Ordination Mass homily
Homily preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Irish Provincial Leader, at the Ordination to the Priesthood of Kevin Conway SMA in St Patrick’s Church, Dunamanagh, Co Tyrone on 18th June 2011. He is pictured here with Bishop Patrick J Harrington SMA, Bishop-emeritus of Lodwar, Kenya.
Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 Hebrews 5:1 – 10 John 20:19 – 23
Once, many years ago, there was a man who walked at night through the dark streets of his home town carrying a burning oil lamp. The city was very dark on moonless nights like that one. At a certain point he meets a friend who looks at him in astonishment and says: “what are you doing with a lamp in your hands? You are a blind man and cannot see at all”.
The blind man answered: “I do not carry the lamp to find my way in the night. I know by heart the darkness of these city streets. I carry the lamp so that others may find their way when they meet me”.
In some ways this little story captures the essence of what it is to be priest and missionary. Where there is a crucial difference from the story, however, is that carrying the light of Christ in the world illumines the way for our own journey as well as the journey of those we encounter along the way.
At the back of Kevin’s beautiful ordination booklet you can read perhaps the most famous quote of all from the founder of the Society of African Missions [SMA], Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac: “To be a missionary from the bottom of my heart.”
All the disciples of De Brésillac make the same commitment. Last year in Nairobi Kevin committed himself for life to the missionary work of the SMA. As the Latin words put it: ad extra, ad gentes, at vitam, – i.e. outside one’s own culture, to all peoples, for one’s whole life.
Kevin has exercised his diaconate ministry for the past year in Nairobi and in Walthamstow, London. [It is so good to see Fr John Brown and members of the parish community of Walthamstow here today]. Today he will be ordained a priest by Bishop Patrick Harrington SMA, in whose diocese of Lodwar, Kenya, Kevin spent a year of pastoral training. Those of us gathered here today, and so many throughout the world who cannot be physically present, pray for you Kevin that you may have a truly blessed lifetime ministry in Africa or wherever else you serve out God’s mission through the SMA.
It is very fitting that this ordination takes place here in Dunamanagh. Kevin is the first young man to be ordained priest in the Irish Province of the SMA for twelve years. So it is an occasion for rejoicing and a day of new growth. Kevin will join colleagues ordained this year in Africa and Poland; on mission he will live among colleagues from a dozen countries of Africa, India, Philippines, Poland, Western Europe and North America. A new reality is being lived out in SMA today with most of our young men coming from the Majority World.
But SMA or mission is not new to Dunamanagh. We remember with affection today the late SMA Fathers Tommy Blee and Michael McGlinchey, both buried in the cemetery at Aughabrack. Sr Dolores Kearney of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles and Fr Paddy Dooher of the Columban Missionaries [both present here today] are other examples of the great missionary tradition from this local church in this part of the diocese of Derry.
OLA Sisters Mary Crowley (Provincial Superior), Dolores Kearney, Fr Kevin and Patricia McMenamin pictured after the Ordination Mass.
And we are supported here by a strong lay family network through the Family Vocations Crusade and other supports to mission. I know that many of you present here today support mission in various ways, some through membership of the Friends of Africa. We pray that our celebration today will inspire other young men and women to commit themselves to mission for life as priests or sisters.
Missionary life is not an easy life but it is a good life. When one lives it fully at the service of others one receives so much more than one can ever give. I know that this has already been Kevin’s experience through his years of studying in Africa. One experiences God’s Spirit alive in a people and culture so much different to one’s own, people passionate about life and life’s possibilities, people who never doubt that their being is grounded in God. My experience has been that African Christians are real bearers of hope; in the midst of sometimes appalling situations they can exude a Christian hope that is humbling. They hope because they believe that God has truly conquered the world in and through Jesus Christ. Kevin will both bear and receive that hope as he lives and works among the people of Africa.
Fr Kevin distributing Holy Communion after his Ordination.
Kevin will live missionary life from today forward in a unique way as an ordained priest. As priest you will be convener and leader of the local Catholic community. You will celebrate with and for them the Blessed Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. In celebrating Mass you will have the awesome privilege of making present the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, true and vital nourishment for the soul. “the one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life in them, and I will raise them up on the last day”. And as you celebrate Eucharist, you will continually challenge your people – and yourself, of course, also – to become ever more truly the very thing that you celebrate, i.e. to become more truly the Body of Christ: a community that while it reveres the sacred species of the Body of Christ on the altar, it reveres, too, the sacredness of each individual member of that Body of Christ.
The readings Kevin himself chose for today’s Mass speak to us of the qualities he will need to live his priesthood with faithfulness and integrity. Kevin will try to replicate in his life the manner of life of God’s servant as depicted in the book of the prophet Isaiah: he will try to bring about true justice not through wielding power or having people cower before him but rather through gentleness and encouragement of the weak and vulnerable. And he will know that whatever he does is not his own work but the Lord’s work. So long as he allows the Lord to hold him by the hand and lead him, then all things are possible.
And, Kevin, you will do well to take on board the advice in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Selected from among people and appointed to represent them in matters related to God, you can deal gently with the wayward and those who may have gone astray so long as you remember that you too are subject to weakness. All of us – and priests perhaps more than anyone else – have to remain conscious that we are subject to weakness. Indeed, our ministry is lived best when lived out of the space of our own vulnerability. This allows space for God to act and gets our own ego away from the driving seat. Perhaps in this regard the following slogan can be helpful to any priest: ‘Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use’.
The honour of serving as priest is not an honour you take on yourself. You are called to this life; it is a vocation. You have answered the call but you never possess the call. It is always God who calls and leads. Even Christ himself did not take upon himself the glory of becoming high priest.
After his ordination, a priest is clothed, for the first time, in the Stole and Chasuble. Fr Kevin was assisted in this deeply symbolic action by his parents Anne and Liam.
The gospel reminds us of two things: that Jesus’ abiding gift to us is Peace. I pray that you will experience that peace and that you can exude that peace to others. And it reminds us that peace comes through forgiveness. As priest you will have the most humbling of all tasks, i.e. the granting of absolution through the sacrament of penance. The more you celebrate the sacrament the more you will recognise your own need, too, to receive the sacrament of absolution. But your task will also be to teach people that forgiveness is something we do for each other and that in forgiving the other I heal myself.
You don’t have to be a priest to withhold forgiveness from another. We can choose to forgive the one who has offended us or to hold their sin against them. Forgiving means that I refuse to allow the one who has offended me to hold me in a life of bitterness where my heart is eaten up by desires for revenge. It will be your task as priest to remind people that, in the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated, Christians must never hold the sin of another against them. And, remarkably, the benefit is not primarily to the one forgiven but rather to the one who does the forgiving.
Today we ask our Mother Mary to wrap Kevin in her mantle of protection.
Mary, Mother of the Church, Mother of all Christians, Mother of priests, we ask you to hold Kevin in your full embrace, to protect him from danger and harm, to lead him always to your Son Jesus, so that it is in Him that he will live and move and have his being.