Near the town of Drumkeerin in the county of Leitrim, and appropriately, in the diocese of Kilmore, there stands a little bridge with the curious and evocative title of ‘the dawn of hope’. Theories abound as to how that bridge got its name, but the concept goes to the heart of this day, captures the essence of this most solemn and joyful occasion. The arrival in our diocese of a new shepherd of the flock marking the beginning of a new chapter in our faith story is indeed a moment of crossing over, a dawn of hope.
Our celebration today takes place in the Year of Faith, which is also the Year of the Gathering, and these themes of faith and gathering run like threads through this ordination ceremony. We gather together in the timeless relationship we call faith. It’s a day that doesn’t stand alone. The past is the key to the future, and, so, from the heart of the moment we remember with gratitude, gather in, and allow to come close, the generations gone before us, who remained faithful guardians of the flame, first lit by Patrick on the Hill of Slane, and carried to these parts by Mel, Ciarán and Felim. Through famine and persecution these, our people, from Banagher to Ballintogher, from Teemore to Templeport, kept a promise, and bequeathed to us a priceless spiritual heritage. People like Francis and Mary Duffy who, on Tuesday 29April 1958 carried their infant son, Francis, from the townland of Port to the historic Barn Church of the Holy Trinity, Kildoagh, Bawnboy where he was welcomed into the Christian family by Fr. Hugh Brady in the waters of Baptism. The promises made on that day were promises faithfully kept, and became the well of life in which this day of new beginnings finds its source. God who began the good work in Francis Duffy on that April day calls him now, to continue that work in a new place.
With this new call the torch is passed to a new generation. Leanaimís an lóchrann do las ár sinsear romhainn.‘We have been trusted to look after something precious’. Side by side with Bishop Francis we are charged with the task of fanning into a flame our inherited gift as we follow in the footprints of Mel and Ciarán at a challenging moment in our Church’s history, a moment when we have moved from a position, of comfort to discomfort, of certainty to uncertainty, of security to insecurity. As we survey the landscape of our time we can identify with the perception of Pope Emeritus Benedict that ‘the faith in Europe has grown tired’. We could even feel disheartened by the sense of ‘untroubled irreligion’ and increasing ‘ecclesiastical emigration’ that surrounds us, by the awareness of the throngs who no longer walk with us, who claim to believe but not belong. We may even be tempted to wish that we were called to the vineyard at a seemingly more favourable and secure time, but, in truth, the faith journey was never a smooth one from the moment when Abraham stepped out into an uncertain night to follow an uncharted road. The voyage of faith is, and has always been a search rather than an arrival, a trust rather than a certainty, a search to discover the print of His hand in the people, places, smiles, tears of those encountered on the road.
A cursory glance at our own diocesan story will remind us that there were moments when the darkness appeared to be on the point of engulfing the light. We think of Clonmacnois founded by Ciarán not far from this spot in ‘that quiet watered land’, a renowned powerhouse of art, prayer and learning for over a thousand years, which now stands silent, and when Abbot Mulhern Malone called ‘extra omnes’, extinguished the final candle, and closed the door for the last time in the middle of the 13th century it must have seemed as if darkness had conquered. He could scarcely have imagined that seven hundred years later tens of thousands would gather on that hallowed sod on a misty September morning to welcome with unbounded joy the Bishop of Rome, Blessed John Paul the Second, soon to be Saint. We are very mindful, also, of the reason we gather in this Pro Cathedral of St. Mary’s for this historic celebration. It was another dark day when our beautiful Cathedral of Saint Mel was destroyed by fire on that fateful Christmas morning of 2009, but once again Bishop, priests, and religious, together with God’s faithful people found a place and found a way. The family of the faith will always find a place and a way. There is always a dawn of hope, for God is not in our hands; we are in His hands, and He who did not fail Abraham will not fail his descendants for ever.
