Homily of Bishop John Kirby for Mass celebrating 60 years of the work of the Irish Chaplaincy in support of Irish emigrants in London  

24 Sep 2017

Sacred Heart Church, London 

Neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8)

“In Ireland the system of Direct Provision for migrants arriving from very difficult situations is a very unsatisfactory arrangement and we need to change it into a more respectful system for those coming to Ireland” – Bishop Kirby

The movement of people from one district or country to another is certainly not a recent development.   Modern means of travel have made it more common, just as economic development in parts of the world have made it more attractive.  However, it existed both voluntarily and compulsorily in ancient times as well.  The movement of Abraham from Haran in modern Iraq to Canaan was the start of the people of Israel.   In the first book of the bible, the Book of Genesis we read, ‘Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. (Gen 12:1)”.   Later, the Jacob and his sons followed Joseph to Egypt at a time of famine and 430 years later Moses led  the people of Israel back to Canaan, the Promised Land.  The people involved might not have known the implications of it all, but these migrations contributed to the life of Jesus Christ and to his ministry.  As Isaiah comments in the first reading, “Neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord”.

Our own history is very much tied up with migration too.   In school we learnt about the  ‘plantations’ that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Some new arrivals became “more Irish than the Irish themselves” while others retained their original identities.   We learnt too about the outward movement of people beginning in the early years of the 19th century and culminating hugely in the outflow at the time of the Famine.   Though caused by the terrible suffering of the time, this movement of people contributed to the growth of the Church in different parts of the English speaking world. 

A further wave of emigration took place in Ireland in early years years of independence at a time of recession and hardship in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Many of you here in this church in Kilburn are Irish born or are descended from Irish born people of that period.   Your work and life here have contributed to your own prosperity and to the prosperity of this country.   Indeed, you have also helped the Irish economy through the practice of what became known as ‘postal remittances’, money sent to assist families back home in Ireland.  

Sadly, not everyone was able to contribute to life in the new country or in the old.   We know that there are Irish people who continue to need help and the Irish Chaplaincy Service exists precisely to help them.  “ This began as an important outreach of the Irish Catholic Church and is now supported by grants from the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Irish Government.  This is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of this service and I am delighted to be here with you to celebrate this event.  By the way, 1957 the year of its beginning was also the year of the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to go around the world and the year of the start of serious trouble in Vietnam.  The Chaplaincy has a long and significant history which has recently been documented in Patricia Kennedy’s book, Welcoming the Stranger.  That role of caring for the emigrant has changed and we now have a dedicated team of lay people under the leadership of Eddie Gilmore who provide the necessary support.   Currently, the  Seniors’ Project, looking after the elderly Irish emigrants of the 50’s and 60’s and the Travellers’ Project are important aspects of the chaplaincy.

Very many Irish priests served in the Irish Chaplaincy in different parts of London.  Some of these priest-chaplains played a very significant part in the foundation of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas.   This was established during a very difficult time for ordinary Irish people in the 1970’s when terrorist violence was a major factor.  While that threat has passed, the ICPO continues to be an aspect of the Chaplaincy that is hugely important, and a number of people are dedicated to this particular work.  A few years ago, I saw for myself the appreciation of prisoners in one jail for the caring work of Fr Gerry McFlynn.

This is a good place to mention the late Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.   He was himself the son of Irish emigrants and was proud of his Irish roots.   As bishop and later as archbishop and Cardinal, he was supportive of the work of the Irish Chaplaincy.  May the Lord give him eternal rest.

Of course there are large numbers here this morning that do not have any Irish connection and I recognise your presence here as well.   You are from various parts of the world, particularly from areas that were formerly under British administration.   You continue to play an important part in this country and perhaps also in your own former countries of origin.

As I said at the start, modern means of travel and economic necessity have made migration more common.   We see it on our TV screens nightly.   Very often, in addition to economic necessities, it is as a result of persecution or conflict that people are being forced to leave their country of origin.   

The problems of those trying to get to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa continue to grow.   It is a huge problem for all the countries of the Western world and particularly for us here in Europe.   Pope Francis has made the care of migrants one of his main initiatives.   His first trip outside of Rome as Pope was made to the Island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily.  This was one of the main landing points for those from Libya trying to gain entry to Europe.   Large numbers drowned in attempting the journey.  Those who landed faced further difficulties.  In Ireland the system of Direct Provision for migrants arriving from very difficult situations is a very unsatisfactory arrangement and we need to change it into something more respectful of those coming to Ireland.

The chalice in use at this Mass has a silver cup inside a wooden shell.   It was made by the same wood-turner who made a chalice for Pope Francis when he visited Lampedusa four years ago.   In both cases the wood used had been part of a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Lampedusa.  It was given to me on loan specifically for this Mass as we are commemorating migrants.   The cup of the chalice is silver and is stamped 2016 in memory of the centenary of the Easter Rising.  Thus, it links the migrants coming to Ireland with those who fought for Irish freedom 100 years ago.

Pope Francis, himself the son of Italian migrants to Argentina, has a great concern for  suffering migrant people.  Without any doubt, the care of migrants is one of the major problems to be faced by governments of the developed economies.   It is also a major challenge for the church and for all of us as individuals as we remember the parable of the Last Judgement in St Matthew’s Gospel: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” or “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” as the case may be. (Mt 25:35,41).  If we take the gospel seriously, the care of migrants has to place high on all our plans.  

I congratulate the Irish Chaplaincy on its Diamond Jubilee and I give thanks for its work over a period of 60 years.   I also give thanks to the Oblate Fathers of Sacred Heart Church here in Kilburn for their work with people from 62 different countries world-wide and they continue to present the Word of God to so many from vastly different backgrounds.   This parish is surely a melting pot for many people of different backgrounds who come together to pray and to praise in a single worshipping community.   Neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  (Is 55:8)


  • Bishop John Kirby is Bishop of Clonfert and Chair of the Chair of the Bishops’ Council for Emigrants.
  • The Irish Chaplaincy in Britain (http://www.irishchaplaincy.org.uk/) was established by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 1957 as the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy.  Today, the Chaplaincy provides an outreach service to three main groups: prisoners, Travellers and elderly Irish people (the Seniors’ Project).

Some of the services provided by the Chaplaincy’s support for prisoners include: visiting Irish prisoners and providing them and their families with advice and information; keeping in contact by letter; assisting families in Ireland to visit prisoners in England and Wales; offering pastoral support if requested; researching, identifying and responding to prisoner needs; and, working closely with other organisations and prison departments caring for the welfare of Irish prisoners and their families.

The Irish Chaplaincy Seniors Project services consist of: visits to older Irish people regularly in their home, in hospital or residential care home and spending quality time with them to offer positive support and encouragement; maintaining regular telephone contact to ensure isolated older Irish have someone to talk to and share their hopes and concerns with; liaising and advocating on their behalf with health and social care providers and a range of other organisations as required; helping them to reconnect with their families back in Ireland; supporting those who want to move back to Ireland and making this transition as smooth as possible; offering a knowledgeable and comforting presence, in relation to end of life questions and concerns, and providing advice on funeral planning in London and in Ireland; exploring older people’s faith and spirituality with them, and linking them to a local faith community if requested.

The Travellers Equality Project works closely with the Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service; provides information, advice and free bespoke resources for practitioners working with travellers; holds Traveller forums in prisons; provides diversity training for support group; and, carries out thorough research to identify the needs of Irish Travellers.

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678