2 July 2006

I would not be standing here today if it were not for you. Over the years, I have come to realise more deeply that the gift of my vocation came through this parish community of Saint Peter in Chains. Priesthood was not something 'I achieved', so much as a wonderful gift I received from the Lord, revealing himself through all of you. True, I was open to that gift, but who among us is not open to free gifts being given, especially when they are so great? Don’t think I am being humble! For, over these twenty-five years, I have attributed all too often only to myself the many opportunities and experiences I have had. Of itself, human freedom can achieve only a fraction of its potential in the spiritual order; but married to divine grace, it can reach perfection and pierce the mind and heart of God himself. The grace of the priesthood was most certainly conferred upon me twenty-five years ago by the hands and words of Bishop Maurice Taylor, here present. Maurice, my words are inadequate to express my debt of gratitude for all that you have been for me over all this time. I thank you for your fatherly care. I will never forget it or you. I give praise to God for you. Nevertheless, if I may put it this way, I would never have received that grace through Bishop Taylor’s words and hands if it had not been prepared in me by the priests, the people and the Liturgy of this parish, as well as by the many other associations I had with it.

First, the priests. Chief among them was Canon Lawrence Fischer: canon by name and by nature! He could be a formidable man. Yet, he could also be immensely kind and fatherly. I remember so well as a child how he would spend money from his own pocket to buy all the children 'sweeties' at the parish’s annual garden fete. His was a strong and solemn devotion to the Liturgy. He spared no expense to dignify this Church building with the sole purpose of beautifying the celebration of Holy Mass. His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady made a deep impression on me. I remember so well the dignity and reverence of the Corpus Christi and May processions. It was he who conscripted me as an altar-boy when I was seven. He was certainly strict, a perfectionist even, but he always let it be known that it was for the honour and glory of God. He was thrilled the day that I told him I wanted to go on for seminary. But in God’s design, he was to die some nine months before I was ordained. Like so many others, he participated at the ceremony from the other side of the tabernacle.
Three other priests of the parish made a lasting impression on me in those early years. One was now Canon John Walls; another was Father Alistair Tosh; a third was Father Declan Kelly. I want to recognise them publicly and to thank them most sincerely.

When it comes to the people of the parish, I must mention first my mother and father. My father will forgive me, I know, if I single out my mother. Hers was a deep, simple and almost 'raw' faith. She brought to our family her Irish heritage of seeing the family as ordered to the parish. It was a heritage which could be difficult at times: religious fervour can easily become obsessive and counter-productive. However, at least in my case, that heritage had in the end the great advantage of opening me out to the wider parish community, be it at Saint Peter’s Primary or in the various activities of the parish itself, as an altar-boy, organist, etc. Mum and dad, in their own different but faithful ways, focused my life on God as he came to me through the living faith of this parish. As I grew and matured, I took the essentials they tried so hard to live and to pass on, and made them my own. Sure, there were problems: misperceptions, equivocations, inadequacies. But nothing of value is born without a struggle. Faith is no exception. My debt to my parents is truly eternal: they exercised the priesthood of their baptism despite and beyond any limitations they or I had. I bless their memory! I treasure their love and prayer for me from heaven today. I anticipate with joy our reunion in the Kingdom of Heaven freed, as the Liturgy says, 'from the corruption of sin and death'.

But I had many other mothers and fathers in the parish. I won’t name names, but the Sunday-by-Sunday fidelity of the good people of my parents’ generation was as life-giving as it was solid. This Church was truly a house of prayer – before, during and after Mass. Maybe it was for fear of Canon Fischer! But it worked! There were always queues for confession (not on Canon Fischer’s side!), and for lighting candles. Visitation to the Blessed Sacrament was frequent and generous. I remember especially the singing of the old hymns from the Saint Andrew’s Hymnal: you could feel the faith and love swell forth from heart to voice in a collective reaching out for the Sacred Heart, for Our Lady, and so on. Is all this sentimentality? Deep truths are often draped in sentiment. There was, and still is, a tangible atmosphere of living faith in Saint Peter’s and, from my point of view, it was the fertile soil which nurtured the growth of my openness to the call to priesthood.

