Homily preached at the National Celebration of the Year of Faith

9th May, 2013

Homily preached at the National Celebration of the Year of Faith

9TH MAY 2013



Salutations and Introduction
Your Grace, Most Rev. Dr. Edward T. Charles, Metropolitan Archbishop of Freetown;
Your Lordship Most Rev. Dr. Patrick Daniel Koroma, Bishop of Kenema and President of Conference. We salute and congratulate you on the recent national award;
Your Lordship Most Rev. Dr. Charles Campbell, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Bo, and how can we forget to congratulate you on the second anniversary of your Episcopal ordination which occurred two days ago. May the Risen Lord bless you with many, many more years of happy episcopal ministry;
Your Lordship Most Rev. Dr. Henry Aruna, Bishop of Makeni
Very Rev. Fr. Natale Paganelli, s.x., Apostolic Administrator, Diocese of Makeni
Dearly beloved brother priests,
Religious Sisters and Brothers
Traditional and Civil leaders
Invited dignitaries
Beloved holy people of God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:3)  

First and foremost, I would like to thank our Bishops for conceiving the idea of a national celebration of the Year of Faith. Without any doubt such a celebration bears witness to our common identity as Catholics. Secondly, it is an expression of our hunger for spiritual well-being. It is therefore my ardent hope and prayer that this event accomplishes its desired spiritual goal.

A few weeks ago I felt completely overwhelmed when Bishop Campbell asked me to preach at this Mass. Let me publicly register my thanks and gratitude for such a tremendous challenge, opportunity and at the same time a vote of confidence. My prayer today is that the Holy Spirit may use me as a worthy instrument to speak to the hearts of the people of God. Thank you Bishop Campbell.

The Catholic Diocese of Bo is hosting this unique event.  It is only proper that we  express our sincere thanks and appreciation of all your efforts. Thank you and God bless you.

Aside from the host diocese, the other three dioceses: Archdiocese of Freetown, Diocese of Makeni and the Diocese of Kenema all have worked very hard behind the scenes to make the day possible. To all of you, we say ‘thank you.’

As mentioned above, we are here on a national pilgrimage. So it is certainly not out of place to stand back a little bit and ask ourselves what a pilgrimage is. Pilgrimage is defined as “a journey to a holy place or shrine undertaken as a   spiritual quest to obtain supernatural help or as a form of penance for sins.” This is exactly what we are doing here today. We come to seek supernatural help on our journey of faith.
We also come to express penance for our sins.
Another reason why we are here is because each and every one of us has personal spiritual needs. And so at this point may I ask for silent reflection in our hearts and let each person gently lay before God his/her material and spiritual needs. I am quite aware that the appropriate time shall come in the liturgy for the Prayer of the Faithful, but let me avail of this opportunity to present you to the Risen Lord. Your love for God has brought you here today. I pray that almighty God continues to shower his blessings on each and every one of you. Please allow me to present a few petitions:
- For all your spiritual needs: that the Spirit whose outpouring we await may come to your aid
- For married couples: that their love for each other many increase day by day
- For single persons: that God help them find suitable partners
- For widows and widowers: that they may enjoy the support of God
- For orphans: that they may enjoy the providential care of God
- For pregnant women: that they may have safe delivery
- For all those looking for children: that they may be blessed with the fruit of the womb
- For our youth: that they may make the right choices in life
- For those out of job: that the right opportunities may be presented to them
- For our students: that they may apply themselves with commitment and honesty to their studies.
- For political and religious leaders: that they may lead according to the spirit of the Risen Lord
- For the sick among us: that they may experience the healing touch of the Risen Lord
- For our deceased priests, Catechists, relatives and friends: that God may bring them to eternal rest. 

