The following is the homily delivered by the Diocesan Administrator, Mgr Joseph McGuinness, at the celebration of Eucharist in St Mary’s Church, Arney on Sunday evening, 23 September 2018. The Mass was the culmination of parish celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the church in 1868.
Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Ps. 53: 3-6,8; James 3: 16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
150 years ago, on 26 September 1868, the then Bishop of Clogher, James Donnelly, arrived here in Arney. He recorded in his diary that he was met by a Miss Maguire of the Model School who petitioned him to allow her to enter the Convent in Enniskillen. He was pleased to grant her request. Nobody has approached me so far this evening, but if there are any of you who are having similar thoughts to Miss Maguire, I will be happy to meet you after Mass! Bishop Donnelly had, of course, travelled to Arney to officiate at the dedication of the newly-built St Mary’s Church, this lovely building in which we stand today.
The ceremony took place the following day, 27 September 1868. Bishop Donnelly wrote:
“Dedication of St Mary’s, Sessia, Parish of Cleenish… Wet and cloudy morning. But large crowd after all; began dedication at 11 a.m. Fr. Sebastian, Passionist, preached; collection in all [came to] about £120; Bishop gave £7 to collection; then Ben. of B. Sac. by Bishop. Father Sebastian preached after low Mass from platform outside church. Dinner at 2.30. Bp proposed PP’s health.”
It was an event of the greatest significance in the history of this parish, witnessed to by the large crowd that gathered, not only inside the church, but also, as the Bishop noted, outside as well. What this reminds us is that, long before a church building ever exists, a church community is alive and thriving. The people of this area had been Christian for many centuries before the building of St Mary’s, and particularly in times of persecution, had kept the flame of faith alive and their Christian community had survived and thrived without churches, and often without priests.
In the Scripture readings of this evening’s Mass, we are brought back to the very beginnings of the Christian Church; in the Gospel, to Christ and his disciples, and in the letter of St James, to the earliest communities who lived out the message of Christ. In both cases we see clearly that the life of a Christian community isn’t always plain-sailing, sweetness and light. In the Gospel we find that, even in the very presence of Jesus himself, there was dissension, lack of understanding and competing self-interest. The same is apparent in the community of St James. But we know that, in spite of these failings and challenges, the disciples of Jesus went on to preach the Gospel fearlessly and that the Christian communities they created found their way through all their difficulties and continued to grow.
Since then, Christians everywhere have had to face the challenges of their own time and place. 150 years ago, in the wake both of Catholic Emancipation and the horror of the Famine, the people of this place had the spirit and resilience to create for themselves this beautiful place of worship. The building became a visible symbol of the faith which the people treasured and nurtured in this community. It says a great deal about the solidarity and generosity of heart of the people then, and of the generations who have cared for this church and worshipped in it.
In our own time, while we look back in admiration of what our forebears achieved, we too have to face very real challenges of our own, and find our own way through them. We have to deal with the reality of where we are, much as we would wish that things were different. I have, in my recent letters to the people of our Diocese, tried to explain this as clearly as possible. You will be only too keenly aware of how the necessity of meeting the challenges of our present situation has brought significant change to this parish and to parishes throughout our diocese. This can be a painful process, but it is also a call to explore new ways of living and ministering as a Christian community. In particular, it presents us with the challenge of developing the ministry of lay people, who, with formation and commitment, will help sustain and animate prayer and worship in all our churches.
In the Gospel, when Jesus becomes aware of the dissension and annoyance among his disciples, he asks them to look at things differently, to stop looking inward and to start looking outward, to see that their call is always to service and to sacrifice, and that they will only really understand this by looking to the example of Jesus himself. St James also has wise words to say about prayer that is not self-centred, but God-centred. Today, as throughout the history of our Church and the journey of our people, we are sustained by the knowledge that Christ is always with us, and that his Spirit always moves in our Church in a powerful and creative way.
Our gathering this evening celebrates the power and creativity of the faith community here in the Parish of Cleenish. We mark a great milestone on your journey of Christian faith. The story of that journey is a long one, going back to the fifth and sixth centuries. This holy and historic parish, which takes its name from a holy island on Lough Erne, is closely associated with other journeys too – that of St Sinell and especially St Columbanus, whose journeys through Europe led to evangelisation of a continent and brought the illumination of the faith at a critical moment in the history of both the church and Europe itself.
Here in Arney today, you justifiably, and with great pride, mark the foundation and dedication of this church and the important part that it has played in your lives over decades.
Churches are important to us; they are intimately connected with local communities and they are living places for the worship of God. It is my prayer and fervent hope that this church of St Mary will continue to be such a place long into the future.
I don’t know what became of Miss Maguire and her desire to follow a religious vocation. It may well be that she served the Lord faithfully as a good and holy sister, or perhaps things turned out differently and some of her descendants are sitting before me today! What is clear is that she had a strong sense of Christian vocation and witness to Christ. May that remind all of us of our own need to constantly renew our own Christian calling; we, as priests, and you, the people of Arney, Mullagdun and Holywell, as people called to draw others to Christ by your witness and service in this parish and in the world. Like the thousands who have worshipped in this holy place over the centuries, you have, as today’s psalm tells us, God for your help.
Through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother Mary, to whom this beautiful church is dedicated, as well as St Macartan, St Sinell, St Columbanus and all holy men and women, may God continue to bless you as you offer praise and thanks to Him in this place for many years to come.