The disciples went back.

When St John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, he declared, at the Mass in Galway, ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you.’ One commentator has suggested that when Pope Francis addresses the crowds at Phoenix Park this afternoon he should ask ‘Young people of Ireland, where are you?’ In the last forty years we have seen the church lose its dominant place in Ireland, which was once one of the most Catholic of all countries. The church in Ireland has been rocked by scandals and abuse, and no longer occupies the place in Irish society that it once did. It has lost its position of trust; and trust, once lost, is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.

Jesus told his followers that they should follow the teaching but not the example of the scribes and Pharisees, because they did not practice what they preached. Anyone in any position of authority and responsibility, especially a religious one, must be careful to avoid hypocrisy and double standards.  

People lapse from religious practice for a variety of reasons. When people who have been coming for a long time stop attending, I wonder if there is a sense of relief not to be tied up with it anymore; or is there a sense of bereavement and loss, a feeling that something is missing in life? Is there a hole in their Sunday morning where Mass used to be? The Irish writer Seamus Heaney wrote about how he drifted away from faith, but a lingering respect persisted:

There was never a scene

When I had it out with myself or with another.

The loss occurred offstage.

Yet I cannot disrespect words like thanksgiving or host

Or even communion wafer.

They have an undying pallor and draw,

Like well water far down. ‘

Faith is a gift from God. Jesus talks about the Father enabling people to believe in him, the poor in spirit who know their need of God, who can perceive a spiritual hunger and need to fill it. Believing in God and following the gospel and his commandments is a difficult challenge. There are many 'hard sayings' that we may find hard to accept and put into practice.

In the reading from St John’s gospel today, many cannot take the teaching of Jesus. All this talk of him being the bread of life and such like are hard sayings, ‘who can take it they ask?’ and many desert him. His teaching would have been bewildering to many of his disciples. His address is delivered to those who would have made him king after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. They wanted a Messiah who served their worldly purposes. They wanted to conform him to their image rather than be transformed into him.

Joshua had called the bluff of the Israelites and given them the opportunity to choose gods that would suit their purposes. But, like the golden calf, they would have been just ephemeral human inventions. For once they remained faithful to the true God.

It is a beautiful moment when, amid the desertion, Jesus turns to his inner circle of disciples, and asks if they are going to leave him too. It is Peter, the rock on which Christ builds his church who plaintively replies, ‘where shall we go, who shall we go to?  You have the message of eternal life.’

Where would we go, if not to Jesus?  Would the Sunday papers, a lie-in, or the Archers Omnibus be enough?  Here in the gospel we have a standard by which to live our lives. We have an aspiration and an obligation. The difference between being religious and non-religious, is that the latter can do what they like, they can choose to do good, to do wrong or to do nothing, it is their choice. For the Christian, doing good is not a choice but a command, it is a divine imperative. It doesn’t mean that we are better people, but God’s law adds another dimension to our moral compass.  

When the disciples left Jesus, they not only went away, John says they went back. In his commentary on St John’s Gospel, William Temple writes, ‘when we depart from Christ, even for a time, we do not retain the level of spiritual life to which He had raised us; we begin at once to slip down.’ Just as he let those disciples go, he would let us go too, for there is no coercion with Christ, we follow him or leave him of our own free will.

There will always be scandals and wrongdoing in the church, it is inevitable because it is made up of human beings and we are all prone to sin. But weak human beings are what God chose to be the church, the body of Christ in this world. He made the church not of angels but of human beings. And so we soldier on.

All the evil and abuse in the church will never wipe out the truth of the teaching of Christ, just as all the good that the church does will ever totally confirm it.