Pilgrimage, as we know, has a long tradition in our religious history. Already by the first century Christian believers were making pilgrimages to venerate those places believed to have been sanctified by the life of Christ; the saints, martyrs, or by miracles. Those pilgrims went to beg for divine aid and to perform acts of penance and/or thanksgiving. Earliest documents of Christian pilgrimage link its origin to the veneration of places where Christ lived and of his tomb – the Holy Sepulcher. Later places of pilgrimage included those places hallowed by reason of repeated supernatural apparition.
Having given this little background, I shall now proceed to say a few words on the significance of the liturgical context of our celebration today. Next I shall reflect on the Year of Faith and some of the reasons why it is necessary in our national context. Following that I shall share some thoughts on the scripture reading for the day. Those then, are the three parts to my homily.

My dear friends, today as we know is the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. The celebration may be summed up in two words: mission and commission. It marks the end of Jesus’ earthly mission/ ministry but signals our call or commissioning to continue the ministry of Jesus in time and in space – that is until the end of time and to the ends of the earth. I shall reflect on the readings of the day a little later on.

The Solemnity of the Ascension, of course, is a reminder that we are in the Easter season.  It is important that the significance of having this event today during the Easter season is not lost on us. The Easter or Paschal mystery, in other words, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of our belief as Christians. St. Paul tells us that we would have been the most miserable of all peoples if Jesus had not risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us that the resurrection is “the core of Christianity, the bedrock of our faith, the power lever of our certainties, the great wind that blows away all fear and indecision, all doubt and human calculation.”

Why is Easter so important for us? The basic reason is that the event has vindicated our faith in Christ. Truth has triumphed over falsity, justice over injustice. You see, my dear friends, if one just stops with the events of Good Friday, what one finds is the triumph of falsity over truth, of injustice over justice, of evil of goodness. Jesus was charged of crimes he did not commit, and unjustly sentenced to a death he did not deserve. His good friend betrayed him, his trusted companions deserted him and his number one man denied him. If that were the end of the Jesus story it would indeed be a very, very, bad, sad and tragic story.

But the resurrection proved that death is not the end of the story. Jesus is raised from the dead in all his glory and majesty. He is vindicated. His enemies are shamed. The good news is that truth is immortal. We can suppress truth, accuse it of being a lie, condemn it, torture it, kill truth, bury it but the truth shall always rise again. My dear friends remember this fact: the truth can never be buried forever. Do not give up on the truth even when everyone else around you seems to be doing so. Truth will always be truth. What is just shall always be just. Right will always be right. Let us learn to believe in the Risen Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. That is what the Year of Faith is about.    

The other closely related reason why the Easter context is significant for our celebration is that starting with Easter Sunday itself and throughout the Easter season, the scripture readings at mass may be summed up in two words: proclamation and witness. This means that by word and works we are called as Christians to proclaim and witness to our belief in the resurrection of the Lord. We are called to witness to the fact that truth has triumphed over lies, life over death, justice over injustice.
The word “proclaim” is associated with others words such as:

Announce, declare, pronounce, make known, publish, advertise, broadcast.

The word “witness” also carries important meanings for us. Related words include:

Avow, confess, profess, declare, affirm, verify, confirm, prove, corroborate, validate

If one stops to think about it, it can be quite frightening, that we are called to declare and confirm the resurrection of Jesus by what we say and what we do. Easter then is about the past, present and the future. We were not eyewitness to the resurrection and so we get our information from the past. We look to the future with hope. The hope that assures us that like Jesus we too shall be raised from the dead. As we shall see, the Pope Emeritus declared this Year of the Faith to help us do these things: to proclaim and witness to the good news of the Risen Lord.

