The Society of African Missions was founded on the 8th December 1856 by Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac at the Basilica of Our Lady of Fourvière which stands on a hill overlooking the city of Lyon in France. In 1858, Bishop deBrésillac was appointed as the first Vicar Apostolic of Sierra Leone. On 14 May 1859, the Bishop and two other SMA missionaries arrived in Freetown. They were advised by the local authorities not to land due to a Yellow Fever epidemic raging in the town at the time. Two priests and a brother were already there and Bishop deBrésillac and his two companions resolved to join them, no matter the risk. This heroic decision of the Founder was to cost him his life, just six weeks later, on 25 June 1859. Five of that original band of six were to die in Freetown between the 2nd and 28th of June 1859. One was repatriated to France.
From what seemed to be a total disaster, today, more than 900 SMA brothers, priests, bishops and seminarians join with our families and supporters throughout the world in celebrating the 158th anniversary of our foundation. Moladh go deo le Dia! [Praised be God for ever]
The SMA community in Blackrock Road, Cork have an additional reason to celebrate today – the Diamond Jubilee of Fr Bernard Cotter SMA [on 8 December 1954] and the Golden Jubilee of Fr Willie Cusack SMA [on 16 December 1964]. More than 50 priests and brothers gathered for a Thanksgiving Mass led by Fr Cotter and assisted by Fr Cusack.
Fr Denis Collins preached the following homily.
I remember that a few years ago when I had celebrated Mass in the parish in Wilton on this great Feast, a lady came to me in the sacristy and, with great delight at having discovered something for the first time, she thanked me for having made her aware that what we celebrate is the fact that it is Mary herself who was conceived immaculate, free from Original Sin. She had been of the impression that it referred to the conception of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ, Our Saviour, in Mary’s womb when she had consented to God’s call – “Be it done unto me according to your word” – and thereby conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was something of a spiritual “Eureka” for this parishioner. It was a homily from her to me in return for the few feeble words I had said at the Mass. From the very first moment of her being Mary was free of sin and maintained that right through her life. But being “free of sin” is but a negative way of expressing the wonderful positive truth that Mary was “FULL OF GRACE”, and that she enjoyed, by virtue of a very special and unique favour of her God, an intimacy and friendship with God that was originally intended for all of us. That unique privilege of Mary is not something that makes Mary removed and remote from us, but rather, brings her closer to us. I’m sure Mary looks on us in her motherly way as we flounder along and thinks: “there go I but for the grace of God”!
When you stop and think about it and reflect on it, isn’t it great that our Catholic Faith and the “sensus fidelium” should attribute such a title to Mary. It had to be the Holy Spirit, who worked in and through Mary to give us our Redeemer, who also inspired the Church to honour and proclaim Mary as IMMACULATE. Mary as the Immaculate Conception has had much significance in my own life, and, I’m sure, in yours as well. My home parish, the Lough Parish, is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. My family members continue to pray there. I return there regularly to attend the funerals of neighbours and parishioners.
In 1854 came the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, though devotion to Our Lady under that title had long been established. Four years later, in 1858, Our Lady appeared a number of times to a young simple peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous at a cave at Lourdes in France. When Bernadette asked the lady who she was she replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception”, a title the young girl probably didn’t understand. In between those two years another conception took place in Lyons in France.
In 1856 a small group of men went into a church dedicated to Our Lady on this day, the 8th of December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, pledged and committed themselves to God as a new infant religious family, the Society of African Missions, and placed it under the protection and patronage of Our Blessed Lady.
I leap forward now almost a hundred years. In 1954, on the occasion of the centenary of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope declared a Marian Year. Many local shrines to Our Lady sprouted up all over the country; streets, parks, houses were named in her honour. Almost every baby girl born that year was named Marian. (If you know anybody named Marian, you can have a fair idea how old she is, even if she won’t tell you. You can tell her “why, even your name doth betray you”).
There were two groups of SMAs ordained priests in 1954. Earlier this year we have honoured the living members of the first group, Paddy McGovern, Frank Meehan, John Clancy and Mick Evans. Today we honour and congratulate Fr Bernie Cotter, the last man standing of the second group and the main celebrant of our Mass. Fr Bernie, it’s great that you still have the health, the energy, the strength, the faith and the fervour to lead us on this occasion. In 1964, only 50 years ago, Fr Willie Cusack was ordained. The Province has already congratulated and celebrated Fr Willie’s class in the summer, and we honour you today on behalf of the Blackrock Road community. We felt that you wouldn’t mind if we celebrate with you again.
