Penitential Prayer Service for Apostolic Visitation

Penitential Service
Cathedral of the Assumption
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
[Texts: Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-12; Psalm 51; Mark 10:13-16]

Homily of Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

This evening, I begin my homiletical remarks with a sincere note of thanks to Archbishop Michael Neary for his welcome. He has shown openness and warmth to the process, which was notable from the moment we first spoke on the telephone back in the spring, when details of the Apostolic Visitation were first made public. The greeting “you’re most welcome”, so common in these parts, has been echoed ever since then in all our communications. This hospitality, for which you are known, has profoundly touched my assistant, Father James Conn and me at every step on this journey.

For me as a youngster growing up in Montreal in the 1950s, it was always a delight when the families of St. Rita’s parish gathered for Mass, devotions and other activities. Each year, the highlight of our uncomplicated social life was the St. Patrick’s Day concert when all gathered—those of Irish extraction and those who, that day at least, we said wished they were Irish!

One of the songs we sang with feeling was “Galway Bay,” a song full of nostalgia for the beauties of nature, of lament over the slights of the past (the stranger who came and tried to teach us their ways and disdained us for being who we were). Underlying the melody and lyrics was hope for a better tomorrow.

In listening to or singing along with that song, I had not the slightest idea what “Claddagh” referred to or of anything else for that matter. But contained in it was a sense of honour I felt with my family at our distinctiveness, of being heirs to a long tradition within which the Catholic faith was an integral part. And there was pride, too, in our devotion to the church, our parish first of all but the bigger church as well. That pride swelled when it took in public manifestations such as an annual parade through downtown Montreal on the Sunday nearest St. Patrick’s Day, a tradition that has persisted for over two hundred years, or the construction downtown of the beautiful St. Patrick’s Basilica (the likes of which we also have in Ottawa).

When I first spoke to Archbishop Michael, I asked about the town of Glenamaddy, whether it was in the archdiocese. How interesting then for me to learn that the Church of Tuam to which the Holy See was sending me as an apostolic visitator contained the birthplace of my maternal grandfather Thomas Scarry (though we wrote it Skerry), a son, I recently learned from its current parish priest Father Mooney, who was born to Nora White and Patrick Scarry on November 26, 1865.

Leaving his home as so many Irish did for work abroad, Thomas Skerry married Mary Prendergast in Widnes, England in 1895; they had ten children, one of whom, Marion Bridget my mother, married John Prendergast from Cupids, Newfoundland in Montreal in 1938. We know little of the origins of the Prendergasts on either side of the family, but I understand that it is a name common in the west of Ireland.

Family, you see, is a powerful force at the origin of our values, our earliest religious experiences, our aspirations and our hopes. It can also be the source of struggles for acceptance, for learning about cooperation and for coming to understand forgiveness. Family should always be a place of peace and security, of joy, of self-confidence and respect; so, too, should the parish, our family of faith.

Yet often, family and the parish community, as for other social institutions, can be a place of hurt and shame at the hands of those who should be the most trustworthy. This has been the case for many individuals in the Church throughout the world and, notably so, here in Ireland.

We see in the gospel read this evening, that the chosen disciples of Jesus had to be rebuked—as they often are in Mark’s gospel on other issues—for their improper use of authority.

The disciples had to be taught by Jesus about the danger of riches, the need for humble service and so many other things. In the gospel we have just heard and on which we need to carry out the five steps of lectio divina: reading, meditating, praying, contemplating for a conversion of heart, and acting upon as the Holy Spirit will guide us, we are challenged to learn to welcome children—the little and vulnerable ones—so as to bless them and not do them any kind of harm whatsoever.

Jesus, as the evangelist Mark presents him in his gospel, had many reasons to reject, out of frustration, the Twelve, his chosen apostles, the antecedents of his bishops and priests of today, but he does not do this. Rather he constantly takes them aside to teach them and, through them, he teaches us his followers. As in the gospel he urged his disciples, so also to us he says “come, let us go” (Mark 1:38; 14:42), right through the experience of betrayal, denial and disgrace into the new life in a place called “Galilee” (somewhere not unlike Galway and Tuam), with sins forgiven, because we are contrite and ready to make amends, and thus with hope for the future.

That, too, is the message of the prophet Zephaniah, the passage for the Mass of this Advent day liturgy. It speaks of how, despite the chosen people’s arrogance mentioned in the opening words, God intends to renew his people. What God has done in the past, he intends to do again in the present, here and now for us. And that promise holds true, however long it may take and with whatever new forms he will show us.

Father Conn, who is assisting me with the Apostolic Visitation and I have come here to listen and to learn, to see how the Spirit of our God is moving you to share with us your pain, your hopes, your insights and suggestions, ways in which we can find possibilities and options to recommend to the Holy Father and his associates in the Vatican for the renewal that we all wish for God’s Church.

This new way of living our mission as Church must begin by every effort being made to heal the victims of abuse, with the assumption of responsibility for sin and malfeasance committed, with the begging of forgiveness wherever needed, and ultimately, with the receiving of the reconciliation which God offers and the acceptance of divinely-ordained reasons for hope.

Apostolic Visitators come not with answers ready made, but with attentive ears and discerning hearts, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the local churches that we are privileged to visit. We come with the desire to manifest a ministry of encouragement, a zeal for reconciliation, a hope that, as Pope Benedict mentioned in his letter to Ireland, the Irish Church, as a source of blessing rather than an occasion for shame, may come to the fore again.

From the moment I was asked to come to Tuam, I have kept the gospel episode Our Blessed Mother’s visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth at the heart of my prayer, especially when praying that mystery of the Rosary.

May the joy of those two faith-filled women, delighting in the sons they were carrying in their wombs, stand for the hope we all hold in our hearts for a future free of all past hurts.

Many people in Canada and elsewhere in the world are praying for you—with us—this week and will continue to do so as the Apostolic Visitation continues. May that comfort you and all who love the Church of Ireland and strengthen all of us in the days ahead!

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