Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph, Rembrandt, 1656
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8 RSV-CE).
I was really struck by these words at the beginning of the first reading in today's Mass. Last week we were listening to parts of the moving story of how Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, was later reunited with them and their father Jacob when famine brought them to Egypt where, unknown to them, he had become governor. The descendants of Jacob, grandson of 'Abraham, our father in faith', as the Roman Canon describes him, became the Hebrew people, the Israelites, the Jewish people. The story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph is our story.
But 'there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph'. At Mass this morning I reminded the Sisters and aspirants of the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family that our faith is a gift, a gift that can be lost by an individual and by a whole community. When I entered the seminary in Ireland 50 years ago almost everyone went to Sunday Mass. The Columban seminary had nearly 200 students. It has long since closed, as have all but one of the country's seminaries. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has reminded us more that once that in the archdiocese only around 18 percent attend Sunday Mass and as few as 2 percent in some parishes.
Quebec was similar to Ireland in many ways, an almost totally Catholic society. About 95 percent of the people of Republic of Ireland and about 75 percent of the population of the whole of Ireland were Catholics 50 years ago. In the 1970s the Church in Quebec collapsed.It has taken somewhat longer in Ireland. A few years ago I was in Canada taking care of a small parish in Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, for the month of June. On CBC Radio, the national service, I heard a young woman who worked for the Province of Quebec being interviewed on Quebec's National Day, 24 June, the Birthday of St John the Baptist. The interviewer asked her to say something about the saint. All she could say was 'He's the patron of Quebec'. She knew nothing else about him.
Some of the Church's greatest bishops and theologians were from the flourishing Church in North Africa in the early centuries of Christianity. St Augustince (354-430) was perhaps the greatest of them. In less than 400 years after his death Islam had replaced Christianity in that whole area and has continued to be the dominant faith there. Apart from the Coptic Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, significant minorities in Egypt and Ethiopia, there are hardly any Christians in that vast territory. The Catholics of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, for example, are nearly all foreign workers, many from from such places as the Philippines and India.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
Now there arose a new generation in Quebec, in Ireland and throughout Europe, who did not know Jesus.
We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col 1:9-12).