Now that we have looked at the context of our celebration, let us move on to look at the event itself: the Year of Faith. It was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who declared a Year of Faith which began on 11th October 2012 and concludes on 24th November 2013. This is not an unprecedented move. As a matter of fact at certain times in history of the Church, popes have called upon the faithful to dedicate themselves to deepening their understanding of a particular aspect of the faith. For instance, in 1967, Pope Paul VI announced a Year of the Faith commemorating the 19th centenary of the martyrdom of saints Peter and Paul. The 1967 Year of the Faith called upon the Church to recall the supreme act of witness by these two saints so that their martyrdom may inspire the present day Church to collectively and individually make a sincere profession of faith. The current Year of Faith, as we are aware, was proclaimed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council without a shadow of doubt was an epoch making  and spirit inspired event in the Church. Pope Emeritus was very clear in his mind about the purpose of the Year of Faith. It is a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the One Saviour of the world” (Porta Fidei 6). The pope Emeritus described this conversion as opening the “door of faith” (cf. Acts 14:27). The “door of faith” is opened at one’s baptism, but during this year Catholics are called to open it again, walk through it and rediscover and renew their relationship with Christ and his Church. Little wonder that the pope Emeritus situated the Synod on the New Evangelization (October 7-28 2012) at the beginning of the Year of Faith. The New Evangelization is first and foremost about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ; it is an invitation to deepen one’s relationship with Christ. It is also a call to each person to share his or her faith with others. The Year of Faith just like the New Evangelization calls Catholics to conversion in order to deepen their relationship with Christ and to share it with others.

It is often said that a pictures says a thousand words. Is there any surprise then that an official logo was designed for the Year of Faith? The logo tries to capture and communicate what the Year of Faith is all about. What do we find in the logo? We find a square with a border field around it. There is a boat, the sea, the sails, the sun and the IHS monogram. The boat represents the Church voyaging through the ocean of life on earth. The mainmast of the boat is a cross and its sails are formed from the monogram IHS, the first three letters of the Greek name Jesus. The background to the sails is the sun which, associated with the IHS refers also to the Eucharist. All in all, what one may learn from the logo is that the Church as she voyages on the ocean of life is open to the vicissitudes of life but she continues to draw direction and strength from her founder – the Lord Jesus Christ as the two thousand plus history has shown. We too are called to renew faith in the same Lord who is Lord of history.   

We have looked at the background to the Year of Faith. Furthermore, we have reflected on the New Evangelization which was strategically situated at the beginning of the Year of Faith. The message there is loud and clear: this is a summons to a deeper conversion and a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. I shall now share some reflections on why I think we need a Year of Faith and a New Evangelization urgently here in Sierra Leone. The Christian faith, properly understood, is not a mere assent to abstract truths. It is above all a call to establish a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. This is a relationship that is meant to affect, shape and direct the value system, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, ideas, behaviour, thoughts, in short, the whole life of the Christian believer.

Undoubtedly, when the Pope Benedict XVI declared the Year of the Faith this was precisely what he had in mind. The Year of the Faith is an opportunity for believers to allow the faith to influence their daily living at the individual, family and community levels. It is important to point this out because today there are social and cultural factors “profoundly affecting a person’s perception of self and the world, and consequently, a person’s way of believing in God.” Here are some of the areas that deserve our national attention:

Divorce Between Faith and Everyday Life
As mentioned above, faith is supposed to be a lived reality affecting our hopes, desires, actions and behaviour. It seems to me however, that there are certain key areas of life where the Christian message is excluded either consciously or otherwise. I have in mind here, for instance the whole area of politics. One of the things I found most disturbing about last year’s campaign prior to the elections, as far as I can remember, there was no explicit reference to Christian values as campaign platform. Politicians appealed to many other facets of life but none seemed to have consciously mobilized public opinion based on Christian values. Conversely, those who voted perhaps did so based on ethic, regional or party affiliation rather than on the basis of articulated Catholic Christian values or principles. Here we have a lot to learn from people such as Saint Thomas Moore whose faith took priority over political privileges and positions. He was bold enough to state publicly even as he was bring led to be killed that he was “the king’s good servant but God’s first.” The prayer that was composed for the Year of the faith has an interesting line where it appeals to the Spirit to “help humanity of our time to understand that that exclusion of God leads to being lost in the desert of the world and that only where faith enters, do dignity and liberty flourish and the whole society is built on justice.” The point here is clear as Vatican II has reminded us the lay faithful are called to saturate and renew the temporal sphere with gospel values – in the economic, political, recreational, educational, cultural, social and all other areas of life (Apostolicam Actuositatem –Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, 7). What we are saying her eis that secular development alone is not enough. We need spiritual and moral development.     

