Homily delivered by Dermot Byrne MHM at this year’s jubilee celebrations at Herbert House, Freshfield, U.K.
This year’s jubilees are a little odd. We’ve become used, over the last few years, to the idea that our senior members far outnumber our younger ones in this Region, and that is often reflected in the jubilees we celebrate. Last year we had a Golden and five Diamonds, the year before a Diamond, two Golden and a Ruby. This year, we have no Diamond, but two Golden, two Ruby and that rarest of things, a Silver.
It seems we are getting younger as time goes on. Of course, we are not. It’s only through the distorting prism of religious life that you can still be regarded as a mere boy after twenty-five years’ service. It’s not bad to think about that for a moment because in celebrating the Jubilees of particular Mill Hill Missionaries, inevitably we praise the work of the whole Society, and must pause for a moment to reflect on the idea of mission and our role in it
We’re all familiar, I suppose, with an expression that has often been used to characterise us Mill Hill Missionaries: the ‘rugged individual’. I remember an Assembly in Jinja in the early 1990s, where we were discussing the idea of sending African candidates to St Joseph’s College. Some members felt that this was too much of a culture shock, and they would be exposed to too many “strange old buggers” in the College.
Bishop Willigers jumped in here, and said that if any Ugandan candidates came from parishes run by Mill Hillers, they were already well acquainted with strange old buggers. He ended by expressing the hope that we might remain individuals, but become a little less rugged. Some hope.
If we look at the five jubilarians present here today, it is clear that Mill Hill Missionaries come in a variety of shapes, sizes, temperaments and indeed ruggedness. Between them, Liam Cummins, Tony Chantry, Frank Webster, Frank Graham and John Smith can boast two hundred and five years’ service in Kenya, the Congo, Cameroon, South Africa and the UK. That service has included pastoral care, administration, teaching, formation, leadership, construction, catechesis, mentoring and probably a host of other things that I don’t know about.
How do you celebrate that, or evaluate it?
I remember an edition of Millhilliana years ago, where one of our members was writing a reflection on his Golden or Diamond Jubilee: he actually attempted to calculate the number of baptisms he had performed, churches he had built, all sorts of stuff like that. It’s understandable that we take a statistical view of things on occasions like this. We like things that are quantifiable, because they prove somehow that we have been active and effective.
But we all know that what you do is not nearly as important as the way you do it and the reason why you do it. In our individuality, and in our widely different experience, it is not what we do that makes us the Mill Hill family, but how and why we do it.
Today, as we celebrate the jubilees of Liam, Tony, the two Franks and John, we have an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what these and other Mill Hill Missionaries have been able to do. It’s not a moment to sit and consider smugly how well we have done the job entrusted to us. Neither is it a moment to beat ourselves up about our failures. Simply, it’s a moment to ask ourselves how faithful we have been to our missionary commitment, how committed we still are to it, and how we can continue to advance it in our own lives, with all their limitations, but also in the lives of those we meet along the road.
It isn’t my job to tell you what to do, or where the future lies, but I can give you a simple piece of advice. Look carefully at, and treasure, the things that you can do, and recognise that they can make a vast difference in the lives of others. You may take those things for granted, but others do not, and others have felt the impact of them, long after you yourselves have forgotten them.
We celebrate these milestones in the context of the Eucharist. That is always significant, but in the last year, the Eucharist has become an even more precious and valued thing, as so many Christians have been deprived of it, or have had to experience it in very different ways.
In the Eucharist, Jesus, who spent His whole life giving Himself to others, performs an act of self-giving so complete and so remarkable that we can only say it is a mystery, a miracle and something that we could profitably spend our whole lives contemplating. We are used to the comfortable idea that we can receive this gift every day, and that it will make us holy, strengthen us and help us through the trials and difficulties of life. We like being passive recipients, because it makes things much easier for us.
Unfortunately for us, the Eucharist is not just a gift but a challenge as well. What Jesus has done; we also are called to do. As Christians, as missionaries, we are not just asked to give our time, our labour or our expertise: any hired worker can do that, and we all know what Jesus thought of hired workers. He asks us to follow Him by giving ourselves, as He gave Himself.
Christ gives Himself to be completely absorbed by others, until there seems to be nothing of Himself left; In fact, ideally, His gift should multiply itself. You are what you eat, they say. If we eat healthy food, we will be healthy. If we eat rubbish, we will be rubbish. And if we eat Christ, we may not become Christ, but we must surely become Christ-like, if we are open to the personal transformation that is the challenge of the Eucharist.
That transformation is the change from finding the giving of self an irksome burden to finding it a joy. From giving myself grudgingly to doing so wholeheartedly. From holding back and seeking something for myself, to giving the fullness of me. It’s the change from being a fallen, selfish human being, to being a fully-alive child of God.
The question for us today, as Christians celebrating the Eucharist, as missionaries celebrating years of achievement, as Mill Hill celebrating our colleagues and friends, is, do we respond appropriately to Christ’s gift, and do we then seek to make a similar gift of ourselves to others? I guess we all come before God and the community, aware of our own weakness and vulnerability, but trusting God and the community to help us persevere in the task to which we have all been called.
Liam, Tony, Frank, Frank and John, as you continue in that lifelong process, be assured of the prayers of everyone here today: may God reward, and where necessary forgive, what you have been; may He bless what you are; and may He guide you gently to what you will become.