On Monday morning of Holy Week, I was sitting at my desk writing a funeral sermon for an elderly man of great faith. I was contemplating using, as the theme of the sermon ‘Into your hands, O Lord I commend my Spirit’, the final words of Jesus on the Cross proclaimed in the gospel at the Passion Sunday Mass the previous day. As I began to write I received a phone call from Archbishop Okolo, the Papal Nuncio, informing me that he would like to have a chat with me at my convenience. As the funeral was taking place in Dublin the following Wednesday, I arranged to meet him that day. At the meeting the Archbishop gently told me that Pope Francis wished to appoint me as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Armagh. My reaction was one of shock, surprise and no little dismay. The theme running through Holy Week for me had suddenly become more personal, and indeed alarming: ‘Into your hands O Lord, I commend my Spirit’. Until that moment I had been happily serving as parish priest in Bailieborough and reasonably expecting, that God willing, I would be there for several more years; perhaps even until retirement. I never saw myself as someone worthy of this office and, as I stand before you today, I am very conscious of my limitations and weaknesses. I am very grateful to Pope Francis for the trust he has placed in me and I pray that the Holy Spirit will provide what is otherwise lacking.
Despite the surprise and shock that his message brought to me I wish to thank Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo for his kindness and for his gentle reassurance in my meeting with him and indeed in the weeks since then.
It is truly an honour for me to join the clergy and people of the Archdiocese of Armagh, founded by our patron, Saint Patrick and also to assist the Archbishop in his roles as Archbishop of Armagh and as Apostolic Administrator of Dromore Diocese. Archbishop Martin has been most welcoming and helpful to me since he heard of my impending appointment. He has certainly done everything possible to make this transition and upheaval as painless as possible for me. Archbishop Eamon I thank you for your kindness and I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can in the years ahead.
I wish to thank also Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Bishop Emeritus of my native diocese of Kilmore, who has been a tremendous example and inspiration to me over the past 22 years. His retirement in January of this year has deprived us of his leadership but I pray that his wisdom, guidance, and encouragement will be available to me and to many others in the years ahead. We are fortunate to have in Kilmore, during the interregnum, a very able administrator in Monsignor Liam Kelly and I wish to thank him as well for his encouragement and support.
The most supportive and loving people in my life are, of course, my parents Tony and Nora and my sisters Breda and Martina my brothers in law, Derek and Ollie, my nieces and nephews and all my family circle. I thank them today for all they have contributed to my life thus far and for the support they have given me throughout my thirty years of priestly ministry.
I am in many ways a complete stranger to this area but I suppose I do have some spiritual connections. From my home place in Virginia, Co Cavan, there is a beautiful view across Lough Ramor to the Loughcrew hills, near Oldcastle, the birthplace of Saint Oliver Plunkett who served this Archdiocese in very difficult times and was obedient unto death. We are going through testing times today as a Church but those tribulations pale in comparison to what Saint Oliver and his contemporaries endured. I pray that I will have some of his courage and strength in my calling.
Another spiritual connection which comes to mind this morning relates to Saint Benan, known in Latin as Saint Benignus. Three years ago, when we reorganised the Pastoral Areas in the Diocese of Kilmore, we were searching for a name for the grouping of parishes centred around Bailieborough. One of our Pastoral Area Council members suggested the name of Saint Benan, who as a boy was one of the first converts of Saint Patrick. Legend has it that Benan, on one of his missionary excursions with Saint Patrick into Breffni, established a Church in Drumbannon, on the outskirts of the present-day town of Bailieborough. He later became the first assistant bishop to Saint Patrick here in Armagh and was also his cantor or psalm singer. I hope I am able to assist Archbishop Eamon in many ways but I’m afraid my singing voice is such that I won’t be able to assist him as a cantor. Thankfully the Archbishop has abundant talent of his own in that area. Like Saint Benan I move from Bailieborough to the Archdiocese of Armagh and, as I do so, I pray for his intercession and help[i].
As I grew up in County Cavan from the 1960’s to the 1980’s the work, influence and example of lay people, clergy and religious in the Church community, both locally and nationally, were a hugely positive influence in my upbringing. My parents were always closely involved in parish life and their experience was positive and rewarding – a source of blessing and fulfilment for them and for our family to this day. The commitment, the spirit and the faith of the local clergy in my native parish of Lurgan, Co Cavan, and the dedication and kindness of the religious who taught me, laid the foundations of my personal faith and nurtured my vocation to the priesthood. As a priest I have been very fortunate to have the inspiration, the support and true Christian example of the people, priests and religious in the diocese of Kilmore over the past thirty years, particularly in Saint Patrick’s College, Bailieborough Community School and in the Diocesan Pastoral Centre and also in the parishes of Killinkere, Kilmainhamwood and Moybolgue, Castletara, Cavan and in my present position in Bailieborough in the parish of Killann.
I am sharply aware that many people do not share the same positive experience of Church that I do. For various historical and cultural reasons, the Church in this country became, for many years, too comfortable in its position of temporal as well as spiritual authority. The present time, however, is a period of unprecedented change for the Church in this country and the pace of change will only continue to increase in the years ahead. But as people of faith we must anticipate and embrace that change. We must never hanker for the certainties of the past but work towards creating a new expression of what it means to be Church in this time and this place. Even though I take on this role with fear and trepidation in my heart I do so also with a sense of excitement that we are at a crossroads where we can shape a new existence for our faith communities. As a Church we move more and more from the centre to the margins and even though that is painful for many it will be, I believe, a positive thing in the long term. From the margins the Church can give full reign to its prophetic voice and challenge, head on, the injustice, the economic inequality, the violence, the despair and the sense of alienation that exists in society today. Now is the time for us, while we still have reasonable numbers and a little energy, to shape the future that we want to see and to continue to bring ourselves and our communities into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ who will bring us freedom and take on all our burdens and our anxieties if we trust in Him.
Even though I am very conscious of my own weakness and limitations, and I very reluctantly take on this role today, I abandon myself to God’s will and I call on the power of his Holy Spirit to guide and inspire me. I know that His help, support and encouragement will come to me through the people and priests of this great archdiocese; people and priests that I will be greatly honoured to work with, to learn from and to serve in the future.
Saint Patrick, pray for us, Saint Bridget, pray for us, Saint Malachy, pray for us, Saint Oliver Plunkett, pray for us, Saint Benan, pray for us.
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