Relapse into Traditional Practices and Beliefs
Well researched studies such as the one written by Fr. Havyarimana1, a Jesuit priest have indicated that in moments of crisis, African Christians have the tendency to relapse into their traditional practices. In his words African Christians, “remain deeply attached to their ancestral religious practices and turn to them in the key stages of life and in times of crisis.”  Perhaps against that background we can understand when it is said that the faith is merely of social value as it attaches them to a group of believers or entitles them to certain considerations. What I am talking about here is where do people turn to in times of bereavement, loss of a very lucrative job, looking for a visa, unexplained illness, looking for promotion, childlessness, business goes bad, etc.  Where do Christians go when they are seeking election or appointment to an office? Sometimes we hear rather disturbing stories of what people do. What about the everyday events such as driving? Does our Christian faith show the way we react to those who cut before us?  I have composed a few neutral sayings to help me in such situations such as, “may Satan pee in your tea.”

An Oral Culture Versus Christian Spirituality
Ours is very much an oral society and culture. We like to talk. Everybody likes to talk at meetings. But it needs to be understood that silence is also a very important aspect of our lives.  Thomas Merton reminds us of the difference between life on the outside and life on the inside.

   Life on the outside: Life on the outside is frantic, distraught, overwhelmed, filled with too much activity. Such a person is in a state of “semi-attention,” “half-diluted consciousness.” Such a person is half-conscious to the sound of voices, music, traffic to all that goes on around him or her. The consciousness becomes half-diluted. We are neither fully present nor entirely absent, not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available (Loving and Living, 40).

Life on the inside: By contrast, life on the inside includes the following: quiet time, time without activity, time without words, time without people and silence. It is not time to escape from people but to enable us “work creatively, speak wisely, deal with people gently and compassionately.” Solitude is an essential ingredient of spirituality of interiority. Without some quiet time in our lives, any real interiority will quite simply be out of the question. Merton himself adds that, “Those who cannot be alone cannot find their true being and they are always something less than themselves” (The Signs of Jonas, 262)   Our liturgies are full of non- stop singing from start to finish. Any little silence is met with an anthem or something. There are pauses between the readings as it should be. The last word is hardly out of the preacher’s mouth when the Creed is intoned. Let us learn to observe conscious moments of silence in our worship.  

The importance and significance Merton attaches to silence should help us in our spiritual life. Among other things, here is what he has to say about the creativity and fruitfulness of silence:

Not only does silence give us a chance to understand ourselves better, to get a truer and more balanced perspective on our own lives in relation to the lives of others: silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps to draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence. It helps us to concentrate on a purpose that really corresponds not only to the deeper needs of our own being but also to God’s intentions for us (Loving and Living, 43).

Civil and Church Leadership

The area of leadership is one that also needs deepening of faith and New Evangelization. When I tried to unpack some of the constitutive elements of Mende understanding of leadership, I was amazed at how Christian it is and yet we seem to be moving from it. For Mende one who wants to be a chief or leader must have the following qualities: a people’s person, must be people centered (ngi gbeegor numu va), progressive (madihomo), custodian of customs and traditions, has a sense of responsibility (lihema mor) (cf 1 Tim : 3-7), has a sense of justice and rectitude, (numu lunya gor), reticence – be the last to speak. Is there something we as Christian ministers can learn from this list? What cultural values should Bishops look for in candidates for the priesthood? 

Excessive Narrow Mindedness
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus expanded the notion of neighbor. My neighbor is not just one with whom I share ethnicity, region or some similar variable. By contrast, for Jesus, neighbor is any person in need and deserves my attention. There is not a shadow of doubt that  a culture or society that starts to carefully calculate social relations  in terms of regional or ethnic affiliation urgently needs  new evangelization and a renewal of faith. For Jesus, there are no Jews or Gentiles, only the children of God. Let us learn to see each other as children of God. Did not Bishop Obiefuna remind his brother Bishops and the whole Church during the 1994 Synod that the waters of baptism should be thicker than blood? The lessons of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide are before us as a telling example of what this can lead to.      

