Homily of Bishop Denis Nulty from the Bicentenary Celebration at Church of the Assumption, Ballyouskill
Bicentenary celebrations don’t fall out of thin air, they are built on the foundations of those who did the heavy lifting two hundred years ago, and more importantly those who continue to do the lifting, the carrying, the praying, the supporting in the intervening years. The Opening Hymn reminded us:
“We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us
They are saints and they are humans, they are angels, they are friends …”
Ballyouskill stands on the shoulders of a faith community that predates the 1820’s, I think of places like Attanagh and Rosconnell, the latter going back to the thirteenth century. The Ballyouskill environs had a strong tradition of Masses celebrated in secluded places such as Closavoutheen or the “Bog Pit” in the worst period of the Penal days. Huge personal sacrifices made, by those before us, to keep the flame of faith flickering in this sacred place now bedded into a parish where Kilkenny and Laois meet. Being dressed for action means different things to different people. For people of faith, it is living up to our baptismal calling. Our lamps were lit the day we were baptised.
Luke’s Gospel brings us the challenge of what is understood by being dressed for action. We know of Martha’s culinary skills in Bethany! We know of the two disciples at the Emmaus Supper table! But never before, like in this afternoon’s gospel, is the focus so keenly on ‘dress’, on ‘attire’, on what we might call ‘aprons’. I’m reliably told it’s impossible to buy a wrap-around apron today! Fashion trends have veered towards full length ‘around the neck’ styles.
Imagine being told that our God wears an apron! The returning Master of the gospel parable waits on his attentive servants. Roles are reversed, but then didn’t that happen before? At the Last Supper wasn’t another apron wrapped around someone’s waist as He washed the dusty sweaty feet of the disciples. Remember Pope Francis and that prison outside Rome, washing the feet of the inmates on Holy Thursday evenings. Actions always speak louder than words.
The gospel this afternoon invites us to “be dressed for action”. It’s not about having degrees or qualifications; being equipped with weapons or armour; or having enough money put by for a rainy day; but reaching out for that apron! When we wear the apron, we serve those around us.
In simple terms … the greater ones position, the greater the expectations, and the greater the accountability! Leadership in secular terms can be about power, success, popularity … justice and ethics are not always priority. Leadership in church terms as defined in Luke’s gospel suggests the leader is a humble servant – a faithful servant – someone who wears the apron.
An American Priest who was leaving a parish and moving into another and the parish he was leaving gave him a gift – it was an apron. His was a red apron, his name was written on top of it and in the middle were the initials of the parish. It represented his work of service to the people of the parish; his work that included the basin and towel; his work of being the servant leader in the community, in the parish.
My mother loved her apron, hers was a simple one that covered from the waist down – her only problem is too often she forgot to take it off her leaving home! Her Sunday best included often her apron! And what harm? An apron is also a clerical garment, better known as a ‘Gremial Veil’ – a cloth placed on the lap of a Bishop during the Rite of Anointing during sacramental moments especially Ordination.
My prayer and hope is that we will see a new stirring of vocations among the young people associated with this afternoon’s Ballyouskill celebration, in a sacred ground that has remained fertile for vocations over the past two hundred years – 21 priests, 7 religious sisters, 2 religious brothers including the founder of the Order of St. John of God, Brigid Clancy and a former Bishop of Ferns, James Staunton.
And while there will always be a need for priests and religious, the need is greater today for trained lay parish leaders (women & men) who are not afraid to wear the apron of service for their local community. And we wear that apron when we are dressed for action, living out the fullness of our baptismal calling. And this is of itself demanding: being truthful and forgiving, tolerating unkindness yet remaining kind, living in love. Unless we are dressed for action with our lamps lit, we are at nothing and we let down those who sacrificed so much over the years so that today we might have a sacred place like Ballyouskill to gather in and to celebrate.