This evening as a diocesan community we gather to mark the Golden, Ruby and Silver anniversaries of the ordination of six sons of this diocese. We do so in a spirit of genuine gratitude to God for the witness and the service given by these men over all these years. We do so also with thankfulness in our hearts to them. Their long years of service reflect three very important aspects of the Church’s mission; pastoral care, catholic education and missionary activity.
Our celebration this year is probably unique in that it marks the missionary outreach of this diocese in a special way. Fr Martin represents the many priests of this diocese who, over so many years, have worked abroad on the missions. He does so in his work in Southwark, New York and, for the past twenty five years, in his leading the Killala Diocesan Mission in Brazil. Fr Enda Kelly and Fr Michael Foody represent this commitment in a different way. Born in this diocese they have given their entire lives to the Missions as priests of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan and the Spiritans as they work in South America and in Africa.
Pope Francis underlined the importance of this missionary spirit in his address to World Mission Day 2016, just released. “The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which the Church is celebrating… invites us to consider the missio ad gentes as a great, immense work of mercy, both spiritual and material. All of us are invited to “go out” as missionary disciples, each generously offering their talents, creativity, wisdom and experience in order to bring the message of God’s tenderness and compassion to the entire human family. By virtue of the missionary mandate, the Church cares for those who do not know the Gospel, because she wants everyone to be saved and to experience the Lord’s love.” To our three missionaries and to all the women and men from this diocese who have shared in the missionary movement of the Church we say a sincere ‘thank you’.
Canon John George, in his work as Diocesan Catechist, laid the foundation for the modern catechetical movement in our diocese. He broke new ground in this diocese and indeed in the Irish Church when he went to London to study Catechetics in the 1970’s. He then spent many years as Diocesan Advisor in the Primary Schools of the diocese; up to the mid-90’s. As a member of the Salesian Congregation, Fr Michael Browne has dedicated his life to the Congregation whose charism is also that of education and his particular work has brought him into the area of caring for the sick.
Fr Michael Reilly, our Silver Jubilarian, needs no introduction for the quality of his pastoral care exercised during the past twenty five years, here in Ballina, in Crossmolina and in Belmullet.
Our Golden and Ruby Jubilarians have lived out their priesthood during a time of unprecedented change in the Church. Ordained in 1966 and 1976, they were educated during the heady years of and after the Second Vatican Council. Change was the order of the day, in seminaries as well as in each diocese. And with change came both uncertainty as well as new hope. Mass would no longer be said in Latin with the priest turning his back on the people. Con-celebration replaced High Mass and the rigid rubrics of the old liturgy gave way to a new manner of celebration. And some of the burning questions of fifty years ago remain some of the many issues of today. Our Jubilarians, therefore, have served the Church through a period of change which could not have been imagined or predicted when they entered seminary. This evening we have the opportunity to recognise and pay tribute to their generosity, courage, openness and steadfast loyalty.
Our Silver Jubilarians, on the other hand, have shared this experience but in a different way. They studied when the cold winds of scandal began to blow and were ordained when evidence of the great betrayal of trust had come to our notice. Their twenty five years of priestly service, therefore, have also seen a very great change, both in terms of the Church in Ireland, in which they grew up, and the Church on the missions, in which they spent their years of priestly service.
As our Jubilarians recall the past and look to the future, like the rest of us, they have a sense of gratitude as well as that of uncertainty; an uncertainty which echoes the words of the Scottish Anglican, Henry Francis Lyte; ‘change and decay in all around I see’ and their prayer is that of Lyte; ‘Oh, thou who changest not, abide with me’. However, Irish history teaches us repeatedly that times of great change and apparent decay are also the times of rebirth; the death of the old monastic system in Ireland in the eleventh century gave way to the birth of the diocesan system and the renewal of the twelfth century. The collapse of Catholic life in the sixteenth century gave way to the Counter Reformation and the destruction caused by the Penal Laws gave the impetus which eventually led to Emancipation. The re-birth of the Catholic tradition which followed, and which we have inherited, is now also waning only to give way, I believe, to a new expression of Christian service and life in an era yet to begin.
As I pass the Round Tower in Killala I sometimes think of what it must have been like to be the last monk to climb that old ladder and look out over Killala Bay and the surrounding countryside. As he looked west towards Lacken Strand, thoughts of St Patrick as a young boy minding sheep in the Wood of Foclaut, may have crossed his mind. Memories the glorious past which followed and which lead to a flourishing monastery in Killala must have filled him with nostalgia. The decline in the fortunes of the monastery must then have caused him regret. And during his time, the last decade of the eleventh century, since so very little was happening in the Irish Church, he must have felt that its death knell had been sounded. But no sooner had he popped his clogs and gone to God than the synods began, Cashel, Rathbrassil and Kells. Within fifty years the new monastic orders had begun to arrive from abroad and a new, flourishing era began. On a cold, grey December day in that Tower in Killala in 1090 he could not have imagined where the Spirit was leading the Church in Ireland at that time and neither can we do so now. Bishop Willie Walsh, in his recent book No Crusader, summed this up; “And yet I believe the Spirit of God is with us and leading us towards a more relevant model of Church”.
Recently Pope Francis met with the Parish Priest of the only Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip. The P.P. has one hundred and thirty six parishioners living among approximately two million Muslims. If at times we feel that we are fading presence in a new, secular Ireland; if we find it hard to see where the Lord is leading us, think of that old monk in Killala and think of that isolated Parish Priest in Gaza. The words addressed to him by the Pope could also be addressed to us: “It’s up to you to give witness to Jesus Christ there, in the land that saw him suffer, that saw him die, that also saw him, however, come back from the dead. So, be strong, have courage, keep going!”
The Church, in her so-called wisdom, has a tradition of recognising the saintliness of those who founded religious congregations or began particular initiatives in response to historic needs. She is much slower to recognise the sanctity and heroic virtue of those who work in the Church during times of great change or decline. In my opinion, the latter are often as deserving, if not more deserving, of canonisation than the former, for it takes great courage, commitment and patience to work in the Church during a period of unprecedented change and apparent decline. Tonight we recognise the difficulties faced by all priests in today’s world and today’s Church. And as we say a simple and sincere ‘thank you’ to our Jubilarians for the service given and yet to come, we also re-echo the words of the Pope to the Parish Priest of the Gaza Strip; “So, be strong, have courage, keep going!”
Oh, thou who changest not, abide with me’