A Reflection by Bishop Paul Dempsey,
14th January 2021.
I am conscious as I write these words that I have no idea, nor can I even imagine what it must have been like for a young girl in Ireland to have become pregnant outside of marriage just a few decades ago. So many were abandoned by their families, their communities, their parishes, their priests, their Church, and the men who were responsible for their pregnancy. The loneliness, the shame, the fear, the angst, the sheer terror is beyond my comprehension. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes Report goes to three thousand pages. It would be impossible for me to cover all the issues it raises. However, the general tenor that emerges within its pages is of a society that was cold and uncaring. We could all too easily blame “society,” but as a member of the Church, and a leader in that Church, I face the difficult reality that it was a society which was deeply influenced by the Catholic Church.
In their apology, the Bon Secours Sisters, who ran the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, stated that they “did not live up to their Christianity.” It seems that so many during that period of Irish life “did not live up to their Christianity,” even though we were a nation that prided ourselves on being a good Catholic country. It seems that we may have been good Catholics, but we were not such good Christians. The question has been asked: “How could this happen?” How could we be so cold, so cruel to our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our neighbours? One explanation was that the Church had a distorted view of sexuality that seemed obsessive. Instead of seeing sexuality as a beautiful, sacred gift, created by a loving God, it was considered something secretive and taboo, something not to be talked about. Anyone, who through human nature, was viewed to have made a mistake, was shunned. Sins of a sexual nature seemed to be the only sins one could commit, there was little focus on other immoral issues such as domestic abuse or fraud. There is no doubt, and it is truly shameful, that the Church during this time lost its focus, which should always be Christ. When the Church fails to focus on Christ, all sorts of distorted practices emerge. It seems that one of those distorted practices was exercising an unhealthy power over people’s lives, especially in the most intimate areas of life.
Unfortunately, we cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. This, perhaps, is where we can draw some hope. The Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, stated that; “we should not lose sight of the more hopeful story that is told in the Commission’s report as well. It tells the story of a country that has changed and progressed, that got better, kinder and more compassionate, more loving, less judgmental and less misogynistic as the years passed.” I believe this is generally true, but in my own ministry over the years, I have come across many people who lament the direction our country has taken. They feel it has become far more secular, with fewer numbers attending Mass and they believe there is an agenda to rid society of the influence of the Church. In the light of the Mother and Baby Homes report and the numerous reports that preceded it, is it any wonder people would want to rid the country of the Church that is portrayed? I believe there is a more hopeful message in there for the Church too. The publication of so many painful reports has exposed us to the truth. Jesus Christ tells us; “The truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). It is important to acknowledge that it was the “secular” world that has called the Church to account and made us face the truth. Surely this is a good thing and God has to be at work in it?
In my experience the Church has become a more humble, more compassionate community today. It no longer holds an unhealthy, powerful grasp on society. The Church has its teaching, a teaching that is inspired and revealed by Christ, an ideal that followers of Christ aspire to but do not always attain. It is a teaching that is proposed, not imposed. It is also important to state that so many people in parishes, priests, sisters, members of parish pastoral councils, and numerous others reach out and serve the needs of so many in such generous ways in communities right across the country today. Their work is critical to the lives of so many people and is to be commended. Our position as Church was never to be at the centre of society in, as Pope Francis puts it, a “self-reverential” manner. I believe this is a moment of fundamental call and challenge to those of us who hold the Church close to our hearts. There are justifiable concerns and fears about the future, but we must remember that the Church is not dying, it is a model of Church that is dying. The dying process is painful, but the potential for new life always gives hope. This is Christ’s Church, not ours, he is in charge, “we are ministers, not messiahs” as St. Oscar Romero reminds us.
It is hugely positive that the real-life stories, the experience, and the pain of so many has now been heard through this report. The State has apologised, as have religious orders who were responsible. I too, as a Church leader, wish to apologise to all those who were treated in such an undignified and demeaning manner. However, as has been said many times, apologies can be easy, action is more challenging. I hope and pray that those who wish to find their true identity that might bring the peace they are searching for, can be given the means to do so.
