The Paschal Mystery
homily of Fr John Horgan SMA on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of
Fathers John Clancy, Frank Meehan and Paddy McGovern
1 October 2014 – African Missions, Blackrock Road, Cork
It is fitting that we are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of John, Frank & Paddy on the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux as it was around this day 60 years ago that they were here at Blackrock Road for the annual departure ceremony after which they departed to Africa.
John, Frank & Paddy were three important members of the class ordained priests that year; 11 of them on the 15th June 1954 while a twelfth member the class, Bob Wiseman, was ordained the following September.
They were assigned to three African countries: George Chester to Egypt, Larry Collins & Bob Wiseman to Liberia, Nigeria got the lion’s share with Frank Burke & Mick Higgins going to Benin, Pat McGovern to Ibadan, Frank Meehan to Jos, Sean Murphy to Kaduna, John Clancy to Lagos and Pat Murphy to Ondo.
As was customary at the time, the two slow learners of the group, Michael Morgan Evans & Hugh McLaughlin were sent further studies to get them up to speed and on completing their studies they also were appointed to Ondo diocese bring to three the number of that ordination class in the diocese of Ondo.
When John, Frank & Paddy back to 1954, and compare it to 2014 they see changes in themselves, in the SMA, in the Church, in Irish society.
But they see the biggest changes in Africa, first in the political structures in the continent. As far as I know Liberia was the only independent African country in 1954. Ghana was led to independence in 1957 under Kwame Nkrumah. After that the winds of political change blew strongly across the continent leading to independence to most African countries within a short span of years.
And the greatest changes in Africa are in the Church in Africa. In 1954 almost all Church personnel were foreign missionaries sowing the seed of God’s Word in a promising field of evangelisation but the fruit was still no hugely visible. Now virtually all Church personnel male and female are sons and daughters of Africa. The liturgies have moved on from being celebrated in Latin with ‘Plain Chant’ to vibrant celebrations in the local language and music, song and dance from the local culture. There is an explosion in the Catholic population and substantial numbers have embraced religious life and priesthood. In fact today most religious families are now well established in Africa.
The SMA now has three new branches in Africa, called Districts-in-formation of DF’s. They are; ‘The Gulf of Guinea DF’ & ‘The Bight of Benin DF’, in West Africa and ‘The Great Lakes DF in the East.
There is certain irony here as the class of 54 like many before them left Dromantine to be agents of change in Africa and in the world. They had a zeal for mission; having been formed in and imbued with the vision of the Church’s mission at the time; they were motivated by the Love of Christ and their goal was saving souls among the ‘infidels of Africa’.
They headed off believing their seminary theology was a true reflection of the Church they would meet and work in. This would have caused an initial difficulty for them and within ten years of arriving in Africa they had to take on the vision and new emphasis of the Second Vatican Council.
One Cork diocesan priest described how he coped with this problem of matching theory and practice; harmonising vision and reality. He said: “I fell back to my up-bringing to a rhetorical example of the Spring Calves on our family farm. The light of the long days blinds the calves when the doors are thrown open and they are released from the shed and the winter’s darkness. For the first few days the spring calf doesn’t see the electric fence or the stone fence and prances around the field in a cycle of stumbling, getting shocked and getting up. Of course the older cattle just keep on grazing, casting an occasional smirk across the fence to the young neighbours and giggle at the suggestion in the latest Farmers’ Journal that there is a more productive and intelligent breed arriving!” Tom Hayes felt his seminary dream could be a distraction. He said: “the lesson from my days minding calves is that I also believed for a time that what I had come to know in the dim-lit corridors of the seminary was a true reflection of the church outside. A wise parishioner gave me a piece of advice: “if you want to change something your starting point has to be the present”.
This was sound advice because the here and now is more real than any vision; the here and now is what we are living and it is where we are challenged to meet Christ. So it has to be the foundation of all our tomorrows. But the here and now is always saturated with challenges we wish were not here; this applies to all stages of life, old age as well as youth. Everything new we engage in, every adjustment we make is threatening in one way or another.
The blind man in the gospel asked Jesus to let him see again – not just to let him see. His blindness was made more frustrating by the memories he formed when he had his sight. Then he had a picture of the world which he could understand and could interpret the expressions on peoples’ faces. But his loss of sight isolated him from all the change that was taking place around him so he was unable to describe it or engage with it or appreciate it.
Celebrating a diamond jubilee is a good time to thank God who has made it all possible; and a good time to listen to the Lord asking again what do we want him to do for us? And what would our ‘Lord let me see again’ be? Perhaps it might be something in this vein:
Let me to see again that you wish me to grow in an ever deepening friendship with you through prayer; so that my focus on you, as my vision, may become ever more clear and life–giving in the here and now.
Let me see again that I need to give real, practical and coherent assent to living out the vision and priorities of the 2013 Provincial & General Assemblies in the here and now.
Let me see that the side of the road is no place for a disciple to be; that ‘nothing created can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. He is the one who invites us and accompanies us into the winds of change in personal and communal missionary life’s journey.