But it was above all the Liturgy, the Mass itself, which captivated the searching of my young soul. Looking back, I truly felt I was being introduced into another world. To put it in more sophisticated terms, the Mass signalled for me the beginning of a shift of consciousness. It was not just a question of a different way of looking at things, but of looking at them with new eyes altogether. Being an altar-boy, close up to these sacred things and to the priest who had the sacred power to make Christ truly present and to give him to us: all of this worked deeply within me and caused eventually that deep, spiritual revolution which was my personal conversion to the true and living God. I also felt great attachment to this place at other times, and in all these years I have often visited it spiritually with great profit and great love, however physically distant I have been. I recall kneeling as a toddler beside my father as he knelt at the altar rail for communion, wondering when I might get to taste the holy bread. My sister Bernadette may not recall it, but when I was four, she explained this sanctuary crucifix to me on Good Friday. When I remember the meekness of the figure of Christ upon it, I always remember that day, perhaps because I was actually born on Good Friday four years earlier. And whenever I don’t have a crucifix before my eyes, but want to think of it, I bring to mind this one. While I don’t recall my baptism (!), I recall vividly that mid-June weekend of 1965 when I received my first confession, first communion and confirmation, all in this Church. It was the first time I saw a 'real' bishop, Joseph McGee, who would ordain me as deacon some fifteen years later in Rome. May he rest in peace. As an altar-boy, I loved to come early in the morning and sit in the dark watching the deep-red sanctuary lamp glow and flicker, aware of the much warmer Presence in the dark silhouette of the nearby tabernacle. Yes, I admit I was a victim of the smells and the bells, but from weddings to funerals, from big ceremonies to daily Mass, I gradually saw the shape of Christ’s love emerge. I felt a fascinating reality attract me, one I could not explain, but could only love. I still can’t explain it, I can only say I am in love with it, with an ever-increasing love. The attraction was so strong, that I used to spend Saturday afternoons here, playing the 'new organ' installed by Canon Fischer and, I must confess, eating Cadbury’s chocolates in the choir loft! Sometimes I would just sit and listen to the wind and rain or do a round of the statues of the saints. I would get off the bus coming back from Saint Michael’s Academy (another important player in my vocational growth) and come in and “do” the stations of the Cross, a practice which imperceptibly drew me into a quiet intimacy with the Saviour. This Church became a real home for me, a home I would soon leave, but which has never left me.

On 2 July 1981, when I prostrated myself here just before the actual act of ordination, I knew that that gesture summed up my personal history in this parish. I felt that this community was offering me to God, almost like the bread offered up before it is consecrated. Today, I like to think I can see on this sanctuary Canon Fischer and, yes, Father Michael Lynch whose anniversary occurs today. May he rest in peace. I see the other altar-boys I served with, the couples being married, the dead being buried. I see my mother and father on those uncomfortable pews! I see all those faithful souls whose faith and love adorned this Church with a beauty and grace visible only to the eyes of faith. Today I could have told you about my years as a papal diplomat, the intrigues of Vatican diplomacy, the wonder and tragedies of the countries in which I have served. I could have given you a catechesis on priesthood. I could have tried, and probably failed, to tell of all the Lord has done for me. But the living substance of these twenty-five years finds its roots in what happened here, in what the Lord did for me, in me, through you, in this place. And what has been the effect of all of that in these twenty-five years of priesthood? At the risk of sinning of presumption, I make bold to answer: I have loved Christ, I have taught Christ, I have ministered Christ for the sake of Christ’s Beloved – you, his holy people. But I have also failed Christ more often than I care to remember, because of my pride, my self-concern and my impatience. Still, I have been forgiven and renewed more abundantly than I have sinned, so that I can dare to stand before you as a loved sinner and a wounded healer. As long as I have breath, I will go on seeking to let the Christ of my passion possess me, the Christ who, on this sanctuary, drew me as a boy to himself and who, twenty-five years ago, consecrated me to teach, to sanctify and to lead his people in the holiness of the Truth and in the glory of his Love. I do not want to belong to anyone else but him. I cannot belong to anyone else but him. Such is the power of his love and grace which first embraced my deepest soul in this holy place among you, his holy people.

My heartfelt prayer today is:
- one of thanksgiving for you;
  - it is one of confident hope that other boys and young men will be seized
    by the power of Christ among you and offer themselves without reservation
    to Him, our Great and Compassionate High Priest;
  - and, finally, it is one of immense gratitude to the Lord Jesus for his faithfulness,
    his mercifulness and his infinite tenderness towards me.
May his Name be blessed and praised for ever! Amen.