Abuse of Political Power or Connections
Understood in its correct sense, political power is meant for the empowerment of peoples and not an instrument of intimidation. States and their institutions exist to attend to the welfare of their citizens. The state is there to solve conflicts, make decisions, and exercise social control. It is there to help the citizens realize their full potentials. The Catholic Church understands this very well and that is why over the years she has tried her best to augment the efforts of successive governments especially in the areas of education, health and development. It was in the same spirit that the Catholic Church willingly gave up her land for the construction of the national stadium. Every year the Catholic Church spends around twenty million leones in scholarships to university students and Milton Margai College of Education. One only wishes the magnanimity of the Catholic would be appreciated and reciprocated. Here is another area that we need new evangelization. For Jesus authority is for service not for domination (cf. Mt 20:20-28; Mark 10: 35-45)

New Age Churches
Jesus prayed for the unity of Christians (John 17:20-26) but unfortunately history has not borne witness to his prayers. Today we have all sorts of Christian sects. Some of them are doctrinally and theologically bankrupt. They have no organized body of teaching. Most of them spend their time criticizing the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. On Wednesday, 13th March 2013, Archbishop Palmer- Buckle of Accra told a BBC correspondent that some Catholics go in search of sensationalism. With time they come to realize that there is more to faith than dancing and looking forward to miracles. Those people return to the Church. 

In connection with the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the Conclave that elected his Successor, the media took a field day to look at the weaknesses in the Catholic Church. Even with that there are some who still see the value of the Church. For example someone pointed out on the BBC that the Catholic Church is still the biggest charitable organization in the world and the Church that provides much needed service through its various personnel. True, we do not specialize in end-of month mammoth rallies in urban centres, but our presence is felt in most villages throughout the country because of our schools and the pastoral work we do. Our witness is through the everyday little acts of caring such as done by the Missionaries of Charity, Don Bosco Fambul, Saint Vincent de Paul Society, etc. We look for the ordinary and not the extraordinary. Here is another area where we need new evangelization, namely, that people are able to see the Church at work in everyday events. Our Bishop here, from a Muslim background, through the help of the Catholic schools now has pastoral care of the new diocese of Bo. What other miracles do we need in the Church?

Pastoral Care of Youth
Recently, I had a very enlightening conversation with two young women I knew when I was Parish Priest in one of the parishes in Freetown. The two young university women used to come to Mass every morning and were evidently close to the Church. One of them was getting engaged a few weeks ago and she invited me to the event. At one point I mentioned to people around me how much the two young ladies loved the Catholic Church. Someone sitting next to me said, “well, you are going to be shocked to learn that both of them have left the Catholic Church and are now with a prominent evangelical Church here town. I could not contain myself but went to meet the ladies. The response was straight forward with no hesitation. They claimed that they left the Catholic Church because after Mass on Sundays it was mostly about socializing. There was very little they were learning about the Church. Now they feel quite enlightened. That is a challenge to us priests – what effective pastoral programs do we have in our parishes?  

A Society that Kills the Truth
Jesus is the only one who has ever made the claim: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and during his trial he told Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 19:37-38). My dear friends, it is plain to us that our Lord is on the side of the truth and all who desire the truth are on his side. Unfortunately, we know that lying is becoming so commonplace today in our society. People lie at the drop of a hat. You meet people in the street and straight away they want to get you in one way or the other. A society like that needs to hear the message of Jesus, namely, that people should strive to be on the side of truth. Sadly enough, some of our Catholics are among those killing truth. One Catholic in this town took money from me last December to do a piece of work for my mother and it has been a great challenge to get him deliver what he is supposed to do. He was very proud to introduce himself to me as a Catholic.
Selective Application of Justice 
Some of the things that are happening in this country leave one with the unmistakable feeling that justice is being selectively applied in our society. As most of us here may know, Fourah Bay College was opened in 1827 and among other things it was a Christian institution dedicated to the training of Christian teachers and ministers. For some strange reason, Fourah Bay College does not a chapel, such as Epiphany Chapel at Cuttington University in Liberia. It is against that background that last year the Catholic Community appealed to the university administration for a piece of land to construct a befitting chapel that will enhance the image of the whole college. The move was immediately hijacked and politicized. We were accused of land grabbing and when that did not fly, it said we were encroaching. That too did not get off the ground. Finally we were reported to the Environmental Protection Agency for trying to build in a catchment area. The Environmental Protection Agency of this country has accused us of committing massive deforestation. What is most heart-rendering about the whole thing is that the hill overlooking the Guma Dam in Regent has been systematically cleared away to make room for private homes. The dam has been left exposed. The effects are obvious. Over and above that people have encroached on our seminary land. That has failed to attract the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency of this country. God alone knows how many of the people who have systematically destroyed the environment around Regent had to obtain license such as we have been asked to do. And what is more every inch of the land is being sold seemingly  making no provisions for essential services such as schools, police, health centres, market, churches or mosques, etc.

