Bishop John McAreavey’s homily on the occasion of the re-dedication of St Peter’s church, Lurgan

06 Nov 2011

Bishop John McAreavey’s homily on the occasion of the re-dedication of St Peter’s church, Lurgan

“The task of a parish community is to provide the living framework that will enable its people to grow from an inherited, unreflective and often superficial faith to a deeper, personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.” – Bishop McAreavey

For the past two years this historic church has been closed and the people of the parish have used a temporary church in Grattan Park. The re-dedication of St Peter’s today mark a coming home for the people of the parish. This church of course is much more than a building; it stands for the tradition of faith of the people who built it and the generations who have prayed here in good times and in bad; it carries memories of baptisms, confirmations, Masses, confessions, weddings and funerals. As they say, if these walls could talk …

I want to look back to that tradition, with the help of a history of the parish written by Frank McCorry, a Lurgan man who is with us today. According to Frank McCorry, there were several church-sites in the Lurgan area before the reformation. The late Fr Bernard Mooney was convinced that one of these, Annaloiste, was in the area now known as Kilwilkie, derived from Kylmilcon and associated with an early saint Micho or Milchu. If this is true, the people of Kilwilkie can take pride in having had a church site before Shankill parish or this church were founded. After the reformation Shankill parish and Seagoe formed one ‘union’. Frank McCorry writes:

Shankill and Seagoe were the only parishes of the Dromore diocese located in Co Armagh. Until c. 1750, Seagoe was considered the most important of the two … The subsequent foundation of Lurgan by the … the Brownlows undoubtedly gave Shankill prominence.  Yet … at the Registration of Catholic Priests at Lurgan Courthouse on July 10, 1704, no priest came forward to represent Shankill. The Reverend John Byrne, parish priest of Seagoe, represented both parishes.

Other sources show that the Reverend Richard McGinn baptised children in the district in the 18th century. The evidence for these baptisms can be found in the local Church of Ireland baptism register.

Around 1800 the Brownlow family made a gift to the Catholics of Lurgan of a mill-warehouse, which stood on a rise a short distance from the Dougher stream. This building was converted into a church but it became too small to cater for Catholic parishioners; in 1829 the Brownlows donated the Dougher field, which surrounded the primitive chapel, to the Catholic people as a graveyard and an elevated site on North Street, Lurgan for the building of a proper church. In 1830-1 Fr William O’Brien began the building of the first St Peter’s church. Bishop Blake dedicated the new St Peter’s on 1st September 1833. In 1867-9 a new sanctuary and transepts were added and Bishop Leahy dedicated these additions on June 29, 1869. In 1890-2 a new extension to St Peter’s enlarged the nave, bringing the seating capacity to 1200. In 1901 Bishop O’Neill dedicated the magnificent spire of St Peter’s. On 26th December 1982, Bishop Brooks consecrated the main altar in St Peter’s following the re-construction of the sanctuary in accordance with the norms of the Second Vatican Council. History will record that on 6th November 2011, the feast of all the saints of Ireland, St Peter’s was re-opened after an extensive refurbishment.

Two challenges face the people of St Peter’s parish now: the first is to pay for the work that has been done. This is a considerable challenge but I am confident that the parish will manage this. The second challenge is much greater: it is to ensure that this beautiful building remains a place where people will gather and pray, where the people will be regularly nourished at the table of God’s Word and at the table of the Eucharist, where children will be brought for baptism and later for confirmation, where couples will celebrate the sacrament of matrimony and where will families will take leave of their loved ones through the funeral liturgy. Please God, this new church will see newly ordained priests from the parish return to celebrate their first Masses.

As this parish reclaims its parish church, it is a good time to ask: what is the foundation or ‘corner stone’ (St Paul’s word) of Catholic life in this parish? Is it this beautiful building, with all its colour and ornamentation? Is it the long Catholic tradition of the parish and the memories and loyalty of the people? Important as these are, they are not, in themselves, the foundation of Catholic faith in this parish. The foundation of the parish emerges in the episode described in today’s Gospel. Jesus begins with a broad, general question? ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ He gets a variety of answers: ‘some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’. Then Jesus asks the direct, personal question, ‘but you, who do you say I am?’ Peter, the head of the apostles, comes forward with an answer that comes from the heart:

Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ’, he said, ‘the Son of the living God’. Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.

So the foundation of the parish is the faith of the people in Jesus Christ, the same faith professed by Peter and handed down by the apostles and the people of our Church.

