Homily of Bishop Denis Nulty at the Mass to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the St John of God Sisters
The backdrop of a global pandemic and a war and its implications in all our lives seems strangely fitting as we mark the 150th celebration of the St. John of God’s as you are affectionately known. Founded in Wexford in 1871, the Sisters have always put themselves in dangerous and unknown circumstances to care for the sick and the injured. It’s what you naturally and seamlessly do and now is no different than the world you were founded in by Mother Visitation Clancy, a native of Durrow. Your ministry, your presence, your witness is as necessary today as it was 150 years ago.
So many religious congregations have roots in the sacred fields of Ossory. I think of the gathering held for religious in St. Kieran’s College last November where I referenced Edmund Ignatius Rice, a native of Westcourt, Callan, the founder of the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers; Margaret Aylward, a native of Mullinavat, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Faith and Bishop Daniel Delany, native of Paddock in Castletown, founder of the Brigidine Sisters and Patrician Brothers, with a huge presence in my own Kildare & Leighlin. All in addition to the already mentioned Sr. Visitation Clancy the foundress of your Congregation coming from Ballyouskill in Ballyragget parish. It is so appropriate to honour the contribution of the St. John of God’s here to Ossory and indeed also to Kildare & Leighlin where you had a huge presence in Kildare, Naas and continue that presence in Edenderry.
Here in Ossory that presence centred very much in the city in the Aut Even hospital, in St. Kieran’s College, in St. John of God Primary School and at the frontline of Social Services outreaching across the diocese. Parish presences were strong in Owning, Rathdowney, Thomastown and Castlecomer and in many cases remain so. In Kildare & Leighlin the Sisters are very well remembered for their pioneering work in the hospitals and in parish ministry. Sr. Senan Avenue in Edenderry is named after Sr. Senan Hayes who spent over sixty years there.
The seed planted has indeed borne a great harvest. Matthews text of the parable of the sower gives us a super platform to understand and appreciate the contribution of the St. John of God Sisters on this their sesquicentennial year. Bishop Furlong of Ferns saw the arrival of the mission of the congregation as caring for a people who were decimated materially and spiritually after the ravages of An Ghorta Mhór. Before ever a seed is sown, it must be carried into the field by the sower.
Just for a moment I want to reflect on that notion of ‘carrying’. The arresting photograph of the wooden figure of the crucified Christ being carried from the Armenian Cathedral to a bunker in Lviv to keep it safe from bombardment has stayed with me. In the bunker Christ the suffering servant would be among his suffering people. The last time this fifteenth century sculpture which is part of the so-called ‘Wooden Altar of Golgotha’ was removed from the Cathedral was during World War II. It reminded me of a similarly arresting photograph of the first victim of 9/11, Fr. Mychal Judge being carried by the fire fighters from the burning twin towers. And this morning’s photograph, across many media platforms of the heavily pregnant mother being carried from the wreckage of the Maternity Hospital in Mariupol. Carrying is a sacred moment. Your ministry in the making of communion hosts touched every parish in Ossory. In pandemic times we receive on the hands and carry Jesus for a moment before He carries us in receiving. As in life we must carry something, before we have the opportunity to lay it down. And often we are carried when we are unable to move ourselves.
The St. John of God Sisters for 150 years have carried the people of Ossory in parish ministry, in healing ministry, in outreach ministry. And that carrying continues. When we carry someone we are in touch with them in their deepest pain. The power of touch. As nurses, as carers, as people of God we use the power of touch and this is something we have hugely missed throughout the pandemic. The mothers cold hand on the forehead of her sick child. The consoling nature of the hand holding. I remember my mother in her later years wanting me to hold her hand in some kind of reassuring gesture when we might be doing chores in the town. We all know the power of the elbow touch during Covid or the consoling squeeze of a shoulder after a match that should have been won is lost. Touch expresses much more than words.
You, the Sisters of St. John of God, have been the ones who did the ‘carrying’ over the 150 years. You are the ones with whose origin goes back to the foot of the Cross and even to Golgotha. I was interested to see that the wooden figure of the crucified Christ consigned now to an obscure bunker in Lviv, is actually part of something much larger in the Armenian Cathedral in Lviv, something was still under restoration. Maybe our lives as priests and religious, as Bishop and people is always under restoration. We are never the finished article, there is always work to be done, people to be carried. The words of the song ‘Lay your hands gently upon us’ comes to mind.
Lay your hands gently upon us,
Let their touch render your peace.
Let them bring your forgiveness and healing,
Lay your hands gently, lay your lands.