Today’s happy occasion brings to mind a childhood memory of my late mother playing the accordion and singing that popular ballad The Homes of Donegal – it was, as we might say, her party piece! Coincidentally, the lyrics of that song were composed in 1955 by a certain Seán Mac Giolla Bhríde (Seán McBride) from The Rosses who was the principal of St Baithin’s National School in a place called St Johnston in East Donegal and who had the privilege of teaching the father and son here before us today, Bishop-elect Niall and his Dad.
Unlike my mother, unfortunately, I have not been blessed with charisms of a musical kind, so I have no intention of singing the said ballad. Let’s leave that for a different setting or occasion and to those competent in matters of song!
Anyhow, from one of those homes of Donegal, the Holy Father, Pope Francis has sent us a new Bishop in succession to Archbishop Dermot and, of course, to relieve Bishop Denis of his extraterritorial responsibilities which he has carried out with extraordinary dedication and relentless energy during the past two years. It is with great gratitude that we return him to the people of Kildare & Leighlin – hopefully intact – and it is with immense joy that we greet Bishop-elect Niall, along with his parents, Kathleen and Willie, his sisters, brother, extended family members, Bishop McGuckian and priests of the Diocese of Raphoe, and many friends from near and far – you are all heartily welcome.
Niall, we genuinely hope that the sentiments expressed in the first line of that song long-associated with your native county will not come to pass: ‘I just called in to see you all. I’ll only stay a while’. On the contrary, we hope that you will remain with us indefinitely, and that before too long the words of The Moon Behind The Hill, The Rose of Mooncoin, Lovely Laois, and The Offaly Rover will flow from your lips as melodiously as the Homes of Donegal. The second line of that song – ‘I want to see how you’re getting on, I want to see you smile’ – is indeed in keeping with our celebration today. It expresses sentiments of care and longing to see joy on people’s faces. A saintly lyricist, of nearly two millennia ago, articulated it in another way in writing to a fledgling community of believers: ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.’ (Philippians 4:4)
From the homes of Donegal to your new home of Ossory, you have travelled your own pilgrim path. Welcomed into the family of the Church at Baptism, marinated in the faith by your parents, formed by your local St Johnston community, your teachers at St Baithin’s and St Eunan’s, your formators in Maynooth and Rome, you come among us, soon to be ‘empowered with the governing Spirit to be poured out upon you’. (Rite of Episcopal Ordination: Prayer of Consecration) Along the pilgrimage of your life as son, brother, student, deacon, priest, educator, theologian and pastor, you have, in a myriad of ways and places, made a home in your heart for the Word of God, knowing full well how essential and necessary it is for those of us called to ministry in the Church to have Christ abide in us, always ready to open the door of our hearts as soon as he comes and knocks (Luke 12: 36), particularly when he knocks disguised as one of our sisters and brothers who will look to you to be a loving father, a courageous and, yet, gentle Shepherd.