The Thursday 14th March edition of NEWS 24 reporting an exclusive interview they conducted with the head of State, had this to say, “President Koroma called on Sierra Leoneans to be law-abiding and peaceful and stop playing politics with the development of the country.” That is our prayer – that people stop playing politics with development and religion. We have asked all Catholics to pray for justice to be done.  Jesus gave us a very encouraging parable in Luke 18: 1-8 about a widow who was seeking justice from a judge. Because she lacked means and the necessary connections, justice was delayed but she eventually got what she wanted because of her persistence. We too need to persist in prayer. Evangelization is needed for a Christian conscience in society. One of the most disturbing aspects of the episode is that Catholics who are in position to do something about the land affairs completely shy away from it. It leaves one with the feeling that this is a political hot potato. Why do we want to put the interests of individuals before national interest? An imposing chapel on the Fourah Bay College will be a bride not only to Catholics but to the whole college and even the nation.

As we gather today for the national pilgrimage, these are some of the areas I suggest we should consider seriously in terms of on-going nurturing of our faith and the vital interplay between faith and life. Let us now turn to some reflections on the scripture readings for the day as the final part of this homily.

As mentioned above, the Solemnity of the Ascension marks the end of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. At the same time it signals the beginning of the life of the Church. Both the first reading and the gospel give us St. Luke’s accounts of the Ascension of Jesus. There are a few clear lessons we learn from the readings:

Jesus entrusted his apostles with a very clear mission – the same he had received from the Father. They are to announce the Good News he had preached – forgiveness of sins.

He would send them the Holy Spirit for a double purpose: to enable them understand all what he had said and done and also to strengthen them witness in their own lives what they preach.

Jesus promised to be with them until the end of time.

What we have outlined here in these readings speak to us about the very nature, mission and purpose of the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us of this very vividly in an Apostolic Letter he issued on “The Service of Charity.” In that letter he stated, “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable).2 Stated differently, the Church is called to the ministry of word, worship and witness. That is what she exists for. From the earliest days of the Church as laid out in the Acts of the Apostles we find the Christians proclaiming the word of God with boldness, the met to break bread and the people were impressed with their witness (Acts 2:42-47).

The Church in Sierra Leone continues to do that. Every day the word of God is proclaimed in cities and small villages. On Sundays and in most places every day the Eucharist is celebrated in different communities. Individuals, Church organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul and Church institutions bear witness to the love of God. That explains why the Church runs hospitals, clinics, CARITAS offices and so forth.

Let us pray for each other that as we come together today as pilgrims, the same Spirit who energized those disciples may touch each one of us so that we may willingly share in the Church’s three-fold ministry of word, worship and witness in our own individual lives.
May God bless us all.    

1 Social Christianity, Indifference and Unbelief in Africa: A Plea for In-Depth Evangelization, Fr. Jean-Claude Havyarimana, SJ, (Institute de Theologie de la Copagnie de Jesus – ITCJ/Abidjan, Telema, No 2/10 July-December 2010.

2 Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Issued “MotuProprio” on The Service of Charity, Rome, 11 November 2012.