As I conclude, there is one concern I wish to raise. I heard several politicians making statements this week about our past and how the poor treatment of women and children must never happen again. Related to this, over the past few years when I worked in parish, I was in regular contact with people in a Direct Provision Centre. I saw how women and children and others, were cramped into tight living spaces, lacking basic human dignity. I have been thinking about them these days. As we have been told, we cannot change the past, but we can change the present. I urge those in power, in the light of the Mother and Baby Homes Report, to focus on improving the living conditions of those in our Direct Provision Centres. I would imagine this real action to improve the lives of mothers and children today, would be a fitting tribute to those who suffered in Mother and Baby Homes in the past.
Bishop of Achonry.
For those affected by these issues please see:www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/4/mental-health-services/national-counselling-service/counselling-service-for-former-residents-of-mother-and-baby-homes
This is the text of Bishop Paul’s Christmas homily, preached in the Cathedral of The Annunciation and St Nathy, Ballaghaderreen.
Christmas is such a special time for us all! Behind the busyness and the hustle and bustle, it often centres around the people in our lives. Central to all this is our family. Many of us will have memories of Christmases past. My own memories as a child are of early morning Mass on Christmas morning, the excitement of Santa Claus, the turkey in the oven, the table set, the Christmas Tree, the plum pudding, the familiar films on the television like “Willie Wonka and his Chocolate Factory” and “The Sound of Music.” But mainly it was about the fun of being together. We will all have our own memories, some happy, some perhaps sad.
In mentioning family, we know that family comes in many different forms today. We have the traditional family of parents and children, we have single parent families, families who have been bereaved, those who have experienced the pain of breakup, and families awaiting the excitement of the arrival of a new baby in the New Year. Central to our celebration is of course the Holy Family. As we reflect upon this family, I am conscious that they had to flee into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. They know what it is to be away from home in a strange land. Today our country has many people who are far from home. Christmas reminds us of our responsibilities to them and how important it is to make them feel welcome.
Another aspect to the Christmas story are those present but perhaps we don’t focus too much upon them. One such group is the shepherds. We are familiar with them and it more or less ends there. I might suggest that perhaps they are the ones we could identify most with this year of all years. There is a sense that they are huddled together in the dark, somewhat isolated on a hillside. They take one hour at a time, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Not an easy place to be. They are the ones who first receive the wonderful message of Christ’s birth, they need it, they are ready for it. As people on the margins, they are open to this news, open to a new message, open to new possibilities…
What a powerful image that is for us this Christmas. The last year has been a struggle. The shepherds huddled together, we are not allowed to do this, however, as we’ve been told so many times; we’re together by keeping apart. They are in the dark. We have been there too, not knowing when this COVID situation will end. We have had glimmers of hope, only to be landed back into lockdown. It is tough. The shepherds are isolated out in the fields. So many this Christmas are literally isolated in bedrooms for fear of spread of the infection. Yes, the shepherds have a lot to say to us, we have a lot in common with them, who could have imagined that!
But, and here is the good news, the hopeful news, it is in their isolation, in the darkness that the light comes, and their situation is transformed! They move out of the darkness and journey towards the light, Christ. Life for them will be changed forever in a positive way because of this encounter. What a great hope-filled message that is for us! Yes, things are difficult, but more often than not in the scriptures it is in the moments of darkness that God speaks. In the midst of a dark world, God becomes flesh and transforms the world with His light!
How is God speaking to us this Christmas? Could he be saying life is fragile, appreciate the great gift it is? Could he be saying, I have blessed you with family and friends, do not take them for granted, treasure them! Could he be saying, your health is important, enjoy it and take care of it? Could he be saying I have blessed you with the gift of the environment, the gift of a beautiful world, it is quite fragile, take responsibility for caring for it and do not take it for granted!
As we, like the shepherds on that hillside struggle with isolation, darkness, the unknown, may we like those shepherds be open to God’s message breaking through, sometimes in the most unexpected of moments! It is a message that leads us to Christ, Christ who transforms our world and transforms how we look at it and experience it.
Paul Claudel said “Christ doesn’t explain our suffering, he shares it and fills it with his presence.” May Christ’s presence fill our hearts, our struggles, our frustrations this Christmas and may that loving presence guide us forward into the hope of a New Year when we can see and experience our lives, our relationships, our world in a new way, transformed by His grace!
I heard an eminent medical person on the radio last week raising concerns about the rising number of COVID cases. He suggested Christmas should be postponed until spring. As a medic his first concern is the health and wellbeing of people. However, it illustrates that for many, Christmas has become a mere holiday period rather than the celebration of Christ’s birth.
