Homily by Monsignor Liam Bergin at the ordination Mass for Monsignor Séamus Freeman as the new Bishop of Ossory

02 Dec 2007

Press Release

Sunday 2 December 2007

Embargo 3:00pm

Attn: Newsdesks and Religious Affairs Correspondents

Homily by Monsignor Liam Bergin at the ordination Mass for Monsignor Séamus Freeman as the new Bishop of Ossory

‘The Bell, the Book and the Star’

The arrival of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the diocese of Ossory was heralded by the tinkling of a bell.  In his first pastoral letter Séamus Freeman reminds us of the tradition according to which Saint Kieran left his home near Cape Clear and went to Rome to be ordained a priest and a bishop before returning to Ireland (The irony of Kieran being a Corkman is not always appreciated in Kilkenny!).  Saint Patrick is reported to have met Kieran in Rome and he gave him a bell, telling Kieran to build a monastery on the spot where it should first sound.  When the saint had passed over the Slieve Blooms, the bell sounded.   Here Kieran established his monastery at Seir Kieran, the centre from which Ossory was evangelized.

Séamus Freeman comes among us as the successor of Saint Kieran to be ordained as Bishop of Ossory following the retirement of Bishop Laurence Forristal.  Like Kieran, he left his native Coolagh in the parish of Callan for Rome and now returns with a mandate from Pope Benedict XVI to be pastor of this diocese.  We welcome him among us.  We pledge him our loyalty and support.  May you be happy and fulfilled as you undertake this new ministry.  May it be a time of blessing for you and for us all.

In primitive Celtic lands great importance was attached to bells.  More than 60 of these ancient bells are still in existence.  Most of them are Irish and are reputed to have belonged to Irish saints.  The most famous of them all is the bell of Patrick (now preserved in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin).  Apparently, there is no serious reason to doubt that it was taken from the tomb of the saint in 552.    

The successor to Saint Patrick is here today in the person of the Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland’s new Cardinal Seán Brady.  Divine providence is at work to ensure that his first national engagement following his elevation as cardinal brings the successors of these two great apostles of Ireland together.  Like that first meeting between Patrick and Kieran may your presence here today herald a new proclamation of the Gospel, a new evangelization for Ossory and its people.

The bell calls: the alarm bell calls us to wake from sleep – the appeal made in today’s gospel; the church bell calls us to Mass; the Angelus bell calls us to prayer; and, as is the custom in these parts, the funeral bell calls the one who has died back home to be with the Father and the saints forever.  From waking to sleeping: the bell.

From Seir Kieran in County Offaly, the centre of the diocese was to move to Aghaboe in County Laois.  Saint Canice had been founder and abbot of this notable monastery.  Historians record that Canice was a great scholar who wrote a commentary on the scriptures.  The Book of the Gospels used in today’s celebration was presented by the people of the parish of Aghaboe when our bishop elect went on pilgrimage there yesterday.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the beginning of a new Church year.  Did you ever wonder why Advent falls at this time of the year?  In our part of the world these are the shortest, wettest and coldest days of the year.  This is mid-winter.  This is a time when darkness takes hold of our world.  Our pagan forebears celebrated festivals of light at this time of the year in the hope of enticing back the sun that seemed to have turned its back on them.  But the early Christians glimpsed a deeper meaning in all of this.  They knew that as the long hazy days of summer would inevitably give way to the harsh wilderness of winter, so too in all of our lives there would be wintry times.  In our individual lives, in our families, in our communities and yes, in our Church too, there would inevitably come days when the sun just didn’t shine and we, like the Jews of old, would wander aimlessly in the wilderness. The two great images of Advent are darkness and wilderness.  But the good news, the Gospel, is that the light of Christ shines in the deepest darkness and that we must wander through the wilderness in order to ever learn anew that only God can save us.

“Maranatha”, “Come Lord Jesus”, the closing song of the New Testament, is the opening cry of the Advent Liturgy.  Come Lord Jesus and save us for we cannot save ourselves.  In life’s deepest darkness, when there is nothing to behold but a wintry wilderness, we encounter again the deepest truth of our Christian faith: we need a saviour.  The good news is that God has revealed just such a saviour in the person of Jesus Christ.  That was something Canice knew well from his study of the Holy Scriptures.  May his wisdom and insight continue to guide us; may his love for the Word of God inspire us all to be true and faithful disciples of Christ the Lord.

