This weekend in St. Mungo’s we are happily celebrating a Thanksgiving Mass for the Golden Jubilee of Passionist priesthood, of two men who have played a big part in my own journey as a Passionist down the years; Father Jim Sweeney CP, and Father Bernard Lowe CP.
In 2016 at our Provincial Chapter, Father Jim became the first Scot ever to be elected Provincial of the Passionists of St. Patrick’s Province, which is made up of a number of houses in Scotland and Ireland, as well as an English-speaking parish in Paris. Until recently St. Patrick’s Province also included South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, and while restructuring has seen our African Passionists move in the direction of autonomy, our Province still retains a close relationship with them to help and support them on that journey.
My first experience of Father Jim was during my working years. In 1969, after leaving St. Mungo’s Secondary School, where Father Jim had just been appointed chaplain, I had started going to the Passionist Retreat House at Coodham in Ayrshire and had become a lay member of the team conducting the retreats. Father Jim had been ordained in December 1968 and, while based in St. Mungo’s, he had also got involved with the Youth and Young Adult Retreats at Coodham. In those exciting times after Vatican II, I always found his inputs and liturgies hugely inspiring, and, without doubt, his inspiration contributed to my decision, made in the summer of 1974, to abandon accountancy and test out a Passionist vocation. Father Jim had also been appointed Vocations Director for the Passionists in Scotland and I remember leaving work in Olivetti one day and getting off the bus at St. Mungo’s to go and make my initial approach. When I got to the Retreat, I discovered that there had been a Provincial Chapter that summer, and that Father Jim had been replaced as Vocations Director by Father Michael Doogan, who had been ordained in December 1970. Those who knew Father Michael will appreciate that I didn’t have a straightforward accompaniment process with him. Always larger than life, Father Michael had me involved in all sorts of things, and it was only after I entered the following year, and heard my classmates talking about their interview experiences, that I realised that I had never actually had an interview. The only thing I remember from that time was a very young and fresh-faced Father Paul Francis, home for a family visit, filling me in on life as a Passionist Postulant and Student. Father Jim was transferred to Coodham after the 1974 Chapter and he continued to be a big influence on me and a great support to me as I prepared to leave for the Graan in Enniskillen, where my postulancy was due to take place, and he has continued to be an inspiration and support down through the years. I was very happy when he was elected Provincial.
After 4 years of postulancy and studies I was more than ready to go to the Passionist Novitiate in Crossgar, County Down. It was 1979 and myself and my classmates had waited on in Dublin for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland before heading north. The Novice Master was Father Bernard Lowe, who had prepared for this ministry by spending some time in America. Father Bernard is a very gentle, quiet man; but with a breadth of wisdom and knowledge that is hard to match, and an edge of steel that only comes into play when it has to. I look back on my Novitiate as one of the best and most formative years of my life, as indeed it is meant to be, and a lot of that was down to Father Bernard. In later years when I was also made Novice Master, I had a very good role model to look back on. I also served on the Provincial Council when Father Bernard was the Provincial, and we worked together for a number of years in Mount Argus when he succeeded me as Rector and I continued on as Parish Priest. He is a genuinely good and holy man. I could not do justice to these two good and gifted men in such a few words, but I congratulate them and wish them every blessing.
May God’s love and grace be on Father Jim and Father Bernard, in thanks for all they have given of themselves in the service of God these past 50 years as Passionist Priests. Amen.