Ascension Sunday, 17 May 2015
When I was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of my ordination to the priesthood in 1985 the priests of Ardagh and Clonmacnois gave me a gift to mark the occasion. It was a painting by the distinguished artist, Patrick Pye. It was entitled “The Vision of Saint Peter”. It showed Christ ascending through the clouds into Heaven. Down below was Peter holding two very large keys symbolic of the heavy burden of responsibility on his shoulders. I wondered if the priests wanted to say something to me like ‘cheer up, there are bigger burdens than yours!’
Whatever the choice of gift was saying, I was very grateful to be given an original painting by Patrick Pye. For several years it was hanging in a room in Saint Michael’s, the Bishop’s House. One evening after I returned home my housekeeper told me that there was a woman waiting to see me in that room. I was surprised to find the woman sitting on a chair looking at the painting. I apologised to her for having to wait for a long time. She said that she did not mind and added: “I got great consolation from that picture”. She identified with Peter’s apparent loneliness because she was grieving a great loss in her life. Patrick Pye would surely have been pleased – and possibly a little surprised – that anyone might have been comforted so much by this painting.
That experience taught me that works of art can truly become what Saint John Paul called “a bridge to religious experience”. I now hope that the beauty of this restored Cathedral of Saint Mel, with its many works of art can bring comfort “to anyone who, moved by the Spirit, comes looking for God.” These are the words of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel where he speaks approvingly of churches with open doors. “The Church” he says, “is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open”.
This Ascension Day happens to fall on the Sunday nearest to the date of the Annual Commemoration of the Dedication of our Cathedral. It is fitting that this day combines two themes, the Ascension of the Lord and the Dedication of this Cathedral. The Preface of the Mass of this Feast of the Ascension says: “(Christ) ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before”. There is a sense of Christ’s continued presence among us here in this Cathedral. Local people and visitors who have been coming here to see it and pray in it have commented on the warmth of its prayerful atmosphere. This comment made in one form of words or another is the most reassuring and positive of all the many comments in the Visitors’ Books.
In Longford we are conscious of having now the great privilege of having a much-admired and regularly visited Cathedral. Our liturgies are reaching out to a wider community. On Sunday mornings we have bigger congregations than we have been seeing for a considerable time. Our webcam is reaching people far from Longford. These privileges bring responsibilities. It may sound inconsequential to speak of one Cathedral in a relatively small town being empowered to reach out to so many, but the Gospel of this day would warn us not to shelter behind any false modesty. It is truly the Good News of Jesus that we and all Christ’s followers are called to proclaim, not our own.
A hundred and seventy-five years ago the foundation stone of this Cathedral was brought from the ruins of the ancient cathedral at Ardagh. It lies where the founder of the Cathedral, Bishop William O’Higgins, laid it, probably directly under where the tabernacle now rests on its marble pillar. An estimated crowd of 40,000 people assembled to witness the laying of the foundation stone on the 19 May 1840. What expectation of new hope brought such a vast crowd of people to this place on that day? It is difficult to speak for them. However, we can say that the recent successful restoration of our Cathedral was greeted with excitement that must have replicated the buoyant mood of that other great day in 1840. Thanks to the reach of modern mass communications an even greater number of people were touched by the intense emotion of the reopening of this historic Cathedral at Christmas of last year.
This is indeed a time for another new beginning here in this Cathedral town. We have a splendid setting for the celebration of the liturgy. The cathedral square has been redesigned to reach out and say ‘welcome in’ to all. Now we want to see this sacred space filled with young and old, natives of Longford and people who are natives of other countries who have come to live here. We want it to be a place where all will feel welcome, especially those who come with heavy hearts and those searching for answers to questions for which the world has no solutions.
The curtilage of Saint Mel’s Cathedral contains three other buildings, the Presbytery, the Family Centre and Ozanam House, the meeting place of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. These three buildings which speak about the service of the Church are rightly located very close to the main place of worship in this diocese. The relationship of worship and service to others is also given artistic expression in images in repoussé on the tabernacle. On the lower half of the front of the tabernacle is the scene at the table at the Last Supper when Jesus changed the bread and wine into His Body and Blood and on the back He is shown the washing of the feet of His Apostles. The Last Supper scene reminds us of what happens at the altar at Mass, the Washing of the Feet, the ways in which the Gospel is constantly proclaimed in the lives of service in our community.
In 2010, we committed ourselves to what was the biggest Church restoration project in Europe in these times. For this massive restoration project our chosen motto was “faithful to the past, building for the future”. This accorded perfectly with the vision of the late Dr Richard Hurley, our first lead architect. He produced a plan for restoration which would provide a cathedral suitable for the celebration of the liturgy as required by the Church in our time and, all the while, respecting the beautiful design of the original architect, John Benjamin Keane, of the middle of the nineteenth century. This was never going to be easy. As one commentator put it: “one of the major challenges was how to transform a classical basilica plan into a 21st century sacred space where it can be clearly seen that the ‘entire assembly is celebrant’”. Notwithstanding the fact that there will be some who will have reservations about the outcome of his endeavours, there is a quite astonishing level of approval of the plans he produced and their implementation guided by his successor as lead architect, Colm Redmond.
One native of Longford living abroad wrote about his first visit to the Cathedral after its restoration as follows: “Walking into this newly restored building is an extraordinary experience. How could this space feel exactly as it always did, as if it had been always there, when in fact it was completely burned and destroyed? How could it feel extraordinarily fresh and different, like a cathedral of a brand new century, while it is really the same old building minutely and lovingly restored in all its finest details?”
We are very grateful to have received these thoughtful observations. But they point to something more important. They point to the faith itself which is ever ancient and ever new. They point back to a time long before there was a cathedral in Longford. They point back to Mel and Ciaran, the patrons of our diocese, and the many men and women, some known, some not, who lived and died for the faith that they planted. Let us think, for instance, of two Dominican friars, Laurence and Bernard O’Farrell, who were martyred in Longford in 1651. They are remembered because their Order preserved records of their heroic lives and deaths. How many other witnesses to the faith lived and died here without any record of their heroic courage? There is no way of knowing.
In remembering the lives of our ancestors in faith we find encouragement and hope. But on this day we are reminded by the words of Scripture that we cannot just think of great heroes of the past. As the Apostles stared into the sky when Jesus was taken away, they were asked by angels: “why are you men from Galilee staring into the sky?” The Gospel leaves no doubt in our minds about what we should be doing. “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Gospel to all creation”.
Here is what Pope Francis says to us in The Joy of the Gospel:
The Church’s closeness to Jesus is part of a common journey, ‘communion and mission are profoundly interconnected’. In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one is excluded.
There are not two kinds of Christians. There are only missionary Christians. That is what we are. Let us become what we are called to be.
- Bishop Colm O’Reilly is Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444