There comes a moment for every Christian who has been baptised into a faith tradition and raised in it, who – in a sense – has lived off the faith of others (parents, teachers, perhaps clergy) has to answer for him or herself, who do I say Jesus is? Who is Jesus for me? We cannot answer that question without serious personal reflection and prayer; we need the grace of the Spirit and the support of a believing community to help us to come to a deeper, personal faith that would help us to answer that question.

The task of a parish community is to provide the living framework that will enable its people to grow from an inherited, unreflective and often superficial faith to a deeper, personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. This is what the Church today calls ‘faith-development’ or ‘adult faith development’. At a time of unprecedented turbulence in our Church following the revelations of recent years, I am convinced that genuine renewal and reform can come only from a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ, as expressed in prayer and in a radical living of the Gospel.

Last year the Irish Bishops, after several years’ reflection and widespread consultation, produced a National Catholic Directory for Catechesis in Ireland. It was called Share the Good News. I want to share some of the points in this directory, particularly as it affects parishes.

1.         Each parish will place the faith development of all its members at the centre of its stated mission and goals (p. 191);

2.         The priest in the parish will demonstrate a clear commitment to the evangelising and catechetical nature of his ministry and strive, with the help of parishioners, to give the various levels of faith development due priority (p. 192);

3.         Adult faith development will be at the centre of parish life, helping the community to grow vigorous in its conversion to Jesus Christ (p. 193);

4.         The catechetical and religious education needs of young people will be given high priority in the life of the parish (p. 194);

5.         The parish Faith Development Plan will be inclusive, giving significant attention to those who have specific needs in relation to faith development (p. 195).

This, I realise, is a new language, a new way of thinking about what a parish is. It will be for each parish community, under the leadership of its priest and parish pastoral council, to reflect on what this will mean in this parish in the future.

In the process of refurbishing this church, the builders dug down four feet below the level of the present floor. The foundations of the church were tested, as well as walls, windows and every other part. Where problems were found the builders addressed them. Today this parish is faces a similar challenge; it will have to reflect on every aspect of parish life and pastoral practice and to decide, in the light of today’s circumstances, whether they are adequate.

  •  We live and minister in a new era; the days are past when one could assume, for example, that parents bringing a baby for baptism understand what the commitment to raising their child in the Catholic faith will involve. Parishes today have to reach out to their people, especially the young, to ensure that their celebration of the sacraments builds up and deepens their commitment to Christ and the Gospel. The parish baptism team has an important role to play here.
  • In the parish of the future responsibility for leadership and decision-making will involve the whole parish community, no longer clergy alone. Pope Benedict XVI has called on parishioners to exercise ‘co-responsibility’ with their priests. The main structure to facilitate the contribution of lay people to decision-making in the parish is the parish pastoral council and, in its area of competence, the parish finance council. Parishioners will need significant faith-formation if they are to be ready to take responsibility for the life of their parish.
  • Another strong feature of St Peter’s parish has been its commitment to the missions. The Apostolic Workers and the Altar and Mission Society provide practical support for missionaries. The recent development of the Nakuru project in St Michael’s builds on this mission awareness. I pray for the continued growth of mission awareness among the people of the parish so that this community becomes a missionary parish.
  • This task of building a community of faith in Jesus Christ is one that we share with the other Churches in this area. As Catholics, we can and should learn from these communities; we can, I hope, also support them; we need to find ways of work together for the building up of God’s kingdom in every way possible. This is why the presence of Bishop Harold Miller and representatives of the Church of Ireland and other Christian communities in this area is so important. What we share as Christians – our faith in Jesus and our love for Him and his Gospel – is more important than what separates us. Their presence here and theirr interest are a sign of solidarity with us and it gives us encouragement and hope.

Today is a coming home; it is a time to re-commit ourselves to Jesus Christ; it is a time to re-commit ourselves to the task of building the community of faith that this church serves; it is also a time to reach out to those who have lost faith or trust and to invite them, humbly and sensitively, to take their place once more among us. There is a lot of work to do; it is a task for the whole parish and for neighbouring parishes to do – together.

Today we affirm with Peter our faith in Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. We pray that, with the help of Peter, patron of this church, Our Lady and all the saints, we will come to know in a deeper way who we are as friends and disciples of Jesus. Despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, we trust in the power of Jesus to continue his healing and teaching work among us.

+John McAreavey

Bishop of Dromore

Further information:

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