The first reading today begins with the words ‘In the year of King Uzziahs death I saw the Lord.’ Uzziah was one of the great kings of Israel. His reign lasted for forty years and had brought prosperity, peace and stability to the country. His death would have been considered a national disaster that heralded in a period of change and insecurity. Yet it was in precisely this time that the Prophet Isaiah received his call to be a prophet. When the Lord asked, ‘Whom shall I send? He was ready to answer, ‘Send me.’ That’s the historical bit, but where does it relate to our lives? A time of change is also a time of crisis and a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity. Some wit said during our recent economic recession, ‘What a shame if we were to waste such a good crisis!’ In our Church and in our parish we are right in the middle of a time of change. The big issue is what the Lord may be saying to us at such a time of transition.
Then when it comes to our current Church crisis there is an undeclared and ever widening schism between two very different sides. There are those who want to restore things to the way they were and those who are willing to explore new possibilities and find new ways of being church and worshipping as a christian community. One group want to move backward while the other is willing to move forward. It would seem that the more conservative element want things to be the way they were fifty years ago and are not prepared to critically evaluate all that was rotten at the core beneath the veneer of packed churches, regular devotions and unquestioned loyalty to Rome. The abuses we have heard so much about in recent times relate much more to that time than to the present.
I have never heard anyone describe me as conservative and traditional kind of priest while at heart I believe that I am. My goal would be to conserve all that is true and beautiful about the essence of Christianity. My traditionalism would hanker back not to what was happening 100 years ago that just didn’t work but to what did work in the early church and gave rise to huge level of transformation and excitement. Having grown up in that old style religion, that some still hanker after, I quite frankly saw little that I would class as good news and want to shout from the rooftops.
Then when it comes closer to home and to our own time of transition, what excites me greatly from listening to people here is that the vast majority are so forward thinking and not remotely interested in going backwards. So far I have met very little traditionalism and in comparison with most other parishes that would be quite rare. This is where we can all in our own way play our part and discover our vocation to bring to birth a new and wonderful vision of church that truly meets the needs of people and in a language that is suitable for today.
Peple talk about the obvious shortage of priests and threre’s a part of me wants to say that there is no shortage. There is only a shortage of ordained celibates. Everyone who has been baptised was annointed to be a priest and that dimension of priesthood and the call to serve has been held bound under the dead hand of clericalism for far too long. At institutional level when clergy come together to discuss the shortage and how best to deal with declining numbers the discussion never gets beyond reducing the number of masses and helping each other out. I have yet to hear anything about empowering the laity to take on what is their rightful role. The stark reality is that if a parish becomes vacant and no replacement priest is available, if the people have not already been prepared and used to taking services then that church will simple have to close its doors. That is happening in many areas and that is what will happen and there is no alternative. This current so called vocations crisis is also a wonderful opportunity for lay people to step up to the mark and take their rightful place.
That Gospel I have just read sheds a lot of light on where we might be at this present time. The apostles were experienced and seasoned fishermen. They knew how it should be done and they had been doing it for years. Yet they came to a stage where it was no longer working. They had fished all night and caught nothing but weed in their nets. Along comes Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth who supposedly knew nothing about fishing and he says to them to throw out the nets on the other side. To do so was not just to forsake their experience but to put the pride in their pockets. It was daylight and in those days they didn’t have monofilement nets. The fish could only be caught in the dark when they would’nt see the coarse nets. Yet when they obeyed they hauled in so many that they believed it to be miraculous.
How could we apply this timeless story to our time and to our experience of Church today. We have probably known more churchianity than christianity and more religious practice than genuine experience of our faith. Without wishing to be irreverent, the faith that you and I grew up with had a rocking horse element. There was the practice element but while there was lots of movement there was little or no forward movement. By that I mean that people were not being changed by what they were hearing, lives were not being transformed, people were coming out from church no different than when they went in. Commitment and sincerity were there in abundance but by and large it was a spectator sport where by virtue of attendance you clocked up brownie points and the more you gained the further up the ladder of salvation you went. This gave rise to the mentality of getting mass rather than beiing of service in the local community that is the Body of Christ. In a way it was a religious practice that could be too easily divorced from life. Like the traveller I asked one time if he told many lies. ‘Never tell lies father but business is business’. What we did on Sunday was one thing but what we did on monday was quite another.
Something else that saddens me greatly was that the religious practice that we grew up with did’nt help people deal with the painful realities of their lives. As long as you were in the state of grace and your soul was going to Heaven then it didn’t matter if you were going through hell in your personal life. The result was that so many unfortunate souls carried huge burdens of hurt and resolved grief for so much of their lives and even to their graves.
So to conclude. Like the apostles we have been part of how it has been done and most would have to admit that it is no longer working. Perhaps the Lord is calling for a bit of courage, fresh thinking and openness to change. Could he be saying throw out your nets on the other side, so for me as an individual and for us as a community what might that mean? To find the answer to that, is to open the door to the miraculous.