Dear friends, I must say that it is a very great joy to be here with you again at the third Invocation Festival at St Mary’s College, Oscott. But much more important, as I said last year, I have no doubt that it makes God, our loving Father, very happy to see so many of you, spending time in prayer and reflection about your response to his love. Please use this time well.
Thinking about this opportunity and about the time that you are sharing here, I would also like to tell you something about when I was young. A very clear memory for me is how often my mother told me not to waste time and to study hard. Although I must confess that I didn’t always do as she asked, I know that she was right and that what she said was important.
That lesson has stayed with me but I should like to suggest to you that, while working hard, I think that you should also deliberately waste a little time each day – time spent with God in prayer. Then you will come to know his love for you more deeply and even feel more free and confident in sharing it with all those persons you encounter.
I like to think that the reason that we are here is in order to celebrate the two greatest gifts that God has given us. Those gifts are the gift of life and the gift of love and, in this time of prayer and reflection, we have an opportunity, supported by the Church, to discover what our vocation in life is, or to put it another way, to discover how to live out God’s gift of love in the way that is best and right for us. I know that this year the Festival has a certain focus on the priesthood and it is particularly appropriate that we are able to venerate the “Heart of Saint Jean Vianney,” the Patron Saint of the diocesan clergy during this time, but, for all of us who are baptised, the vocation for which we are made has three dimensions.
First of all, there is the call to holiness which God makes to all Christians, and when that call is recognised, we find ourselves thinking about a particular state of life. This will be different for each and every one of us. It may be a calling to the priesthood or to marriage. Maybe God calls us to religious life or to the dedicated single life. We also find that we will have choices to make about our career and work. Each one of us is unique and the mixture of choices which we make, under God’s guidance and help, will be the particular vocation in life to which we as individuals are called.
The readings from scripture which we have heard today remind us that following the call of God will not always be easy. In the Gospel reading from Saint Mark, we see our Lord himself being rejected by the people of Nazareth, his home town. To all appearances, he is seen as a failure there. His neighbours were so sceptical that he could work no miracle there since, some faith, or at least goodwill and openness to his message were necessary for him. In Nazareth he failed to move the leaders of the people. He failed to attract the crowds and had to be content with his small band of disciples.
As we well know, even those closest to him did not always understand him and even they were all too prone to let him down. By the time of his Passion and death it may have seemed to him that he had truly wasted his whole life and lost everything except his Father’s love. Yet, paradoxically, it was this apparent failure which gave the Spirit of God opportunity and scope to work.
Perhaps at times, you have also had that experience of being misunderstood within your neighbourhood or even your own family. This Invocation Festival is a wonderful opportunity for you to seek out others who share your desire to know God’s will and who visibly remind you very clearly that you are not alone. None of us is alone when we know and love the Lord! Here too, during this festival, and perhaps when you are at home, in the small discernment groups and Samuel groups which are springing up around the country, it is possible to make the time, the space and especially the silence as members of the Body of Christ to help one another in listening for, and hearing God’s call, especially in the Holy Eucharist and during time spent in adoration of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
As we can see from the first reading, Jesus was not the only prophet to be despised and overlooked by his own people. The same warning was addressed to Ezekiel. It is as though contradiction is of the essence of a prophet’s ministry. In a way, perhaps we too share a little in the vocation to be prophets in our own day; for the call to a prophet is to look more profoundly into God’s view of things. He, or she, is to see more deeply than other people do. Prophets are called because people have become too comfortable and settled and in every age the Church needs prophets, just as society needs prophets, to be the voice of conscience and to enable God’s voice to be heard.
And so, we look into our own hearts, listening for that call which God is addressing to us. I am told that Cardinal Hume often used to say that, when God addresses us, through the sacraments, through his word in the scriptures and through other people, his call is rather like the gentle whisper in our ear from a loved one, and that his love for us is a love that we can trust in, even when we realise that, like Saint Paul, we are frail and imperfect.
As regards imperfection, over the centuries there has been much speculation about Saint Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and what it was, and it seems as if our empty curiosity will not be satisfied in this life, however, what is important is the lesson he learnt from it. For it taught the Apostle that success is not the priority. Failure can be more powerful if it brings us closer to Christ and helps us to be more fully aware of our reliance on his strength. This is not to say that failure is a good thing, rather that what is important in all the circumstances of our lives is our trust and reliance on the power of God, not on our own strength. For most of us this is a very difficult lesson to learn because our whole nature and the world in which we live expects us to always seek success.
Saint Jean Vianney can help us here. He was certainly not a success as a seminarian. As a priest he was given the least important parish in the diocese because he was not highly regarded, and yet, by his own personal holiness of life, he made Ars a centre of pilgrimage and a place where God’s love, especially in and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, was revealed anew. Perhaps we all need reminding that all that we have, life and love, our vocation, everything, is God’s gift, so our debt to him is limitless, but so too is his generosity.
To conclude, I should like, once again, to use an idea of Cardinal Hume’s, who regularly reminded his listeners that, although we are told that God can do everything, there is one thing which is impossible for God, and it is this. When I look down this beautiful College Chapel I see a crowd. I see all of you together. When God looks down at us he cannot see a crowd. He can only see individuals and just as he can only see individuals – so he can only love individuals”.
It is this love which gives us hope and it is the love that God has for us that will guide us and sustain us as we listen for that call, that loving whisper, which is uniquely addressed to us.
The Apostolic Nuncino, His Excellency the Most Reverend Antonio Mennini