Nearly forty years ago when I was ordained in Rosslare Harbour I remember having a real sense of being called to be a missioner. There was a fire in my heart and an enthusiasm in my bones to spread the Good News. I wondered how that fire would fare as the years went by; would it be sustained or would it begin to smoulder and eventually die out? Now with 39 years behind rather than before, and in spite of all the scandals, I can honestly say that with the passing of time it has grown stronger, to the extent that today there is still an even greater passion in my heart to spread the Gospel.
To do that I believe that we must use all means possible at our disposal and at the present time that includes social media. Most weeks three or four times more people tune in by such means to services and talks here than ever come to church. Our facility for live streaming where anyone in any part of the world armed with a computer can be part of what is happening in Lady’s Island is an amazing miracle of modern technology. The feedback indicates that it is greatly appreciated by so many that for a multitude of reasons can’t be here physically and that includes lots who are sick and housebound. There has always been a certain element of resistance to change before a certain practice becomes the norm. When amplifiers were first introduced people complained that they found it difficult to say their rosaries. Now we wouldn’t dream of not using a speaker system in church.
After Ordination I thought that I would have been appointed to what was then the Mission House in Enniscorthy and become part of a team giving retreats and missions around the country. Instead I ended up for a year in Cushinstown, where Fr Sean Devereux is at present, followed by 28 years in Kilmore Quay. I have often been asked was I ever drawn to the foreign missions as in Africa or South America and the answer was always a definite ‘no’. That could be because I tend to be a home bird who while he likes to fly also likes to return to his own territory. My territory has always been the south east coast that I love and even Oylegate was too far away from that for my liking. Another reason was that I have always had a mental block to learning a foreign language and the idea of spending a year or two in a language school before going on mission would be my worst nightmare.
However the Lord in his own way has made it possible to fulfill that missionary call. At this stage I have given retreats and seminars in nearly every county in Ireland, North and South. Also I have had quite a few in the UK and last Easter in Malta. My experience is that Ireland is now even more mission territory than darkest Africa and that for a younger generation coming along the faith is almost non-existent. This is where weddings can be an eye opener, twenty and thirty year olds find themselves in Church, and are completely at sea. They don’t know whether to stand or sit, have no idea of the responses and lack all sense or respect and reverence to the extent of talking loudly throughout as if they were in a bar. At one wedding recently a girl with a beautiful voice had been invited to sing at the end. I thought that after being so noisy throughout they would surely listen to one of their own age group. They just didn’t and the poor girl almost ended up in tears.
One of the truly great blessings for me being here in Our Lady’s Island, and why I like it so much, is that it is truly a missionary parish, in a way that is almost unique in Ireland. Most parishes are more about maintenance than mission where they try to keep the show on the road, keep buildings in reasonable order, but have little or no missionary outreach. Here we have a relatively small parish so identified with pilgrimage that it literally wouldn’t exist without it. At the start of every summer when most parishes are winding down or organizing field days we are gearing up for a huge influx of visitors who come for no other reason but to have their souls fed. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes for that feast of faith to take place but it is also an extraordinary opportunity and privilege to be able to lay on that feast.
To do so carries a sense of urgency and importance today like never before. In the past pilgrims probably treated coming here like an extra devotion and even in the area it may have been regarded as just another pilgrimage season to be got through. However the spiritual landscape has changed dramatically with more and more coming having lost what they once had and desperately seeking the renewal of faith that they need. So many arrive carrying burdens of pain, hurt and grief in their hearts and that needs attention before their faith can come alive again. This is why healing has to be our main focus because without being able to meet people where they are at on their journey, all talk will go over their heads and services will remain merely devotional. Again and again in the Gospel we hear that it was ‘after being healed’ he or she ‘got up and followed Jesus.’ Faith and discipleship only come after healing has happened.
This year we had a remarkable pilgrimage season where we were blessed with favorable weather throughout and our new facilities made all the difference for pilgrims. Working towards a gradual improvement of things and a continual striving for excellence all speak of beauty and beauty speaks of God. It’s so important that those who come here are made feel welcome, have a good experience and feel cared for. All those factors create the ambience for their faith to come alive, just as much as the teaching and healing that they receive here in Church.
You will be glad to hear that while money is never the focus accounts do give indications of whether we are on the right track and this year income seems to have increased by something like 80%. That would also indicate a huge increase in the number of pilgrims. The Coffee Shop has just about doubled, we can hardly keep up with the demand for shrine candles and collections during the pilgrimage rose from 10 thousand last year to 18 this year. That is truly a great tribute to all of you who gave so freely of their time and energy and shows that those who chose to be involved are no less missionaries than those who leave our shores to work in foreign lands. Nobody who lives here in Lady’s Island, or lives close by, need ever long for missionary experience, the opportunity is right here on our own doorstep.