Pastoral Letter from Dr Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns on the Visit of the Relics of St Therese
19 April 2001
As the relics of St. Therese depart our diocese on its journey around Ireland, I write to thank all who walked with us during these past few days of grace and hope. A very special ‘Thank You’ to my brother priests and their co-workers who have worked so hard to prepare for this great spiritual happening in the life of our people. I can only compare it to a wonderful retreat for the tens of thousands who came to reverence the relics at the major venues as well as at innumerable crossroads throughout the length and breadth of the diocese. This time around it was our hearts that were dancing at the crossroads.
The turnout far exceeded our expectations. We estimate that more than 75,000 took part in the event. If these numbers are repeated in other dioceses – and I can see no reason why they won’t be – we will have to revise our figures for the visit upwards from 1 million to close to that twice that number. This is a truly remarkable figure. I have no explanation to offer for it other than to suggest the great hunger for the spiritual in so many hearts.
At all venues where the relics were venerated there was an air of calm and peace. People waited in great patience for the various events. Churches were filled throughout the night. Hearts were opened, stories told, and experiences shared. Everything was done with great dignity. “Decency” and “wholesomeness” are two words that come to mind in trying to describe the visit. There was no hysteria. If any miracles were sought, they were sought in the great and profound silence that prevailed. Heart was truly talking to heart on this occasion, the human heart to the heart of God and vice versa.
Liam Griffin said some years ago that prayer is what your granny did! Well maybe grannies were right all along! Most things grow old, but we sensed during these days that prayer and faith and genuine saints and, above all, true love are forever young. We have learned something about who we are, and that faith is an integral part of what we are. Faith that we could have lost and nearly did. We learned, too, that this same faith is a much hardier plant than many of us thought, and that it cannot be simply reduced to, or equated with, religious practice.
St. Therese served throughout as a focal point. This saint remains one of the truly great icons of God’s love and mercy, and like all icons she points away from herself to God. Her essential message is not about herself, nor even about her immense love of God, but about the wonder of a God who loves each and every one of us, Catholic and Protestant, believer and unbeliever, saint and sinner with a great and eternal love that can never be merited, need never be earned, because it has already been merited and earned by Jesus Christ at the price of his very life. Therese was a child prodigy, a prodigy of the Spirit, who realised, like very few others in the history of humankind, that God is love and can only be reached by loving.
Those who worry – and there are many – that the visit of the relics of St. Therese is some kind of going backwards to discover “an old time religion”, a world that has passed away, need have no concern. They should be convinced that love is never backward but urges us forever forward. “The love of Christ impels us!”
In a similar way, those Catholics who are rightly sensitive to the feelings of fellow Christians of other traditions and who fear that this visit will not help ecumenism on this island, should comfort themselves with the truth that the greatest of all ecumenism is an ecumenism of the heart, an ecumenism of love of which Christ spoke on the last
night of his life and for which he was to die on the morrow. Where there is love, all that divides will be overcome. Where there is no love, the slightest disagreement will become a stumbling block to unity.
What of the need for a follow up to this event? I suspect that the only follow-up worthy of the past few days was the kind of thing suggested by a young woman caller to the Gerry Ryan Show on 2FM: “After this I will simply have to put my life in order.”
What are the lessons to be learned from the visit? Firstly, we need to take a close look at how the role of the imagination in our post Vatican II liturgies has been neglected. This, in turn, has led to the impoverishment of the story in our faith. It is the story which jumpstarts the heart, triggers the imagination and transforms knowledge
We need to talk to God more than we talk about God, and God knows we Irish are great talkers! We badly need schools of prayer teaching all of us how to listen to God speaking to our hearts of his great love for us. Only this kind of prayer will lead to real change in the habits of the heart and to putting our lives in order. If prayer doesn’t lead to such change and reordering, it may be a sign that we are talking to ourselves rather than to God!
Word and sacrament nourished the life of St. Therese. The way in which she discovered in Sacred Scripture ‘the little way’ of complete confidence in God was truly remarkable given the Jansenistic times in which she lived. From her we must learn that reading excerpts to people or rather at people on Sundays from however holy a book will continue to send them away hungry. Sharing the word of God must mean, above all, telling the story of our lives, making connections with the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This cannot be done in large churches on Sunday where a priest is too often judged on how quickly he can get his people ‘in and out’ of Mass. It will call for small and prayerful groups of Christians who are ready and willing to pay any price in their search for the ‘one thing necessary’. These are the people who see their faith as a wonderfully wholesome and joyous way of living their lives rather than as a tiresome, monotonous series of obligations.
Finally, I have been asked repeatedly over the past few days, “What do you expect this visit will accomplish?” My greatest hope is that people will have an experience of God. Nothing but good can come from that. If we are a kinder, more compassionate people as a result, I will consider it all very worthwhile indeed.
Rev John Carroll, Tel. 053 22177, 053 24368, 087 9898424
Diocese of Ferns
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797