T.S. Eliot wrote that ‘Home is where one starts from’. (Four Quartets “East Coker” pt. 5 (1940)). The Gospel passage from Matthew (Mt. 4:12-23) of this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, more recently designated by Pope Francis as Sunday of the Word of God, tells us that, after hearing the traumatic news that John had been arrested, Jesus went back home for a while. You could be forgiven for missing the reference to that homecoming. It is mentioned in passing, almost reluctantly as a throwaway remark with embarrassed tones: ‘Jesus went back to Galilee, and leaving Nazareth he went and settled in Capernaum’. (Mt. 4:12) We should never underestimate the influence of Nazareth on Jesus. His Nazareth experience, along with his testing time spent in the Desert and his Baptism in the River Jordan, form a trilogy of seminal experiences which prepared him for his mission of proclaiming the Reign of God. With solid assurance, he would start from home, and no better place for the divine to encounter humanity. It was there he was carried in Mary’s arms, there he went with her to bring water from the well, there he played, went to school, learned the Psalms and was brought to the Synagogue; there he learned from Joseph the value of work and mingled with his neighbours, sharing their daily struggles, their joys, hopes and aspirations. Nazareth was far from being a centre of power or wealth or a place that would make the front cover of the holiday brochures of the time. It was what we might call a melting pot, part of the Galilee region never considered a locus of religious purity. How can we forget the insulting remark of Nathaniel – ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46)
Obscure and mundane Nazareth, once described by St Charles de Foucauld as ‘the lowest place’, was not only the hometown of the Son of God, the Son of Mary and Joseph, it was the place that gave him his earthly identity. He was, and is, Jesus of Nazareth, ‘Christ in Eternity and Time’. (Rev. Dr Niall Coll: Four Courts Press 2001) Nazareth is everywhere, it is every marketplace, city, town and village, every hospital and nursing home, every school, college and workplace; it is every parish and every diocese, it is wherever Jesus makes his home and walks into the lives of people and laughs and cries with them, anointing them with love and compassion; it is where he takes the lowest place, and bends down to raise up sinners and writes with his finger “God does not condemn you” on their dusty hearts. Nazareth is where the ordinariness of everyday life is sanctified.
Niall, in a few moments you will resolve to sustain and guide the People of God with the priests and deacons who share your ministry and to pray for them without ceasing. You will resolve to show kindness and compassion to the poor and to strangers and all in need. You will resolve to seek out the sheep who stray and gather them into the fold. (Rite of Episcopal Ordination: Examination of the Candidate). So, let Ossory, our Nazareth, be your home and your starting point. As priests and bishops, it is when we walk with our sisters and brothers, encouraging them to persevere amidst the signs of the times, when we enter the places they call home, when we carry the Cross with them and rejoice with them as at harvest time (Is 9:3), we unveil the Reign of God that is already at hand.
As we acknowledge the formative role played by Nazareth in the life of Jesus, we must also come face to face with the darker side of the story: his rejection by the place he called home, the brow of the hill of that town foreshadowing the Hill of Calvary. Today, as in Jesus’ time, there is always the spectre of rejection. There are many challenges to be faced. For centuries, Ireland was a land that embraced the Gospel enthusiastically and, indeed, the mission of the Church. Your part of the country, and ours, once overflowed with saints like Adomnán (Eunan) and Baithin, Colmcille and Canice, Feargal and Fiacre, Kieran and Killian, and more recently, Blessed Edmund Rice, and this overflow spilled onto the shores of other lands. It is not so straightforward now. The light that shone so brightly in the Zebulun’s and Naphtali’s of Ireland has been flickering dimly for some time, and buffeted by the winds of change, has altered profoundly the relationship between God’s people and their priests and bishops. There are many well-rehearsed reasons for this – some we have inflicted on ourselves – and for which we can only ask forgiveness and proactively repent; some as a result of secularism and the erosion of values that accompany the growth of materialism. Today’s Second Reading from Paul to the Corinthians reminds us that this situation is not unique; the Church has always encountered difficulties and, from time to time, has been a landscape blighted by bitter disagreements. Sometimes Christ has been parcelled out (1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17) and when this happens, there is a vacuum which we tend to fill with the good news about ourselves which never really works out too well.
Coming face to face with these inherent frailties let us not be overwhelmed or disheartened. Let Christ Jesus be our Hope.
Jesus’ experience of rejection did not inhibit or deter him from carrying out the mission entrusted to him by the Father. Rather, his previously mentioned days in the desert, his Baptism, his Nazareth years became the springboard from which he launched Project Repentance in the Galilee region and from where he called Apostles to accompany him and to share in his mission. Jesus’ mission was not to be carried out alone: the Cross was not to be carried alone, the road to Calvary or the foot of the Cross were not devoid of at least a few offering comfort and consolation. Niall, you must never walk alone. I hope that we, the Baptised People of God, through our various vocations, will live up to our call to support you, to encourage you and carry you in your ministry. We hope that you will sustain us, with the gifts you have received from the Lord who has called you. Together, let us journey in Communion with Christ and one another, participating together in the life of the Church of Ossory, renewing our commitment to be people of Mission who go out to share the Joy of the Gospel with everyone we meet. (The theme of the Synod – For aSynodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission) May the Apostles and Saints, whom we will invoke shortly, accompany you and all of us as we embark on this new voyage.