Sometime in the twelfth century the bishop of Ossory moved to the new city of Kilkenny.  Now, as a native of County Laois, I cannot understand why the soft fertile fields of Laois and Offaly were to be abandoned for the harsher terrain of Kilkenny.  Perhaps there were more sinners to convert down here.  Whatever the reason, Kilkenny became the centre of the diocese and that is why we are gathered today in this cathedral!  

A bishop is a member of the Christian community chosen to oversee a diocese.  A diocese is the Church in a particular place.  The Church of God, Vatican II, tells us, exists fully where there is a community gathered together in the Eucharist, presided by a bishop who is ordained into the apostolic succession, teaching the faith received from the Apostles, in communion with the other bishops and their Churches.  The fruit of this Eucharist and this ministry is to gather into an authentic communion of faith, prayer, mission, fraternal love and mutual aid, all those who have received the Spirit of Christ in Baptism.  Down through history, communion between dioceses was manifest by the bishop of one diocese attending the ordination of the bishop of another.  That’s why it is so significant to have so many bishops as part of this celebration today.  

At its heart, the Church is a communion. The Church is never properly understood as a multi-national corporation or a business or a political structure.  It is primarily a communion of believers struggling to live out their faith in the world in which they live.  This communion of believers is overseen, not by a Chief Executive Officer, but by a bishop.  The bishop is not a business leader nor a management expert nor a political representative, but he must be a man of faith and hope who lovingly walks with others on life’s journey encouraging, consoling, teaching, leading.

The Church in the diocese of Ossory is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in this place. It is not just a part of, or a branch of, the Church.  This is the Church in full communion with other dioceses throughout the world.  Today our church in Ossory welcomes a new bishop, a new overseer.  May his coming to our church be truly an advent time so that in the darkness and wilderness of our lives we might encounter Christ anew.

Advent has to do with past, present and future.  

The past.  It reminds us where we have come from as we look back to the first Christmas.   We remember that the second person of the Blessed Trinity entered our world as we entered it, born of a woman as we all are.  We remember that night because when Jesus touched the earth with his flesh, life would never be the same again.  On the surface things might seem the same.  Hate still hounds us and wars wound us; children still starve and the elderly are oft forgotten; cancer still riddles our flesh and death never takes a holiday.  But that human birthday was a divine promise.  God came into the world to give us a share in God’s own life, to make it possible for us to believe what is beyond belief, to hope against hope and to love as Jesus loved.

The present. Advent calls our present into question.  You see, as important as memory is for the Christian, we are not meant to live in the past.  Very simply, for all the countless cribs that will dot the Christmas scenery, Jesus no longer lives in one.  Jesus rested in a crib not for his own sake; he rested in a crib because he wanted to rest in us.  For that to happen, we must open our hearts to him.  

The future.  Advent is time when we look to Christ’s second coming.  His first coming was heralded by a comet, by a star.  St Vincent Pallotti called on every Christian woman and man to be a comet, to be a star that proclaims the advent of Our Lord, to herald Christ’s presence as he comes again.  As comets still traverse the night sky so Christ still comes into our world.  His coming will be as bread for the hungry, as comfort for the bereaved, as hope for the despairing, as forgiveness for the sinner, as healing for the broken hearted.  We are all called to share in this ministry of Christ to bring healing and hope to a broken world.  That’s the nub of today’s gospel.  It’s not about worrying about whether Christ is about to arrive.  No, it is about the way I want to look whenever Christ comes for me.

One of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century was the Swiss Protestant, Karl Barth.  Towards the end of the First World War he wrote a book on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans which had a huge impact on its readers.  He believed that Christians had lost their way and needed to refocus themselves on the power of God’s Word.  Barth likened himself to a man who was falling in the dark and reaching out for support. To his surprise he found that he had caught a rope, a bell rope and the ringing of the bell awakened the whole town.

Kieran’s bell; Canice’s book; Vincent Pallotti’s star:  they are all represented on what is to be Bishop Freeman’s crest.

May the bell that first pealed for Kieran continue to ring out loud and clear in the Episcopal ministry of Séamus Freeman, assuring us that God continues to walk with the people of Ossory.

May the book that was cherished by Canice continue to nurture your faith as you proclaim that God’s love and forgiveness are to be found in the Church.

May the star that inspired Vincent Pallotti enlighten your mind and heart that you may help us all to recognise where Christ is to be found.

Kieran, Canice and Vincent;  Bell, book and star.  Amen

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 1727 678
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer 086 817 5674