Heroic Offering Celebrations
St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast
Fr. Raymond McCullagh
27th September 2009
Fr Anthony de Mello tells the story of a lifeboat station that was once set up on the east coast of America. It was established by local residents who wanted to help save lives in a part of a world where shipwrecks were common.
Soon others heard about their heroic efforts and wanted to be associated with this noble work. Gradually membership grew and they built a clubhouse attached to the lifeboat station where social functions were arranged. Members were given smart blazers with a special badge of the club on them that they wore with pride. Shipwrecks still occurred but often they were seen as a distraction from all the other activities associated with the club but there was still a small core of volunteers who were committed to saving lives. Eventually at a public meeting this core group expressed concern that the club had veered away from the real work it was meant to do i.e. saving lives at sea but their complaints were viewed negatively and they were forced to leave the club which they did. They then travelled some 50 km up the coast and formed their own lifeboat station. Soon their work became famous, people joined them, a clubhouse was built, social functions followed and their idealism was smothered. Another group expressed concern that the club was getting away from its basic task and they too were branded as trouble makers and were asked to leave. This they did and soon they formed their own lifeboat station further along the coast. The story ends as follows: If you visit that part of America you will find numerous lifeboat stations scattered along the coast, each justifiably proud of its origins. Shipwrecks still occur in those parts but nobody seems to care any more!
There is a lot we can learn from that story because it tells us so much about human life, about our world, our church and the challenge facing organisations like the Pioneer Association in today’s society. It’s amazing how people can be so easily distracted or get distracted from doing the right thing despite the noblest of intentions. It also warns against petty factions and encourages us to believe that all of us are smarter than some of us. Therefore if we really want to save lives we need to get back to basics and stick together. In essence that is the challenge of discipleship and it is a lesson that even the disciples had to learn in our gospel story today. They discovered someone who was not one of them casting out devils and tried to stop them. But ironically Jesus’ initial reaction was not so negative. His response to this potential conflict of interests was both encouraging and challenging: Anyone who is not against us is for us..
We have so much to learn from the example of Jesus. He didn’t get distracted from what he was meant to do and always focussed on the core of his mission. For him charity begins at home with something as basic as a cup of cold water. The question is: Have we tried to live by the values of the Kingdom or do we get distracted from the real work by things that don’t really matter? Do we suffer from a them and us complex to such an extent that we are blind to the bigger picture? If so then we perhaps need to read and take to heart the words of St James from our second reading. He has little sympathy for those who simply look after themselves and ignore the cry of the poor
Recently I had the privilege of attending a retreat entitled The Cry of the Poor directed by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. As many of you may be aware L’Arche is a worldwide community centred on people with special needs. Jean himself is an inspiration and he told us a story about a University professor who came to him seeking help. His son suffered from an addiction to alcohol and this was causing great distress among the wider family. Jean advised the professor to gather the family for a meeting where they could all talk freely about how they felt. But he emphasized the need to focus on the person, not the problem. In other words his son was first and foremost his son, not an alcoholic. His addiction will not go away until he is treated like a person with a problem rather than a problem person. It sounds so simple but let me ask you a question: how often do you refer to a person as an alcoholic or a drug addict as if that is the only thing that defines their character? How sympathetic are we to those who, for whatever reason, seek escape from life’s low-points through artificial highs? If we were to be honest we might say yes to both those questions. And yet we forget to see in each person the image of Jesus calling us to be on his side, to take a stand beside those who can’t stand up for themselves. If we as followers of Jesus don’t do it then they’ll fall over and that will drag us all down.
Today we gather as a Pioneer family to celebrate a long tradition of people who have decided to take a stand and witness to a different approach based on the dignity of each person and our responsibility to help others by living lives of witness, sacrifice and prayer. 120 years ago a Jesuit priest, Fr James Cullen recited a prayer in this very church that has become a universal source of grace to many people struggling with addiction. We call it the Pioneer Heroic Offering. But if we are to be true heroes and if our offering is to be acceptable before God we need to look to the future as well as celebrate the past. And there are signs of hope: not just the great work of the Pioneer Association in Ireland and beyond but also projects like ICAP, the Inter Church Addiction Project established by the main Christian Churches to seek proper provision in N. Ireland for young people recovering from addiction. Later in the year the Irish Bishops’ Drugs Initiative is being launched in our diocese enabling parishes, in partnership with other service providers, to develop a pastoral response to the reality of alcohol and drug abuse in our local communities.
Of course there are many alarming and sobering statistics available about the abuse of alcohol, the levels of underage and binge drinking, as well as attitudes to addiction in our so-called progressive society. But today is not a day for the bad news. I just want you to remember one statistic, the number one! Don’t forget that every one is important. And if through prayer, witness and example, you can save the life of one other person, that’s enough. Similarly if you believe in the power of one person to change the world for the better, then you also have to believe that that person could be you. There is absolutely no point in giving off about what other people are doing or not doing unless we’re willing to play your part. Otherwise we might just be in danger of hiding behind the blazer or the pin, sitting in our club houses while others drown in the sea of addiction.
Jesus came to save life and give us new life. If we want to share in that life we need to work together. So today as a Pioneer family let us be justly proud of our origins but not complacent about the way ahead or the task at hand. And may we so live as people of prayer, witness and sacrifice that future generations will know and believe we did care.