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SOLEMN RE-OPENING AND DEDICATION OF THE ALTAR
ST MARY’S CHURCH, PORTGLENONE
SUNDAY 24 SEPTEMBER 2017
READINGS : Gen 28.10 -22; 1Jn 5.1-9: Jn 1.43-51
|I||“We accept the testimony of human witnesses, but God’s testimony is much greater” (1 Jn 5.9)|
|II||Of place, time and God’s testimony|
|III||“Be sure that I am with you “ (Gn 28.15) : looking to the future|
|· Following Christ : Christian faith an exercise of personal freedom|
|· The person of Christ : fulcrum of faith|
|· Parishes in the future : the active and co-responsible participation of parishioners|
|· Sunday Mass and sacraments : source of Christian identity and sustained Christian life|
|IV||God’s home and place in the life of this parish and service to the common good of the world|
I “We accept the testimony of human witnesses, but God’s testimony is much greater” (1 Jn 5.9)
In the wonderful work of restoration that has been achieved here at St Mary’s, Portglenone, we see this parish community’s love of God and love of its Christian heritage and roots. This Church building, this place and its stones – to pick up on the elements of the reading from the book of Genesis – and the memories of the life of Christian faith they hold have been honoured, cherished and consolidated once again and by this generation of parishioners.
It is a source of immense joy to see what you have accomplished in so short a time since the inception of this project. I salute the initiative, courage and determination of Fr Anthony Curran, Parish Priest, the parishioners who voluntarily gave of their time, skills and wisdom to initiate this project and all who were engaged in designing, engineering, and with skill, craftsmanship, energy and muscle brought this phase of your work to such a beautiful and edifying conclusion. I congratulate you all, and I thank Fr Tony Curran who at the time of his appointment graciously agreed to facilitate the consultative, co-involvement of parishioners which characterises the vitality of this parish and has led to this glowing result.
By working together you have been able to achieve great things, as was spectacularly the case in earlier generations – when you think of the times and context in which this Church was built in the mid nineteenth century. The testimony of their witness, to borrow a phrase from the second reading, evokes our admiration. Your fidelity to what they entrusted in this Church is rooted, inspired and fired by what the author of that same reading from the first letter of St John refers to as, “God’s testimony”, which, he says, “is much greater”. The author is talking about the testimony, the inspirational power, of the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Son of God and Son of Mary.
The great job undertaken and completed here – from the earliest meetings through all form of consultation, verification, site meetings to the final clean up and decoration of the interior for this ceremony – is the work of the minds, hands, voluntarism and discussions of Christian faith put to the service of the religious, spiritual and common good of this community.
II Of place, time and God’s testimony
The fascinating choice of readings for this ceremony of re-dedication confronts us with two figures, Jacob and Nathanael, who have a strong sense of place. Both realise the significance of place and still they admit how easy it is to be blind to the full import of one’s surroundings, context and life’s setting. We note the words of Jacob, a literary device of course used by the author of this chapter of the book of Genesis to strike an insight we have often experienced, if not expressed, in the course of life : “ truly, the Lord, God, is in this place and I never knew it” (Gn 28.16). Likewise we heard the words ascribed to Nathanael, before he awakens to the identity of Jesus : “ Nazareth, can anything good come from that place?” (Jn 1.46) – we are all capable of such prejudice and only the living Word of God can liberate us, as in Jesus it did Nathanael.
Of course no Nathanael would ever have spoken of Portglenone in such terms ! From its landscape and topography dotted with sites of religious significance, as mentioned in Fr John O’Laverty’s An Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor, vol.III, we see the vitality of Christian faith in this area. Fr. O’Laverty lists Mass Stations in various places, such as, in the townland of Killygarin, called Garry-more; at Lisnagarrin, at a burial ground in Killycoogan, and the Mass Green in Tullynahinnion, these having been used in early centuries and in the decades of persecution in the seventeenth century. If stone circles and standing stones testify to early life on the banks of the Bann, St Mary’s Holy Well at Slievenagh ; ancient burial places such as, St Colum’s Thorn at Gortfad ; the ancient burial grounds in townland such as, Finkiltagh, Killycoogan ; the ancient Church site of the “four town of Craigs” in Aughnakeely – all of these places hold in silence now the living heritage of Christian life and civilisation in this parish and area. An occasion such as today might trigger an initiative to produce a map (and greeting card) of these sites for generations to come.
As you know, the building of a chapel, called Aughnahoy, was begun in the townland of Slievnagh in 1774 under the direction of a Fr Cassidy. Interestingly, it had two galleries, one above the other. Tradition has it that the upper gallery housed the organ, given by Mr St John O’Neill who lived at Portglenone Castle. Furthermore the organ pipes were stolen during the 1798 rebellion.
Almost a century after the building of that chapel, in October 1866 Portglenone was established as a parish from the mother parish of Ahoghill. Fr John McConnell, native of Lisburn and student of the Irish College, Paris, was appointed parish Priest and duly set about instigating the building of a Church, St Mary Immaculate, where we stand today and where he lies buried along with his second successor, Fr Patrick J Hamill, native of Armagh and also a student of the Irish College, Paris.
The passage of almost a further century would see the arrival of the Cistercians in 1948 and the first Cistercian foundation in the diocese since the sixteenth century Reformation. In the presence of Dom Celsus, Abbot of Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey, we recall the opening of the new monastery in 1967, as we thank them for their support and hospitality during the period of this refurbishment of St Mary’s, as we also salute their presence and service to God in a wide community.
