Ever since the referendum two years ago Brexit has dominated the news, public debate and – in many cases – private conversation. Two years after the decision was made you might have expected the story to have gone cold and to slip out of public consciousness. Instead, Brexit remains a hot topic and it persistently occupies the headlines. Part of the ongoing discussion is the perception of Brexit as a political process. At one end of the spectrum it’s seen as the ultimate liberation, while at the other end Brexit is considered the ultimate folly. And, obviously, there are many opinions that fall between those two extremes. I’m not going to delve into such a discussion here; it’s not my job, and I’ll be happy to keep those few friends I still have here. I want to use the topic as a springboard to a much wider issue. Many commentators believe that Brexit has been driven by populism; the subliminal message of such opinions is that populism is bad and wrong.
‘He took pity on them.’ In these few words St Mark explains Jesus’ reaction to seeing the arrival of people determined to see him. But this short phrase also describes in a nutshell Jesus’ deepest reason, cause and purpose behind his mission. He is driven by his concern for those who ‘were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Jesus, the Son of God, became man because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus set off to preach the Kingdom of God because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus came back to life after His death because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and established the Church because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus has continued to be actively present among us ever since then because ‘He took pity on them.’ Unlimited, inextinguishable compassion has been Jesus’ motivation and driving force.
We now have two new priests in the diocese. We believe that these men have been chosen by God. Their personal discernment was carefully examined and tested by the Church authorities over a number of years during their training and was finally confirmed by the very act of their Priestly Ordination just a couple of weeks ago. It certainly represents a personal achievement for each one of them. More importantly, they are now equipped with the powers required to carry out the mission that is much greater than them and which – as they will learn very quickly – seems to be Mission Impossible. That mission is described in today’s gospel: ‘They set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.’
Fifteen young men, all in their late twenties, entered their local cathedral church on a beautiful Saturday morning. A couple of hours later they left the cathedral as fifteen newly-ordained young priests. That happened twenty-one years ago, and one of those fifteen was me. When we left, the seminary was full, with about a hundred young men studying to follow in our footsteps in years to come. Last month, during my holiday in Poland, I learnt that there were only eighteen students in the same seminary, and not a single new application had been submitted. It was a rather shocking, but hardly a surprising piece of news! There doesn’t seem to be one single reason for the shortage of priestly vocations, whether in Poland or in Scotland. Most of the reasons can be identified, but only a few can be acted upon.
The NHS is present in the news daily. Certainly, this has been true over the last couple of weeks because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS. That ought to be something to celebrate, but more often than not, the NHS news stories appearing on our screens concern its alleged failings or problems. Only the most senior among us can remember the pre-NHS times and how massive the difference in medical care is between then and now. The level of healthcare provided in our country remains a distant or even unachievable dream in many other countries of the world. Yet, as we’ve got used to it, perhaps we have tended to become overly critical of “our” NHS. I’m not saying we ought to be ‘all praise and awe’ of it, but a degree of reality should colour our views.
For me it wasn’t a happy return from my recent holiday. I pulled a muscle in my back as I laid foot on my doorstep while shifting my suitcase. Then I learned that during my absence a number of parishioners had suddenly become seriously ill, and that one had passed away… So, you see, it really wasn’t a happy return. On the other hand, after having suffered soaring, even roasting temperatures abroad, it was so good to be back, welcomed home as I was by a chilly wind and night temperatures dipping to single-digits – essentially, what we call the Scottish summer! So, my return was a mixed bag overall. And that’s the everyday experience of most of us, with regular ups-and-downs and unexpected moments of either happiness or despair. Nobody likes the latter, and we do as much as we can to avoid it. But every now and again, unpleasant things that happen are simply unavoidable and we have to find ways of dealing with them.
Today’s first reading can come as a useful reference point for us. The main character grumbles at his fate: ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.’ He experiences a moment of despair, caused by a difficult situation. However, the main character in fact recalls that moment of dejection in the context of having found consolation: ‘all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God. […] My God was my strength.’ This is his recognition that he has never been abandoned by God, and never been left to his own devices in dealing with adversity. The first reading is actually a specific and rather moving hymn of praise, sung by the character who has recognised God’s work throughout his life, since he was born: ‘The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb He pronounced my name. […] He formed me in the womb to be his servant.’
As I mentioned earlier, today’s first reading can act as a useful reference point. Firstly, it is there to help you realise that you are in this world because God wanted you, and He wanted you for a purpose. The Lord called you before you were born, from your mother’s womb He pronounced your name. In God’s eyes you’re not an anonymous figure in a numberless mass of people. In His eyes you’re as special an individual as if you were the only person in the whole universe.
Secondly, whatever has happened in your life to date, you have never ever been abandoned by God. All the experiences you have been through, whether nice or nasty, have shaped and formed you. Who and what you are now is the result of innumerable interactions within yourself and external to yourself. The overused phrase: ‘What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger’ is based on experience – and most often turns out to be true.
And finally, whatever you have to deal with right now simply involves taking another step forward. It’s another challenge that can give you a better insight into who and what you are, in order to take you to even greater heights of human achievement, or of what we call in the Church – sainthood.
That struggle never ends as long as we live on God’s earth. We can see that truth at the end of the first reading. When the main character praises God for what He’s done to him, a new goal is set: ‘It’s not enough for you to be my servant. […] I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ With this new goal, or new challenge, God deliberately changes the perspective of the main character, redirecting his attention outwards towards others. That’s typical of God who wants you too to change your perspective and turn your attention away from yourself and towards other people. Because, paradoxically, the less you focus on yourself, the less unhappy you feel. The more you give out, the more you get back.
It was 30 years ago, in a country openly hostile to Christianity. The Catholic Church was heavily restricted in Her mission. As a young man, I asked a certain priest to help me buy a Bible. This was a rather challenging task in the reality of the time and place. A week or so later he called me to meet him in the parish office, and there he handed over a big brown envelope containing a brand-new copy of the Bible. I offered to cover all the costs, as agreed, but he refused to accept a penny. When I read the parables in today’s gospel, I instantly recalled that moment from my distant past. That priest’s simple but generous gesture was planting a seed. I’m absolutely certain he did that off-the-cuff, without any premeditated, long-term plan in mind. He was just that kind of a priest: helpful, kind and generous, though never naïve.