18 November 2018 Diocese celebrates Two Hundred Years in St Comghall’s Church, Antrim

Diocese Celebrates Two Hundred Years in St Comghall’s Church, Antrim

Homily Notes by Bishop Noel Treanor

Sunday 18th November

An Antrim Autumn in the Communion of the Saints

The short November evenings did not daunt the spirits of the parishioners of Antrim two centuries ago to this very month! The horizon of their aspirations stretched to the longer mid-summer evenings and they achieved the opening within seventeen months! Their ambition and intent as a community, powered by their faith in Jesus Christ, included a strong sense of the eternal and the divine to which each Church building and temple, whatever its creed, draws attention. The sod was dug and cut for the foundation in the autumn mists of November 1818. By mid-summer 1820 the building had been completed and the Church was formally opened and blessed by Bishop Patrick McMullan (1794-1824), who was born in Loughinisland (where he is buried), attended a classical school in that area, studied at the Collège des Lombardes in Paris, gained a post-graduate degree from the Sorbonne university and lectured at the Irish College in Louvain before returning to minister in the native diocese.

Two centuries to the month later, a mere momentary blink in human history, we gather today to celebrate their achievement and their contribution to the living heritage of faith in Antrim. We recall and celebrate their vision, their generosity and their voluntary spirit by celebrating the same Mass for which they built the initial Church on this site and within these walls. In this place, around the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist, with them we live in and are part of the communion of Saints that we celebrate on All Saints Day each year.

If in their era life moved more slowly and if their sense of time was therefore somewhat different to ours, they were certainly familiar with the readings from the Scriptures to which we have just listened. Whether from devotional prayers and practices, sermons preached by diocesan or mendicant religious, or from the unbroken devotional traditions of Gaelic Christianity, they shared the Christian sense of the time allotted to each person morphing into eternity with God.

Those who cut the sod and built on this site believed and trusted that human life is part of the continuum of God’s creative process which leads to eternal life in the Risen Christ. Their sense of God, their appreciation of Jesus Christ as the living Word of God, as the One in whom God is glimpsed, empowered them as a community to achieve the remarkable feat of building the earlier Church, which accommodated 600 people and at the then massive sum of £1.400.00 on foot of fund-raising by Fr Bernard McCann, curate and Fr Bernard McAuley, later Parish Priest of Ballymena, who led the building of All Saints Church there. Evidently it was an extraordinary achievement, as is well illustrated by Brendan Smith’s book[1], Silent Night, Holy Night, 200 Years of a Catholic Church in Antrim.

The undertaking of building the Church, which served until 1870, was an expression of profound religious faith. With its provision for Sunday School it was also imagined as a place in which the Christian faith and heritage should be learned, discovered, handed on to youth as well as celebrated in worship and prayer.

Such early nineteenth century provision for what we refer to as catechesis and instruction in the Christian life and heritage is noteworthy. In conditions of existence that were difficult and testing of its existence, our forebears here took creative, positive action to shape and secure the future of faith and the faith community. Their provision for Sunday School is also immensely significant, I suggest, in terms of our contemporary socio-religious reality, where faith and religious language are often portrayed as an outsider.

Today, two hundred years later to the month, we listen to the same Word of God from the Scriptures as our ancestors heard and read in 1818. We listen to that saving Word of God on a cultural continuum moving from generation to generation, in line with those who laboured and built on this site. We look like them. We till the same ground and fields. Our language, dialects and cadences are not unlike theirs, I guess! Our songs, music, dances and local traditions carry much of their way of life. And if the landscape has changed somewhat, many place names, hills, valleys, laneways still carry resonances of human existence stretching back into aeons of local history well beyond recorded time.

Foundations Stones for our Future Horizons

As we celebrate the achievement of our 1818 forebears in faith, what does our time, our cultural and societal setting, require from us for today and foundation stones for generations to come? Permit me to suggest a few for our consideration and action:

The first is a constant shared with the parishioners of 1818, namely the fostering and strengthening of parish community life in its care for young and old, for families and newcomers among us, for the housebound, the sick and the needy.  Renewing, servicing and reviewing this first arm of our Diocesan Pastoral Plan is key to maintaining our parishes as living communities where the reality of God’s love and compassion is kept alive in prayer, worship and in their outreach in practical, concrete living of the values of the gospel. As we move into a future which will see Church life become much more carried by the community than by the priest, the vitality of the life of the parish will depend more and more on women and men who volunteer some of their time to provide service in various arenas stretching across assistance with liturgical services, administrative and organisational matters and in the arenas of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  This will of course lead us all into a collaborative and consultative way of working.

Secondly, it’s impossible to predict and foretell how parishes will provide for instruction in the Christian life, faith and the Christian heritage of culture and thought in the decades and century ahead.  One cannot but be intrigued by the 1818 Sunday School. Our time, our information society, is characterised by a certain imbalance between high levels of education, competence and literacy in the technical and hard science fields and an under-developed understanding in the field of religious knowledge.  It is to be feared that as Christian communities we are failing our children and youth by not adequately introducing them to the literature of faith of the Old and New Testament, to the great ideas and humanism of the long traditions of Christian thought and to the challenging insights of Catholic Social Thought for the governance of society, economics, finance and the environment. For the sustainability of our civilisation today and tomorrow the sourcing and re-sourcing of value systems, religious, spiritual, moral and socio-ethical is emerging as an urgent imperative for each person, citizen and local community.

Thirdly, the dominant tone of the nineteenth and early twentieth century tended to simplify life and its issues into black and white. So much of life is lived in the greying zones and in those zones much that is good and consonant with the message of the Gospel is carried out and experienced.  So whilst keeping our eyes on the things of God, we live our lives knowing and trusting that we do not save or justify ourselves before God, but rather we are healed, empowered and ultimately saved by God’s boundless love and mercy.  This primacy of God’s love, compassion and mercy we must work to profile in our parishes so that consolation and support are found in our communities and so that we can afford each other grace, understanding and even forgiveness on the road of life. Growing this sense of the primacy of God’s gratuitous love for us, no matter what our condition, liberates us and the community from the corrosive power of evil and negativity. It releases and frees our minds and hearts to achieve our full potential as creatures of God’s goodness.

Fourthly, we must continue to work locally and unceasingly to grow mutually appreciative and respectful relations with our fellow Christians, their Church communities and congregations. Good relations and understanding between Christians of all traditions and between people of different faiths are vital for the work of peace and justice in our world.

There are so many ways, countless ways, in which each one here can contribute to the life of the parish as a vital cell in the local community and its wellbeing. Of course time and capacity to offer support varies with the point in life one is at.  Every contribution and support counts and it can be very local in one’s immediate neighbourhood.  All that’s required is a little thought, imagination, and trying it out to see the great difference it makes to one’s own life  … and we re-discover the meaning of those words – “truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

[1] Brendan Smith, Silent Night, Holy Night, 200 years of a Catholic Church in Antrim, Antrim Printers, 2018. The title refers to the famous Christmas Carol first sung in St Nicholas parish Church, Salzburg on 22 December 1818.