We are blessed by God in so many ways. One of His greatest gifts to us is giving us His own Mother to be our mother also. Mary has a mother’s instinct towards us, and no matter how old or advanced we are there is a child’s instinct in all of us to have recourse to our mother. I’m sure you’ve at some stage seen a sticker on the back window of a car which reads: “Be nice and kind to your children, as they are the ones who will decide which nursing home to put you into.” I thought that was somewhat humorous until my sister told me a true story last week about a friend of hers. The friend and her husband were called to meet with the members of the family, so they went along, wondering what it was about. The parents were told in no uncertain terms that they would have to cut down on the number of holidays they were taking each year, as they were using up the family legacy!
Jesus’ words are: “Woman, behold your son” and to us: “My child, behold your mother.”
Mary has a great advantage over us, and we don’t begrudge her that – she was spared from sin in her personal life, but she had a very personal intimate experience of sin in all its malice and vindictiveness as she stood at the foot of the Cross. Mary was walking with God in the Garden of goodness from the very first moment of her being. This total friendship with God and life-long commitment to Him is commended by Jesus Himself. They are more important and relevant in God’s eyes and mind than the fact of her being His mother. And for us they are more important and relevant in God’s eyes and mind than being a priest on earth. It reminds me of an instance I experienced on my one and only visit to the United States. I met a young family who were complete strangers to me and we became quite friendly over the few days. The young wife confided to me that she had a brother who had been ordained a priest. They had been very close growing up. She had a little nickname for him, which to me sounded harmless enough. One day he told her that she wasn’t to call him by that name any more, now that he was a priest of God. She was still smarting from the hurt of it, even as she told me about it years later. She felt that somehow it had put a wedge into their close brother-sister relationship. He may have “graduated” to becoming a priest, and for this she respected him, but she felt that she had somehow “lost” her brother.
On your respective days of Ordination, Bernie and Willie, the Bishop addressed you, as all who are ordained are addressed, with the words of St. Augustine: “Imitemini quod agitis” – “imitate what you do”. You who have been ordained to bring Christ to earth and to birth daily at your Mass, continue to bring Him not only to yourself but to others. Do so with a joyous spirit, with the joy of the Gospel, that Pope Francis urges and exhorts us to do, particularly during this special Year of Consecrated Life.
On today’s Feast we reflect on the humility of Mary on whom so many favours were bestowed. Aware of her own nothingness she magnifies the Lord for all He has done in her and for her, but more so that she is His instrument of love and mercy for all peoples, the fulfilment of the prophecies to the Jewish people and His far-flung embrace for all peoples of all nations. It reminds us also of our own calling, what God has worked through us and continues to work through us. May the glory be to Him and not to ourselves. Only my sins are my own.
We are well aware of the advances of Secularism in our own country. Archbishop Neary of Tuam highlighted the situation in an address recently. He was stating the obvious. However, I take exception to his statement as I saw it reported in The Irish Catholic: “A great struggle, social, political, intellectual and profoundly cultural has been fought, and that we have lost.” The Archbishop warned that the communal understanding and experience of Christian culture “is gone, never to return.” “On the very edge of Europe, we are hearing the last vestiges of Christendom in their death-rattle.” How consoling and how up-lifting and how full of the joy of the Gospel is that? We can never lose the battle.
Pope Francis put it up to the European politicians and he is putting it up to us too. Some heartening words of the Pope: “The faith of our people is a slap in the face of secularism. That is why it can be said that popular piety is an active evangelising force that carries with it an effective antidote against the advance of secularism.” And again: “One of the most serious temptations that lead us to break our contact with the Lord is the feeling of defeat. Facing a faith which is to renew the face of the earth, the enemy under the guise of an angel of light will sow the seeds of pessimism. No one can take up the fight if, from the outset, one does not fully trust in winning. Those who begin without trust or hope have already lost half the battle.” Archbishop Neary claims we have lost more than half, we’ve lost it all!
There is always the “Faithful Remnant” – there always has been, there always will be. Surely the expression of popular piety at Knock should give the Archbishop hope. May Mary inspire him to have hope and to encourage his people to have hope. How wonderful to see the faith and dedication of those people in Kerry who were not daunted by secularism when they applied themselves to re-erect the cross that had been desecrated on Carrantuohill. As SMAs we, and others like us, set out to plant the Cross in foreign lands. We all have a mission here at home to re-erect the Cross of Christ among our own people. There is a challenge involved, an adventure involved, as there was in our younger days when we set sail for Africa and other lands. Let us not flinch from it, even when we are not as lively as in the days of yore. I refer you to a quotation from our Founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, which has been printed at the back of our hymn leaflet for today – “My work will live as long as there is a willingness to continue it and you will be this willingness.”
We congratulate Bernie and Willie on their Jubilees. We thank God for all the great things He has worked in them and through their ministry. May God’s blessing be on all of us as we offer gratefulness to Him through His Blessed Mother, who can achieve miracles of grace and love through us, unworthy and helpless as we are.
Thank God for our Society of African Missions, which, in so many ways, is a Mother to us, not immaculate, to be true and honest, but striving to be honest to God all the same.