Feast of St Paul’s shipwreck: The true storm
Today’s readings: Wisdom 14, 3-7; Acts 27, 16 - 28, 10; Mark 16, 15-20.
There are important and significant things in life which, repeated ad nauseam, risk becoming clichés and void of meaning. It is annually repeated over and over again on this solemn feast of St Paul’s shipwreck that we’ve been privileged to be one of the foremost countries to receive the Christian faith at such an early stage. Where true faith is concerned, it is always very difficult to speak of a point of no return.
The storm in today’s narrative from the Book of Acts is an event but also a powerful metaphor that opens our imagination for meaningful parallelisms. The narrative recounts the eventful storm that providentially paved the way for the inhabitants of this island to receive the first proclamation of the faith.
Today we can speak of a different but very true storm that is raging fiercely, this time not in the open seas but in our very life stories and within the boundaries of our communities and families. The first storm brought the faith to our ancestors. The second storm may at face value seem to be taking it away and demolishing whatever has given foundation to our identity as people.
These days many have been troubled debating statistics about the decline of church attendance and the twists under way where marriages and the family are concerned. For many, this may just be a clear and present sign of a loss of faith and the demise of religion. But we need to beware of simplistic readings of complex realities. Maybe this is only the sign of the decline of conventional Christianity rather than of a loss of faith.
Perhaps we do not need to worry about the decreasing numbers. What is now becoming more urgent than ever is that we gird ourselves to face the immense emptiness that will surely follow the crisis of institutional religion. Literary critic and philosopher George Steiner, in his book Nostalgia for the Absolute, writes that “Where there is a vacuum, new energies and surrogates arise”.
We need to take stock of the signs, as we read from St Mark’s gospel, that are accompanying our faith. If we are failing to bring healing to the world around us; to give back a soul to our country; to help people to really connect with themselves and be true seekers of what ultimately gives meaning to their lives, then I wonder what faith we are transmitting and which word we are proclaiming.
Looking back, as a people we have quite a long history of loyalty to the faith received. Now our society, like any other Western and modern society, no longer sticks homogeneously to one faith and to one set of values. This may be destabilising for many and it brings discomfort to others. But we cannot live outside our times or in denial. Even religion and faith evolve and cannot be perpetuated as if frozen in time.
The book of Wisdom in the first reading speaks of right discernment in our analysis of what impacts us most. God can open for us “a safe way over the waves”. “The hope of the world took refuge on a raft,” says Wisdom, “and steered by your hand, preserved the seed of a new generation for the ages to come”.
Our challenge ahead is “to preserve the seed”, not the tree, and wisely to steer our way in the face of the social and moral maze we are in today. The challenge is not to preserve religion as a relic of the past but the seed that guarantees the survival of the Christian faith.
In Acts, St Paul stood up on the ship in troubled waters, and with a strong sense of prophecy gave those around him the sense of reassurance when that was most needed. The times we are in demand of us to be men and women of hope, not to be prophets of doom, and to come to a clear and discerned reading of what is mostly impacting our faith and what can keep rejuvenating it.