As I write my log this week, which I usually do on a Thursday, the Gospel for the day is about Jesus sending the 12 disciples out on mission, and he sends them out in pairs. It brought to mind the first time I went out to preach a parish mission, shortly after my ordination as a Passionist priest, and being paired with a much older, more experienced missioner, to provide encouragement and support, and to show me the ropes.
This good priest was a missioner in more ways than one. He had spent most of his priestly life as a much-loved missionary in Botswana, before coming home in the late 1970’s, after which he was appointed as assistant to the Novice Master in Crossgar, just as I was entering the Novitiate with my 4 classmates. He was a man of great kindness, humour, experience and wisdom, and we enjoyed his input very much. I do remember, though, when he accompanied us on the Novitiate Holiday to Hook Head in County Wexford, that he got quite annoyed when we were acting the goat during a game of cards. He later apologised and explained that in Botswana, when the missionaries would come in once a week from their various mission stations, to have a meal together, catch up on each other, and enjoy a game of cards, that they took the cards very seriously, and that he still hadn’t got that out of his system.
I was delighted, then, when I was paired with him as a young priest, to conduct my first parish mission in Derry City. It was an extraordinary experience as all of the parishes in Derry City held their annual mission at the same time. Of the seven parishes in the city, four of the missions were being conducted by Passionists, and we were in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Steelstown. The parish priest and my mentor, as it turned out, were from the same small village in County Tyrone. At meal times they talked so much to each other that the curate and myself never really got a word in throughout the whole fortnight.
Derry City still had the old tradition of a week for the women, followed by a week for the men. On the middle Monday, as the transition took place, it was customary for the parish priests of all the parishes to bring the missioners out for lunch. All the Passionists from the four parish missions were brought to the same place, so it was great to catch up with how everyone was doing. The first Mass each day was at 6 a.m. followed by Confessions. The local bakers would set up stalls with hot morning baps to sell after Masses. The last priest out after Confessions was always given a free bag of hot baps to bring back for breakfast.
An extraordinary tradition was that, on the final night of the men’s mission, all the men, young and old, would wear a white flower in their lapel, given to them by a woman in their life – wife; mother; girlfriend; sister, or whoever it might be – to signify the state of grace they were now in at the end of the mission, and no doubt hoping that they might stay that way, at least for a while. What a sight to see a packed church of men wearing flowers!
I gave many parish missions after that, both in Ireland and in Scotland, and I enjoyed all of them, but that first mission was quite unique, and an experience I will never forget. I don’t know if Derry City has continued those wonderful traditions, and I suppose parish missions are few and far between now, but I will always feel blessed and grateful for the good people of God I met in many places, for their faith and their kindness, and for the encouragement they gave to me and to whatever companions I was with. My companion and mentor on that particular mission has gone to God now, as has the parish priest. I imagine they are still sharing memories of that little County Tyrone village that they both came from, and I doubt whether even God will manage to get a word in.
Then Jesus called the Twelve to Him and began to send them out in pairs… so they set out to preach the Good News… (Mark 6:7;13)