Homily of Bishop Denis Nulty for Chrism Mass in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin

23 Mar 2016

When Pope Francis takes the opportunity to talk directly to the media on the return journeys from his papal visits abroad, I imagine his PR people get a little uneasy. The subject matter and conversation is completely unscripted, it is entirely candid and frank. Often the assembled media may miss the context or tone of the reply, but never the substance. All hot button issues have been raised in these very much ‘no-holds-barred’ in-flight news conferences.

Last month as he made his way back from a very successful trip to Mexico, Pope Francis, true to form, was asked for his reaction to U.S. republican Presidential front runner Donald Trump’s proposal that the United States extend the fence the full length of the border between Mexico and the United States. He replied: “a person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, isn’t Christian”. It was a powerful reply and I suggest it gives us a super springboard to reflect on the base stones which were carried up by representatives of our fifty-six parishes earlier in tonight’s Chrism Mass.

A base stone is defined as a ‘footing stone’. A footing stone is a flat stone for the base or lowest course of a wall. So things are built on a base stone. A base stone gives solidity and strength to what is built on it. The word ‘stone’ or derivation of that word appears several times in scripture. In this year of Luke we are familiar with the devils temptation of Jesus in the wilderness to turn the stone into a loaf of bread(1) while Mark talks about the rejected stone becoming the corner stone (2) . I have scoured this very fine Cathedral for appropriate images for this Year of Mercy. There is a beautiful panel on the stained glass window on my left, and a carving in stone on the outer wall of the confessional below, both depicting the woman caught committing adultery, taken from John’s gospel(3) . In the stained glass window Jesus points at the woman, but looks at the bystanders and stone throwers; on the stone carving Jesus holds out his compassionate hands to the woman while staring her accusers in the eye. Stone and mercy meet in that carving outside the confessional which was part of the reordering of the Cathedral here nineteen years ago.

The prophet Isaiah and Luke re-echo the text announcing a year of favour from the Lord. This very jubilee Year of Mercy is indeed a year of favour, which really means a gift from the Lord. We would do a huge disservice to the Year of Mercy by minimizing it to what happens in the confessional below. And while as a diocese, we will on Divine Mercy Sunday when the third holy door is opened in Mountrath, launch an aid that will fit into your back pocket or purse, and will hugely help you understand, appreciate and make the most of that sacrament., the Year of Mercy is about much more.

In my current Confirmation journey I am offering a reflection on the Corporal Works of Mercy as a tool to allow us to appreciate this Year of Mercy. I invite the young people presented for Confirmation to take on the different corporal works, and part of the project may be simply encouraging their parents or older adults at home to engage in the living out of any one of the seven works on offer. That is why the candle-bearers who will accompany the Oil of Baptism Catechumen; the Oil of Chrism and the Oil of the Sick Infirmorum represent many of the groups who witness to the mercy of God in our parishes. Among those present this evening for that final procession are members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, volunteers from St. Clare’s Hospitality, funeral ministry teams who work with the bereaved in many of our parishes, representatives of Newbridge Food Share, some people who bring Holy Communion to the Sick and more who work as part of Prison Chaplaincy outreach. There are many more who do this work of mercy at parish level; tonight’s candle-bearers are representative of the much bigger, much more complete picture.

For me, it was very important that the base stones representing the different parishes should be placed here at the environs of the ambo. It’s from here the mercy of God is preached; it’s from here the mercy of God is lived; it’s from here the mercy of God is broken down for all of us to understand. I saw the idea first at Christmas time, when visiting churches as we may do in the post Christmas period, I noticed a crib erected in its simplicity around the ambo – the Word was preached literally from the heart of the manger.

The base stone is representative of the burden of our sins, our blockages, our weaknesses that we all carry in life. The Oils blessed at this Chrism Mass are here for soothing those burdens – a burden of illness; a fractured relationship; a loss of what was thought to be a steady, secure job; a sin that weighs heavily from the past. All priests are Ministers of Mercy. The renewal of their priestly promises in this Chrism Ritual comes before the blessing of the Oils. This is no accident, this is not by chance; the priest, our priests whom we love and cherish are the ones who will administer the oils through the different sacraments.

Priests at Ordination are called to be Ministers of Mercy, bridge-builders between the Lord and His people. We will always need priests to celebrate the Eucharist, and while we welcome our two seminarians, David and Darren here tonight, and encourage Fr. Ruairí and his team in their work, we must also recognize we are in an era of decreasing vocations, and more rather than less lay involvement of excellent women and men will be the story of our parishes and our diocese into the future. I thank the many lay people who are so engaged in the life of their parish and by extension in the life of our diocese. Even with an abundance of vocations lay involvement is of critical importance in every parish. You are literally the base stones of your parish.

The sudden death on February 7th last of Fr. PJ Byrne, Parish Priest of Kilcock and Newtown came as a huge blow to all of us, priests and people. P.J. would have been probably the first into the Cathedral sacristy earlier and the last to leave the refreshments in Carlow College. I know he would have probably paid a visit to Tinryland before coming here this evening. I also know he would have lay representatives from Kilcock and Newtown very prominent in the congregation. In a recent tribute in the Irish Times, the author Eamonn Maher wrote about Fr. P.J.: “I marveled at how P.J. managed to be sensitive and compassionate … there was never a rush to judgement, never a false note in his homilies” . His death like the passing of Fr. Moling Lennon on June 14th and Fr. John Fingleton on May 31st are strong reminders to all of us in the wider diocesan family of the colossal void these great men leave behind.

But in this important week of the Church liturgical year, in our reflection around the base stone of every parish we are reminded of the stone that was rolled away on Easter Sunday morning; the rolled away stone that gives us hope that death is not the end. As carefully we place our stones on His mountain of mercy, may we also be ready to let that stone slip to one side, to move on from whatever trauma weighs heaviest, to experience and live His mercy.

As I stand at the ambo here in the Cathedral, the Mother Church of our Diocese, with the four evangelists in a bronze cast taken from the former pulpit, as the mountain of mercy emerges from those parish base stones, I’m reminded of the early lines of Seamus Heaney’s poem Scaffolding:

Masons, when they start upon a building,
are careful to test out the scaffolding:
Make sure that the planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone”. (5)

May we build bridges in our parishes and among our parishes into the wider deaneries and embracing the whole diocese; bridges fuelled by the oils soon to be blessed; bridges encouraged by priests and people working collaboratively towards a gospel of mercy and bridges nourished by God’s word from this ambo and every ambo in our 117 churches. I invite you to pray now as the priests prepare to renew their priestly promises …

+ Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin

  • The Chrism Mass took place in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow on 22 March.

(1) Lk. 4:3
(2) Mk. 12:10
(3) Jn. 7:53 – 8:11
(4) Maher, Eamon: Rite & Reason Column: ‘Priest’s passing underlines crisis faced by Church’, The Irish Times, March 15th, 2016 pg. 16.
(5) Heaney, Seamus: ‘Scaffolding’