In contrast, I happened to see the last “Late Late Show” of 2020. It was a showcase of Irish musicians and singers all there to help raise funds for the “Simon” Community. This heart-warming, generous group of people got together to reach out and help those who are most vulnerable in our society. This is one example of so many kind people in our parishes and communities who are helping those in need this Christmas. These are all examples of Christianity in action! Towards the end of the programme, Bono, of U2 fame, was interviewed. He posed a basic, but very important question; “What is this Christmas thing about?” In order to answer this question, he described how, at a Carol Service one Christmas, he really listened. From this deep listening he received an insight into the heart of Christmas as he went on to say, and I quote; “I started to think about the fact that this baby was born in straw, this is a mother and child in a delivery room with goats and sheep. Think about it. And if you believe this story, which I do, of unknowable power expressed as utter powerlessness, it really struck me. The divinity of people who are vulnerable and poor, that is what Christmas is about, it’s not about anything else.” Personally, I found it refreshing to hear someone with Bono’s fame, name the essence of what Christmas is truly about, something, in my opinion, has been notably absent in recent times.
Christmas is about our unconditionally loving God, the creator of the Universe, becoming a vulnerable little baby on a bed of straw. God enters our humanity so that we could share in his divinity! Through this act of pure love, we are challenged to recognise the spark of the divine in those around us.
This year has been a struggle for so many of us. Our lives have changed in so many ways. However, the goodness, kindness, generosity, and love of so many people, continues to be an inspiration and a source of great hope! My special thoughts are with those who have been bereaved since this time last year. Christmas is a time when memories surface of loved ones who are no longer with us. We hold them in our hearts knowing that our loving bond continues. I also remember those who cannot get home for Christmas, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your families.
This Christmas will be very different in our parishes as the numbers allowed to enter our churches is limited. I extend a huge word of thanks to priests and parish teams who have worked so hard, and continue to do so, to ensure our places of worship are safe for all who enter. For those who cannot physically come to church, I extend a welcome to join us via webcam. You can find a list of parishes with this facility on our diocesan website www.achonrydiocese.org. Alternatively, perhaps you might be able to call into your local church for a quiet visit to the crib over the twelve days of Christmas.
On a personal note, 2020 is a year I will never forget. In early August I said farewell to the parishioners of Newbridge Parish and the people, priests and Bishop Denis of Kildare and Leighlin Diocese. It is not easy saying goodbye, but the support has, and continues to be amazing from my home diocese, my family and friends. On the 30th of August I was ordained bishop to serve in the Diocese of Achonry. It is a very new and different experience for me. I have been fortunate to visit all the parishes and have received a very warm welcome from the people and priests throughout the diocese, something I deeply appreciate. I look forward to being able to meet many more people throughout the diocese in the coming year, hopefully when life returns to some form of “normality.”
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Keep safe and as we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Light of the World, may His light fill our hearts with hope for 2021!
Is mise le meas,
+ Paul Dempsey,
Bishop of Achonry
Sunday August 30th, 2020 – Cathedral of The Annunciation and St Nathy
I remember my first visit to the Cathedral here, it was back on a chilly day in mid-January. Fr. Dermot Meehan, the Diocesan administrator, brought me along to see it. We parked at the front of the Cathedral and walked around by the side. As we walked around the first thing Fr. Dermot pointed out was where the bishops are buried! A sobering thought in case I got ahead of myself! In a similar vein, while reading the history of the diocese, I came across a bishop who came to Achonry, transferred from Killala Diocese, in the late 18th Century. It was observed that he was “very elderly, toothless and goutish…” I still have my full set of teeth and to the best of my knowledge, I don’t suffer from gout, so I hope things are looking up!
Many years ago, I came across an important saying that went; “Gratefulness is the heartbeat of prayer.” It is certainly the heartbeat of my prayer here today! I give thanks to God for my family, friends, Bishop Denis, the priests & people of Kildare and Leighlin Diocese and the parishes I had the privilege to serve in. I am truly grateful for your love and support.
To those who have become part of my story since December last; Archbishop Okolo, the Papal Nuncio, for his support and encouragement and for representing Pope Francis here today.
Archbishop Neary, for leading us in the Ordination and the bishops of the Western Province. They have been so welcoming to me and I look forward to working together over the coming years.
Rev. Andrea Wills, representing the Church of Ireland Community.