The concept of faith as a struggle is at the heart of the Word of God today. Centuries before the Christian era the prophet Habakkuk, whose name means ‘to wrestle’, struggled greatly with the apparent silence of God in the face of injustice and oppression. In his anguish and frustration he cries out: ’how long, Lord am I to cry for help, while you will not listen’, but, then he dialogues with God and doubting turns to trusting, restlessness to restfulness, impatience to patience and hope dawns again. The leader of the people must dialogue with God. Paul, similarly, experienced the struggle when he saw that the flame of faith was already trembling in the early Church. He knew, as we know, that the tendency of the fire is to go out, and so he urges Timothy to take the initiative, approach the fire, and fan into a flame the dying embers. The leader of the people must stand close to the flame. It is a moving and passionate image for us on this historic day, an image that is so often used when a unique heritage, a sacred trust, a faith legacy is being passed on. It is a call to become the fire, to warm the world, to soften the harshness of the debate, to embrace the wanderer, to open our fire to the homeless. Then we hear, in the text from Luke’s gospel, that the disciples, the special friends of Jesus, were also floundering on their journey. They raise an impassioned plea to the Lord: ‘increase our faith’. It’s the cry of the ages. It’s the cry that reaches out anew to Bishop Francis as he assumes his ministry of teacher of the faith and shepherd of the flock, for the Bishop must, above all, strengthen the people in the faith and, constantly, move the sheep to a place of safety, out of the storm into the sheepfold.
He comes to us bearing as his episcopal motto words taken from the tenth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel: ‘I have come that they may have life’. It is the motto that was on his ordination card when Bishop Francis McKiernan raised him to the priesthood in Saint Mogue’s Church, Bawnboy, on Sunday, the 20 June 1982. Together with today’s readings it sets out a road map for the one who would be bishop. Faith brings life. It is only where God is made visible that life begins. Pope Francis in his first encyclical ‘Lumen Fidei’ warns of the danger of the light of faith being extinguished: ‘once the light of faith dies out’, he says, ‘all other lights begin to dim’. We have only to look around to see the truth of his teaching. The Holy Father is teaching us that the human heart is the battleground where the values of time and eternity confront each other at every moment of the day. Castles and empires have been built on the values of time and have ended in the dust of time. Recent debates in our land are a sad reminder of what can happen when the faith dimension is relegated to the margins. Without reference to God the human family is capable of reaching dangerous and destructive conclusions.
Many reasons can be advanced for the weakening of the light of faith in this generation, but somewhere in the mists of recent times we have failed to tell the story, our story, which is the story of Emmanuel, God in the midst of His people, the story of the marvellous, the greatest story ever told, and when our story gets lost other less worthy stories take its place. It is the urgent task of the keepers of the flame to tell the story anew, because, beneath the veneer of ‘untroubled irreligion’ there lies a deep yearning for meaning. Despite the apparent determination to remove the story from market place or even classroom, the cry of this generation is, actually, the cry of Habakkuk: ‘how long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen’, and the cry of the first disciples: ‘increase our faith’. The same Pope Benedict who saw that the faith in Europe had grown tired could also see in the turbulence and confusion of the day a prelude to renewal and regeneration. The fire may be more ready for stoking than we think. There is a flicker, and, with it comes an opportunity. We must find the language to tell the next generation. The ancient Chinese poem comes to mind here, where the poet is reflecting on the task of the leader to make connections with the people. The lines contain the wisdom of the ages :
Go to the people.
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
So, Francis tá fáilte is céad romhat. You are not the first priest from the parish of Templeport in the diocese of Kilmore to be called to Episcopal office in the See of Mel. Edmund Magauran served as Bishop here during the years 1548-93 before moving to even greater things, if that be possible, when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1581. As you assume your ministry at the heart of our diocesan family Bishop Colm O Reilly takes a well-earned rest after thirty years of faithful, fruitful service. We thank him for steering the ship with steady hand through waters that were not always calm. May he enjoy many years of healthy, fulfilled retirement in our midst. May you, like him, find joy among the people as one who serves. May you, like Habakkuk, find the time to dialogue with God so that you may lead the people to that space of peace and reassurance. May you, like Paul and Timothy, find the energy and courage to fan into a flame that which we have been given on sacred trust. May you find the language to help increase our faith by telling the story ever old ever new so that the faith family of Mel and Ciarán may continue to have life and have it to the full. Thank you for crossing the bridge. Welcome be this dawn of hope.
- Bishop Francis Duffy will be ordained as the new Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois at Mass today at 3:00pm in Saint Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Athlone, Co Westmeath, in the Diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
- Father Peter Burke is the Parish Priest of Drumshambo, Co Leitrim, in the Diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnois
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678