose and it is the kind of poverty that can last forever.

The other works of mercy are seen in the compassionate actions by which we help others with material and physical needs. They require us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. These messages are not theoretical or academic. In concrete terms it is simply getting down on our knees and washing the feet of the disciples. This is the bread and butter of SMA Missionary work. But it does not stop there. I remember learning that lesson many years ago. Once when I was boasting to the SMA Regional Superior in Nigeria, Fr. Michael Drew, of how successful the school results were in St. Peter Claver’s College in Aghalokpe. he replied with his usual  enigmatic sense of humour,  ‘Father’, he said, ‘I hope you remember that God did not send Moses to develop the Israelites into more educated and highly skilled workers for Pharaoh. 

It took a while for that message to sink in. Then it dawned on me that. our work as missionaries goes beyond depositing information in other peoples’ heads for our real purpose is to empower the spirits of people God puts in our charge. 

The spiritual and corporal works of mercy that our Jubilarians performed in Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania focused on primary evangelization, inculturation, pastoral care and youth work that went far beyond the superficial banking of knowledge for they concentrated their efforts on building Christian communities that felt empowered to change their world.

Missionaries throughout the centuries have been people who defied the conventional wisdom of the day, broke the mould and pushed out the boundaries to new limits. They were trail blazers and risk-takers like St. Paul, St. Patrick, St. Francis Xavier and our own Bishop deBrésillac among others  All of them adapted the message of the Gospel to the needs that surfaced in their day.

Our Jubilarians are very much part of that risk-taking tradition. Whether it was working for peace and justice in the Refugee Camps of Northern Tanzania, feeding, clothing and supporting people traumatized in the Liberian civil war, supplying medical aid and practical support to the poor in remote areas of Kaduna and Kontagora or training the youth in Ibadan to be leaders in their communities, they were imitating Christ who went on his knees as a servant and washed the feet of his disciples.

I would like to finish with a description of a missionary given by the former Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Cushing, at one of his farewell ceremonies for his missionaries (the Society of St. James) going off to South America. He says that missionaries are the Simon of Cyrene of their day. They journey with the economically impoverished families, the sick the elderly and victims of violence and injustice. They uphold the powerless with their presence, their encouragement and support and make the crosses these abandoned people have to carry less unbearable. I feel that our Jubilarians can see themselves in that role and all of us can identify with that insight and we thank God for the privilege of being called to be missionaries whose task has always been to wash the feet of the members of Christ’s body.

So, I wish to congratulate the members of the class of 1966 and say thank you and well done for your faithful service of the Gospel and the spirit and tradition of the SMA.

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