Bicentenary of St. Mary’s Church
12 December 2010
My brother priests, and parishioners of Kilmore and Drumsnat, good afternoon to you all. It is a great honour and joy for me to come here to lead you in this Eucharist, the Bicentenary Mass of your beloved Church, St. Mary’s. I welcome my fellow priests, the priests who now serve the parish, those who are natives, and others who have served you in the past or have different bonds with you. I know you appreciate that they made the time and adjustments to be with you for your celebrations. We all appreciate the honour our President Mary McAleese conferred on you by sending a congratulatory message. Your Pastoral Council has been busy and did not come back to shore with empty nets. I compliment them on the splendid booklet put together for the occasion. The Mass is a Votive Mass of Thanksgiving, an appropriate choice. Because we are gathered together to give thanks to God. For two hundred years, He has been present to your community in a special way in this Church. For two hundred years, you have been bringing your children here to be received into the Church, and it has been the final stop for your people on the way to laying their bodies to rest in the cemetery. In between, it was where you came to ask God to bless your marriages, a place of forgiveness, a place of communication with God and where you were nourished by His word and His love at the table of the Eucharist. To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Eucharist let us ask forgiveness for our sins.
Bicentenary of St. Mary’s Church
12 December 2010
My dear friends,
About thirty five years ago, I was a young priest working in St. Macartan’s College. During the summer holidays, I had arranged to go camping in Scandinavia with an anglican friend from Scotland. I had met and become friendly with him while studying in France the previous Summer. I travelled over to Dumfries to join him.
When I arrived, he told me “we’re going to Arbroath this evening; a friend of mine is going to be installed as Rector of the Parish”. We set out on the two hour journey and on the way he told me the previous rector of the parish had committed suicide and that understandably the parishioners were in something of a heap.
The Church in Arbroath was almost full. After the initial singing and Scripture reading, the Bishop went to the pulpit. He was an old man, a warm-hearted man with plenty of life in his voice and was not afraid to look the congregation in the eye. He quoted from a well-known economist of a previous century who wrote “there is a lot of ruin in a nation.” I did not know at first what he meant but over the next twenty minutes he tried to persuade the parishioners that the human body, individual or collective, can withstand a huge amount of damage and heal itself. When he finished I found myself thinking “good on you, you have spoken well and you have done a great service to these who are down at heart.”
The professionals and experts tell us we, as a nation, have extremely serious economic problems. Young marrieds carrying heavy mortgages, people with responsibilities knowing that their job is precarious, young people not able to find work, people on the dole queue, families trying to make Christmas look like a time of plenty; none of these groups would disagree with the professionals and experts.
Is it time for us to find our way back to the House of God and join Solomon in his request ‘Listen to the prayer that your servant will offer in this place’? Do we need to, as St. Paul urges the Colossians, “put on love. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it is for this you were called together as parts of one body”? As a nation, we survived the ruin of the famine, which came many years after St. Mary’s Church was built. If we are willing to make sacrifices, to care for and support one another, to love each other to the point that we are willing to lay down our life for one another, as the gospel challenges us to, then surely God will lead us to a more promising place.
Since the famine and the civil war, one of the most destructive forces in our people’s lives was child sexual abuse. Even though it happened within families it was a hidden evil, not spoken about publicly, more at home in darkness. Sadly, it smeared and disfigured the face of the church. There were priests and religious who allowed this evil to take over their own lives and they betrayed the trust of the people and the trust of God. In abusing children, they brought ruin to lives, making it difficult for others to live with themselves, to relate in the way they wanted to with their families, the community and with God. It is a shameful part of our story and even sadder than the day in February 1924 when St. Mary’s Church was burned down to the ground; the fire tragedy, we’re told, was accidental.
Those who were damaged by abuse are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Only those who suffered abuse know the destruction it brings. None of the rest of us have any expertise in dealing with the poison it causes. All most of us can do is to offer the human support, care and affection that we try to offer to any of our brothers and sisters who are in pain. We can also offer whatever services are possible and available to assist in healing and rehabilitation.
As a society and as a Church we are now facing up better to our responsibilities in dealing with this evil and in safeguarding our children. The role of the forces of law and of the health services is more fully respected and used and we are all more aware of our duty of vigilance and care. Training is provided and we are all resolved to shape a society in which this evil has as little chance as possible to see the light of day.
A lot of healing has taken place. Individuals who were abused have shown tremendous courage and resilience. Many have been helped enormously by the understanding and love of family and friends. Many others are still finding it difficult to cope with and to find an antidote to the poison unleashed. Solomon cried to God ‘hear, and as you hear, forgive.’ St. Paul says to the Colossians “The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same.” Jesus himself witnessed for us to the highest form of forgiveness on the cross. Difficult as it is, and understandably impossible for some, the more we can forgive the better we can leave things behind and move on. God has assured us that he will be the judge.
My dear parishioners of Kilmore and Drumsnat, you will appreciate it has been difficult for me to raise these issues with you and I know it has been difficult for you to listen and engage with them on a day of thanksgiving, joy and celebration. But we have to face what is part of our story just as parishioners must have spilled tears on the ashes of the devastated and burnt out St. Mary’s Church in February 1924. “There is a lot of ruin in a nation”, the Anglican Bishop reminded his congregation.
Our opening hymn said,
The people in darkness,
have seen a great light,
The Lord of all longing
has conquered the night.
Let us build the city of God,
may our hearts be turned into dancing.
For the Lord our light and our love,
has turned the night into day.
St. Mary’s Church has been rebuilt from the ashes. It has been enhanced, renovated and redecorated. The cemetery has been extended and improved. You have two fine priests who serve you faithfully and generously. You have active lay involvement in the pastoral administration of your parish. You have had the blessing of being guided and having your lives enriched by members of your own families who have lived in God’s love and shared that grace with you. Your families’ lives were shaped in your homes, your community was formed in a special way in St. Mary’s Church.
You have every reason to celebrate to-day and give thanks for the past and the present and to look forward to the future with confidence. “Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you.” Continue to cherish this House of God as you have always done. In your conversation and relationship with Him let God’s love grace your life and enrich the lives of your children. If you do, you will bear much fruit, fruit that will last. St. Mary’s Church will continue to be a place of guidance, forgiveness, healing, welcome and comfort. You who are fed at this table will be the living stones of God’s love. May God bring healing and may He bless you, your children, your community and your Church.