Let me return to repentance and the Apostles for a moment. Today, this man whom God has chosen to provide for the needs of the Church of Ossory, has become one of the youngest brothers of Peter, Andrew, James and John who, despite their obvious human weaknesses, said ‘yes’ to the Lord’s invitation to follow him. Their ‘yes’ to the ‘call’ would enable Jesus to begin work on one of the great makeover jobs in history. Their ‘yes to the call’ was an enormous and significant act of repentance.
John the Baptist’s message was clearly about the kind of repentance that washed away sin. Jesus, on the other hand, gave a little added value to how we understand repentance. When He called Peter, Andrew, James and John and subsequently, the other Apostles, it meant changing direction for them and setting out on a new adventure, embracing God’s dream, leaving behind the security of family and friends, living the simplicity of Nazareth, falling short and being loved into getting back up again, trusting and hoping. And so we can say that true repentance means ‘not waiting until we are perfect to bear witness, but saying ‘yes’ now by witnessing to the beauty of the love that has looked upon us and lifted us up’. (Pope Francis Wednesday Audience 11.01.2023) When we abandon ourselves to him with a feeble yes, he will provide us with the necessary makeover and mould us into who he calls us to be.
Dear friends, please don’t go out of this Cathedral this evening and announce that the fellow who was preaching said that the new Bishop requires a makeover and needs to repent!! – I could come to the same end as our friend John the Baptist! By saying yes, willingly and consistently throughout his life, and now to being an Apostle, our soon- to-be new Bishop has already embarked on a pilgrimage of trust and hope and we pray earnestly that God, who has begun the good work in him, will bring it to fulfilment. (Rite of Episcopal Ordination: Examination of the Candidate)
The final part of today’s Gospel indicates that Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God involved teaching and proclaiming which were always accompanied by signs of God’slove. Niall, in the forty-two parishes of this Diocese, in the People of God gathered here today, in the People of God gathered in Croke Park today from Ballyhale and further afield, in the People of God from the peripheries to the centre, you will find signs that the Reign of God is present. Wherever faith is lived and handed on, wherever hope is shared and wherever the price of love is paid, you will find signs of God’s Reign. Wherever people’s faith has weakened, and yet the pilot light of faith has not been totally extinguished, God still Reigns. You will find other signs in the energy and giftedness of young people and in their searching for truth. They especially will need your encouragement to make a commitment, to take a chance on Jesus of Nazareth who can do wonderful makeovers and shape them into a new generation of witnesses for him.
The challenges and opportunities which lie ahead of you are formidable and exciting. Encounter Jesus of Nazareth each day in your prayer, in the Eucharist and in his Body, this local Church.
Listen carefully to his Word and to the voices of all the people, all the priests and all religious of your new home and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, discern the way forward.
I conclude with words spoken about a fellow county man of yours, called to follow Christ and to grow the reign of God many, many centuries ago – another one from the homes of Donegal – Colmcille. May they say of you as they said of him: ‘During his life….. he could not let even one hour pass that was not given to prayer or reading or writing or some other good work. Night and day he so unwearyingly gave himself to fasts and vigils that the burden of each single work seemed beyond the strength of man. Yet through all, he was loving to everyone, his holy face was always cheerful, and in his inmost heart he was happy with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. (Office of Readings for the Feast of St Colmcille: From the Life of Columba, by Adomnán).
Niall, as you begin your service as Bishop of Ossory, may your heart be like the mountains in the homes of Donegal!
Fr Kieran O’ Shea 22nd January 2023