Homily preached by Michael McCabe SMA
Dromantine (6 December 2018)
‘From the day the SMA set foot here [in Ireland), the Society had their [the Catholic laity] support, not just morally, but practically – in every conceivable way. Our work was truly blessed because of their support and could not fail because the laity understood what we were about and, indeed, had already embraced it.’
– Fr. Eddie Hogan SMA (SMA Irish Province Bulletin, Christmas 2018, p. 29).
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 162 years ago, Mon. Melchior de Marion Brésillac founded the Society of African Missions. In a letter written on the 13th December 1856 to the then Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide, Mgr. Barnabo, he describes this dramatic event in the following words:
Although I have not yet received a reply to the letter I had the honour of writing to you about a month ago, I think it useful to let you know that on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception we went, seven of us, to offer our enterprise to the Blessed Virgin, at the foot of her image venerated on the hill of Fourvière. There we renewed our resolution to devote ourselves entirely to the work of the African Missions. And we desire, if the Sacred Congregation so permits, to date the existence of our Society from the 8th December 1856.
These laconic words capture the moment the Society of African Missions was born. It was a moment of profound faith and heroic generosity, reflecting and repeating the unconditional “fiat” of her under whose protection our Founder placed his new enterprise. At that moment a seed for God’s Kingdom was sown, one that would yield abundant fruit and call forth hundreds of young men – and women – to give their lives so that the Gospel of Christ might reach “the most abandoned” in Africa.
It was no accident that de Brésillac dedicated his new Missionary Society to the Virgin Mary on the 8th December, the Feast of her Immaculate Conception. The mid-nineteenth century was a high point of mariological devotion in the Church. Many of the great founders and foundresses of Missionary Institutes and Religious Congregations in the 19th century laid their dreams at the feet of Mary. Two years before de Brésillac founded the SMA, Pius IX had capped a great wave of mariological fervour with the definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, declaring that, by the grace of God, and through the merits of her Son, Mary was preserved free from all sin.
Today, as we celebrate our Foundation Day, we acknowledge and thank God for our Founder, and for all that the SMA, by God’s grace, has been able to accomplish for the growth of God’s reign over the past 162 years. We acknowledge and thank God particularly for the outstanding contribution that the Irish Province – the first Province of the Society outside France – has made, and continues to make, to SMA mission. Dromantine has played – and continues to play – a key role in that mission. As the major Seminary of the Irish Province for almost 50 years, it trained over 600 missionary priests who left their homeland, and brought the Gospel Message to Africa, transforming the lives of the people and creating vibrant, a fast growing and, increasingly, missionary Church.
Then, as a House of Promotion and Retreat and Conference Centre for the past 40 + years, it did much to enhance the profile of the Society in Northern Ireland and was a significant instrument in the ongoing renewal of the Irish Church. In both phases of its existence, it was the generous and constant support of the local clergy and Catholic laity which not only kept Dromantine going, but enabled our mission in Africa to flourish.
Eddie Hogan states, in a recent homily he preached for Mission Sunday 2018: ‘From the day the SMA set foot here [in Ireland), the Society had their [the Catholic laity] support, not just morally, but practically – in every conceivable way. Our work was truly blessed because of their support and could not fail because the laity understood what we were about and, indeed, had already embraced it.’ (SMA Irish Province Bulletin, Christmas 2018, p. 29).
I think this was especially true of the Catholic laity in the North of Ireland, who have consistently supported in every conceivable way the SMA and this House in all phases of its evolution since it first opened in1926.
There are some who believe that, after more than a century and a half, our mission is over. We have accomplished what our Founder wished to achieve – the development of an indigenous African Church with its own leaders. Is it not time to fold up our tents and retire?
But is our mission over? In his famous Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Missio, written almost thirty years ago, Pope St John Paul II stated that the mission ad gentes was still in its infancy, and that, as the world changes, new arenas of mission keep emerging. The Pope went on to mention a few of these new arenas or worlds of mission: the world of migrants; the world of the mass media; the world of youth; the world of women (RM 37). We could add to these, the world of the victims of trafficking – the new form of slavery – ; the dark world of the victims of sexual abuse; the created world, groaning more than ever under the weight of decades of domination and abuse from its human overlords, and waiting for the liberation of the children of God, to echo Paul’s words in Romans 8.
Most of us would admit that these arenas of mission constitute stirring new challenges for missionaries, but are they challenges for us to embrace? Are they in line with our Founding charism?
Yes, indeed they are, if we recognise a charism as a dynamic and creative gift of the Spirit whose practical implications have to be discerned and lived in each new historical context.
But are we not too old and set in our ways to embrace the new challenges of mission? Each of us must answer this question for himself. However we answer it, we should remember that we are not alone. We never were; we had, as Eddie Hogan puts it, ‘the missionary minded laity always at our back’. Now, of course, we need them not only at our back, but at our side, and perhaps also in front of us, leading us on to new horizons of mission, and helping us, in a new context, to emulate that courageous and enterprising spirit which inspired Marion de Brésillac to found the SMA 162 years ago.
May the Venerable de Brésillac intercede for us and help us live our missionary charism in the context of our time with the same zeal and generosity of spirit which he and his followers manifested in their time!