Homily of Bishop Denis Nulty, Sunday 11th September 2022

The liturgical guideline for today suggests a shorter gospel might be read, the verses that covers the lost sheep and the lost coin but omit the lost son. The thinking behind this instruction is possibly because the Prodigal gets a prominence of its own during the season of Lent, when we are called to reflect on mercy and forgiveness. Mind you, I feel its relevance is larger than just a mercy story that finishes like some “happy ever after” narrative. There is mercy and much more in the Prodigal parable.

The honouring of a 150th anniversary is much more than bricks and mortar, stained glass and sacred vessels. The aforementioned Commemorative Booklet tells the story very well, and I’m not going to try to summarise it or emulate it, I’ll let the booklet, the work of Michael Brennan, Gerry O’Neill, Fr. Larry and others speak unfiltered to you the congregation. Once again I commend all involved in such a publication.

Three points worth noting for me is that faith in these parts goes back generations to the time of St. Patrick and St. Kieran. St. Joseph’s, Ballyfoyle is therefore no flash in the pan!

The actual dedication by Dr. Moran, Bishop of Ossory was on the feast of the Birthday of Our Lady, 8th September 1872, dedicated to St. Joseph on one of Our Lady’s feasts. It was the first church in Ossory dedicated to St. Joseph. Family is critical to this community and remains so.

The church is the focal point for people to gather in these parts. It’s the place where people of every generation feel at home.   

The Prodigal was on well on his journey home when the father recogised him in the far distance. There is no other gospel like the Prodigal to speak so candidly to us of losses and of wins, of light and shade. The Prodigal had lost a dad and the older brother, but won back the dad on his return. The older brother had lost his younger sibling as well as his dad. The dad lost both and won them back, at least some of the way with the older son. It’s often asked who was the saddest one to see the prodigal return – the Father? – the older brother? – or the fatted calf, perhaps the calf knew his days were over!

Our reading from the Book of Exodus shows the fickleness of the human condition – worshipping a molten calf. The older brother might be what we see when we look into the mirror. The older son does not know his father. And yet the father forgives both sons … I love that line to the older: “son, you are with me always and all I have is yours”. And then there is that sting … “this son of yours” uttered by the older brother but cancelled by that phrase: “your brother here. Trust and forgiveness are born out of a heart that has been melted by love, like the elder son we still have a long way to go.

So why didn’t the older brother join the refreshments celebrating the return of his prodigal brother? Jealousy? He resented him because he went away, swallowing up all that property and he equally resented him for coming home. He knew his Father’s heart was broken, he could tell, but he couldn’t bring himself around to share that brokeness. He missed the younger brother, and the more he missed him, the more exaggerated ‘his having a good time’ became, and all the while he was starved for food, for brotherly love, for fatherly forgiveness. He couldn’t join the celebrations, he couldn’t get around himself to go in, and in his hard cold heart he probably regretted it. We all have moments and events we regret.

My prayer as this sesquicentennial anniversary is marked at Ballyfoyle that we will allow God to find us, to know us and to love us. He is looking in the distance for each one of us, stop running the wrong direction, come home into the arms of a loving Father. It’s not just mercy, it’s recognition, it’s affirmation, it’s acceptance. This church dedicated to St. Joseph, every church in Ossory and Kildare & Leighlin are places where so many stories of homecoming are written every day. May they continue to be written and may we be brave enough to be part of that script. 

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