Molly mentioned a couple of posts ago that I shared a reflection with the community gathered for our last ACE Mass in Dublin. I’d like to share that with you all now as part of our continuing process of preparing ourselves to take leave of this place:
When John and Elaine asked me to give this reflection, they suggested that I reflect on my experience in Ireland for the last two years, and what I’ve learned here that I hope to take with me into the future. It’s one of those topics that initially sounds easy because there’s so much to say about it, but then it turns out to be really hard because there’s so much to say about it. The experience of living abroad presents a huge number of blessings, many of which have come disguised as challenges, and it’s hard to know where to begin in reflecting on these. Fortunately, though, I found a little help when I read the gospel for today, the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This story of miraculous abundance rising from seemingly insignificant generosity seems to have a lot to do with what I’ve experienced here in Ireland.
I think that the biggest challenge for me in Ireland has been my constant suspicion that what I have to give is very often too little for the situation I’m encountering. Doing ministry in a parish in Ireland is very different from my past experience of doing ministry at Notre Dame. Now, some of the differences are differences between Ireland and the States, but many are simply the differences between university ministry and parish ministry. In university ministry at a place like Notre Dame, needs are somewhat easier to address because of the limited demographic. We deal entirely with young adults, many of whom are going through very similar parts of their journey, and many of whom are eager and proactive in finding new ways of living out their faith. Being a full-time minister in a parish, though, has been an entirely new experience. I’ve often found myself feeling like Philip and Andrew in the gospel we heard tonight. I look around at the needs within our parish—the children whose religious education, especially in the home, is often so lacking; the teenagers who have no idea what they’re missing by refusing to participate in the Church; the young adults whose interest in matters of faith is dulled because they’ve been poorly catechized; the parents who might like to understand better what their children are learning in preparation for the sacraments but don’t know who to ask about it; the older adults whose faith is deep and real but limited to a very narrow version of Christianity; and above all, the pervading sense that most people, no matter their age or situation in life, have no idea what an incredible thing they’ve been baptized into, and what they’ve been called to by that Baptism. I see these needs, and I, with Philip, can see clearly that “two hundred days’ wages would not be enough.” I think about what I have to offer in these situations, and I, with Andrew, say, “what good are these for so many?” The five loaves and two fishes that I might bring do not seem that they’ll ever be enough to feed the hungers that I’ve witnessed.
Just yesterday, we were giving a Confirmation retreat for one of the schools within our own parish, and I was again struck by this feeling that my loaves and fishes are not enough. I looked at the child in a wheelchair whose family recently found out that the disease is terminal, and I had no idea how I could offer him any reassurance that the faith he’s about to confirm is worth the effort. What could I give him? My loaves and fishes couldn’t possibly be enough. I looked at another child who I’ve seen wholeheartedly engage with her religious education but whose parents avoid the church like the plague, and I wondered how on earth I could help her overcome those at-home obstacles to her budding faith. What could I give her? My loaves and fishes couldn’t possibly be enough.
Unless, just maybe, they can be. Because at the end of the day, we’re not alone. When we feel we can’t make a difference, it might be tempting not to even try to offer what we have, but our five loaves and two fishes are never left to do all the work. The spirit of the Christ we see in this gospel, the Christ who works miracles of abundance, is with us still. When we do give what we can, when we make our contribution (however small it is), we are performing an act of trust. We trust that the Spirit of God, present, alive, and active among us, will take up our small generosities into the extravagantly generous life of God’s self. Now, this giving is on our part an exercise in humility. I’m sure that that boy who offered the literal loaves and fishes was very satisfied to see them put to such good use. We don’t often have the same luxury. Especially in educational settings, where we usually work with children for just a year at a time, we usually don’t get to even see the seeds we’ve sown, let alone what they’ll grow into.
But then there are those small moments of affirmation: the moment when a cab driver or the checkout girl at the supermarket, someone I’ve never met, spontaneously thanks us for our work in the parish. The moment when someone who hasn’t been very involved suddenly expresses interest in helping to coordinate this program or that retreat. The moment when our sixth-class children are writing down the people who have handed on the faith to them and I see over one girl’s shoulder that she’s written my name. And there’s the example of our own priests and parish sister and the many lay volunteers who assist with the day-to-day activities in the parish, those who have been giving from their loaves and fishes for years, despite the frustrations, and with confidence that their work is worth the trouble. So, although it has been a struggle to accept, and probably will continue to be a struggle for my remaining months here, the thing I’ve most learned in Ireland is a gentle trust in the larger plans of God. In whatever ministry I end up doing, I might not get to see all the ways my loaves and fishes are feeding people. But I hope to continue to grow into the generosity I have seen modeled here, because where our generosity meets the power of the Holy Spirit, there can always be abundance.