From this past of faith and life we, like Jacob and Nathanael, head into a present and a future where humanity hungers for God and godliness, whilst often, like Jacob being unable to recognise and decipher the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit. If the historical sketches we have alluded to included moments of profound change, the mobility of people and even upheaval in the past of this community, as a generation we stand on the threshold of a time and period of profound change and mutation in all arenas of life. Changes in climate, economics, politics, culture, sensibility, advances in science, technology, medicine and the bio-sciences will continue to impact our lives, on our communities and on aspects of the Christian life and living. In times of such profound change, it is vital that parishes and communities of faith explore, understand and appreciate the Christian faith, heritage of thought and prayer and the tradition of Christian civilisation. This understanding and appreciation of the Christian tradition is essential so that we may inspire the shaping of contemporary human self-understanding with the good news and joy of the gospel, the Word of God. For the sake of human dignity at the level of the individual person and at the level of organised life in all dimensions of societal existence, it is vital that Jacob-like, we recognise Bethel, God’s place and house, in the primal matter of life cosmic, personal and societal.
Whilst the future is indecipherable, some characteristics of life in our parishes, in the pastoral communities of several parishes and faith communities are already taking shape before our eyes . As we re-dedicate this Church it is worth attempting to mention a few of them, as we take assurance from the promise of God’s presence to Jacob on his journey of faith.
III “Be sure that I am with you” (Gn 28.15)
Perhaps one of the most significant changes in the profile of the Christian parish and community in the years ahead will centre on the free choice of the decision to be a Christian. The Christian life will more and more become a personal choice made, renewed and sustained through the ups and downs of life. No longer will social pressure, the watchful eye of neighbour, or other external factors, compel religious practice or conformity. This is good and healthy. It will mean that in presenting the Christian way of life, we make it clear that the choice to follow Christ is a fundamental exercise of human freedom and that the values, standard and way of life we aspire to sometimes transcend what the law enshrines as lawful behaviour. Jesus, his gospel, his life, death and resurrection are the source of Christian faith, nothing else. All of this may require parish based and organised catechesis in the future, led by parents, adults, and youth – much like the Sunday school system.
Secondly, the God revealed in Jesus Christ will be the centre point of our religious understanding and presentation of the Christian faith. Our faith will be centred on the person of Christ, not primarily on systems of thought, moral codes, important as they are, nor on fear of God. Christian faith, active “parishionership” will be motivated by the promptings of the Holy Spirit within the Christian community, where the centuries-long tradition of faith and Christian living will guide us in discerning new pathways of practice in the light of the gospel. This will require skills of leadership, discernment and an appreciation of the specific and precious character of the Christian community which we all, parishioners and clerics shall need to learn and develop. And we have the capacity to do so within ourselves and within our local Church as it breathes with the Church universal.
Thirdly, our Christian communities and parishes of the future will be more community centred, energised and volunteer-driven than priest centred. In part this will mark a re-living of historic experience. As you know, the age profile of our priests makes this evident. In the coming years, there will not be a priest in each parish as is the case today. As a local Church, as a diocese, we shall have to manage and negotiate this reality, not forgetting that in former times it was also so and the people lived in fidelity to the gospel. This change in the presence, availability and location of clergy will bring about and require greater and more active participation in the life of the Church on the part of individual Christians in their parishes and communities. We are seeing only the beginnings of this participation and co-responsibility. In a century from now that participation will blossom in new and presently unforeseen ways – for, as Canon Hugh Starkey, said to me last week, “God in his goodness will provide” (Gn.22.14; Phil.4.19).
As the Christian community, the Church as the people of God and the body of Christ, advances through time and the future history of God’s creation, like Jacob and Nathanael, you and I and the Christian community are called to walk, find and find ever anew the “path of life” (Ps.16.11). The compass for that pathway is pulled, or magnetised, by the “three witnesses” referred to in the second reading : the water of the baptism and life of Jesus Christ, the blood of his self-sacrificing death and the Holy Spirit of his risen and new life whose promptings direct the living Christian tradition through the upheavals of human history inspiring and guiding it finally to stay on the course of salvation.
Whatever the human part in guiding and organising the Christian community and the life of the Church in the future, our present contribution to that future lies primarily in cultivating our sense of God and the things of God in our times and lives. Concretely this requires our personal readiness to celebrate the mystery of God, as revealed to humanity in the person and life of Christ by coming to Church. It means that we recognise the importance and need of celebrating faith in the mystery of God’s love for humanity by listening to the Word of God and by celebrating the Eucharist and the sacraments. All of this lies at the heart of handing on a living faith to future generations. So the joyful and participative celebration of the liturgy, especially on Sundays, remains the source and summit of our parishes and their existence. Making the Sunday liturgy a joyful gathering of the people of God depends on the involvement and participation of both the parishioners and the priest.
IV God’s home and place in the life of this parish and service to the common good of the world
For all of this you have given through your generosity and enterprise a new beauty to St Mary’s and its surroundings, to the house of God built by your forebears. As I congratulate you once again, I wish you all, this parish and the Pastoral Community to which it belongs God’s blessing in the years ahead. I congratulate you also on the production of the beautiful booklet, A Church Reborn, which is a magnificent record of the love, care and dedication of so many to the enduring identity, vitality and community spirit of this parish – exemplified in the tribute to Kevin Carey, deceased in May past, who together with so many of you present here today have made all this possible. May he rest in peace.
In his memory and in fidelity to all those who have gone before us on the way of faith, let us pray that now and in time to come this holy space, this house of God, built of stone, now glistening anew, will continue to imbue future generations with a sense of God, with a love of Jesus Christ in whom God entered human history and with a will to promote the growth of the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ in society and in human history.