At the time of writing, today is the 37th anniversary of my ordination as a Passionist priest, which took place in St. Mungo’s on the 18th of June, 1983. It was my mother’s 64th birthday so, if she had still been alive, she would have been 101 today. I was ordained by Cardinal Thomas Winning, and I remember he made a bigger fuss of my mother on the day than he did of me, which I must confess, as someone who dislikes being fussed over, I was very happy about. Since then, I have spent 3 years in St. Mungo’s as an itinerant preacher and Vocations Director; 6 years in Dublin as a Formation Director; 2 years in the North of England, and one year in County Sligo, in the West of Ireland, as Novice Master for the Passionists of North Europe. For one year, when there were no novices, I was sent to South Africa and Botswana, and engaged in a variety of parish, preaching and formation roles. I then spent 5 years in Prestonpans, in East Lothian, and 14 years in Dublin, as a Rector and Parish Priest, with a further two years in the midst of that doing itinerant preaching to promote devotion to our, at that time, newly canonized saint, St. Charles of Mount Argus; and I have now spent 4 years back in St. Mungo’s, again as Rector and Parish Priest. I am hoping that adds up to 37. Those were the main roles I was appointed to, but, throughout that time, I have also served on our Provincial Council; given many preached and directed retreats; and I have been Provincial Bursar for more years than I care to remember. Next Wednesday I will be 69 years of age.
Within that there have been, naturally, a whole variety of experiences and challenges; highs and lows; triumphs and failures; joys and sorrows; heart warmings and heartaches, struggles and surprises, laughter and tears – just an ordinary life really; and, while I wouldn’t necessarily say I am still going strong, at least I am still going, and I think I have the health and the hope and the enthusiasm to keep going for a bit longer yet, with whatever I can offer. This present time, however, is about the strangest time I have gone through as a priest in these past 37 years. Churches closed, celebrating Mass online with a virtual congregation; unable to hear Confessions, or visit the sick and housebound; unable to celebrate baptisms or weddings, or to hold a proper requiem for the deceased - and still it goes on. Again, as I write, I am waiting to hear what our First Minister has to say about easing restrictions and where that will take us. But, while I long for Mass to return to our churches, I can’t say I am looking forward to putting on a mask to distribute Holy Communion, to communicants who will also have to wear masks, receive in the hand, step to the side, remove their masks, consume the host, and then replace their masks to return to their place. No doubt God is in all of this, as God is in all things, and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we will find a way forward, and come to know the meaning, the learning, and the grace that is contained within.
If it has been strange for me, then it has been strange for the other members of my Passionist Community as well. Two days ago, on the 16th of June, Father Antony celebrated the 1st anniversary of his Final Profession as a Passionist and he is now almost 6 months into his priesthood. How could he possibly have envisaged how these first months would unfold? Has Father Justinian ever experienced anything like this in his 60+ years as a Passionist Priest? As for Father Gareth, the strangeness of the experience for him has been compounded by spending all of lock down with his isolated and shielded mum in Wales. The other day a letter arrived for me, and I recognized the spidery writing on the envelope as being Father Gareth’s. Inside, however, the letter had been written by his mum, thanking me for allowing her big son to be with her at this time, and saying how much that meant to her; as well as the blessing and the privilege of having her son celebrate Holy Mass in her humble home each day. Her heart was reaching out to all who had suffered and who weren’t so blessed as her during this time. We miss Father Gareth greatly, but he is where he is meant to be, by God’s providence. When God wills, he will be back, and we’ll all be back, with songs to sing, and tales to tell. Meantime, protect yourselves and your loved ones, and protect Christ in your lives.