Fr. Dermot Meehan, who administrated the Diocese in the absence of a bishop. Fr. Dermot has put in many hours of hard work and effort. He has been a tremendous support to me and has offered his wisdom and guidance, which is very much appreciated.
There are so many people who have made today possible, people who have worked very hard to bring it all together in very difficult circumstances with the Covid situation;
Fr. Vincent Sherlock for his homily, as always words chosen beautifully, a gift he has and is so generous in sharing it.
Fr. Martin Henry, our Master of Ceremonies. Fr. Joe and Fr. Paul in the Cathedral and the team with them, our sacristan, stewards and all who worked hard in the background, your time and efforts are truly appreciated.
To our Choir and Organist, Antionette Byrne under the direction of Maria Moynihan. Our traditionalist musicians Grainne Horan and Fr. James McDonagh and also Fr. Tommy Towey. Thank you all for making our ceremony so prayerful and special.
Sr. Pat and Bernie at Bishop’s House, thank you for all the extra work and effort over recent weeks and months.
Because of the various restrictions and lockdown, the importance of our virtual presence became all the more important for those watching in from home. We are socially distant, but spiritually close. For enabling this to happen I thank Fr. Bill Kemmy and the team at iCatholic and Brendan Nugent for his assistance.
To the Priests and people of Achonry Diocese, thank you for your warm welcome. I look forward to meeting you in the coming weeks and working together into the future.
The world has changed radically since we gathered here on the 27th of January for the announcement of my appointment. None of us could have imagined how the Pandemic, in the blink of an eye, could change our lives in such a profound way. Many lives have become fragmented, uncertain, somewhat fearful. It’s all a bit wearisome.
However, I wonder does the present moment pose an opportunity for the Church? Perhaps in this moment of uncertainty we have the chance to look to something or someone greater than ourselves, someone who is there for us no matter what, someone who says to us in the midst of trials and tribulations; “Do not be afraid!” Perhaps this crisis nudges us to reflect upon our relationship with Christ and with one another.
When a priest is appointed bishop, he normally chooses a motto, it is something that gives a focus to his ministry. I chose “Duc in Altum,” meaning “Put out into the deep.” It is taken from Luke 5:4. In that passage, Peter and the disciples were wearisome, fed up, tired… perhaps a bit like ourselves at this time! But it is in that very moment Jesus appears to them on the shore. He sees things differently! He sees an opportunity in the moment. He invites them, challenges them to “Put out into the deep water…”
We’re all familiar with the story and what happens, but we must be careful not to reduce this to Jesus simply asking them to try again! He wasn’t telling them to try again, he was inviting them, asking them, challenging them to go farther out into unchartered waters. He wanted them to go beyond what was familiar and safe to a place they had never gone before! Not only that, dropping their nets in that deep place involved more work, more energy, more effort than staying by the safe shoreline.
Surely this must resonate with us in the Church today. Perhaps we have become satisfied with the shoreline, the place that is familiar and safe? Or do we hear that call of Christ in a renewed way today to the Church; “Go out, go out into the deep…”
We can all agree that this is not an easy task, we too like the disciples can find ourselves wearisome, fearful, tired. But it was in the midst of all these struggles, that very moment that Jesus appeared and called his disciples! He doesn’t stand at the shoreline calling to us from a distance, he has climbed into the boat with us!
My vision, my hope, my dream for the Diocese of Achonry, is that we, the people, priests, religious and bishop, listen to that call of Christ in a renewed way today. Let’s not be prisoners of mediocrity, but agents of hope, going out into the deep, the unchartered waters with, as Pope Francis put it, “The Joy of the Gospel!” Let us not be held back by the voices that say; “we have always done it this way.” The disciples would still be sitting at the shoreline with empty nets if they listened to that voice!
In recent months we’ve become familiar with the saying; “We’re in this together.” As a diocese we’re on this faith journey together, as a diocese we listen to and discern the call of Christ together, as a diocese we share the mission together. There will be challenges along the way, there will be difficult decisions to be made. But from the words of the Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly we draw hope and encouragement where he reminds us;
“Even though we live in a world that dreams of ending
That’s always seems about to give in
Something that will not acknowledge conclusion
Insists that we forever begin”
So, from this sacred place, where the Christian story has been celebrated for generations… let us go out, go out to where Christ is calling us as community of disciples today…Let us begin!