21 February 2008

Palestinian Christians live in constant fear

Check out this story which first appeared in National Post, a national newspaper in Canada, on 19 February. H/T Fr Tim Finigan.


Here with an item from last week’s news that you might not have heard about: Unidentified gunmen blew up the YMCA library in the Gaza Strip on Friday morning. While no one was hurt, two guards were temporarily kidnapped while the offices were looted, a vehicle stolen and all 8,000 books destroyed. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, although Fatah accused Hamas of being behind it. Hamas, for its part, strongly denied any responsibility and condemned the attack. Meanwhile, confidential sources in Gaza told the Jerusalem Post that the attack was in response to the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons in Danish newspapers last week. The supposed motivation for the attack, and the fact that it was not big news, illustrates the dire situation faced by many Christians living in the Palestinian territories.

There are only some 3,500 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox, in Gaza. Over the past two years, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have claimed responsibility for attacks against Christian figures and institutions with the stated goal of driving Christians out of Gaza. Full story . . .

'The Relevance of Lourdes at 150'

Interview With Bishop Jacques Perrier

By Isabelle Cousturié

LOURDES, France, 20 February 2008 (http://www.zenit.org/ ). The bishop of Lourdes says the pilgrimage site in his diocese is like a promise that never betrays.

That's how Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes described the spot on 10 February, eve of the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, during his homily at Mass celebrated in the grotto. 'The apparitions in Lourdes,' the bishop said, 'like Lent, propose to us the same question, that of hope, to which our Pope has dedicated his second encyclical. In what do we place our hope? What are we ready to do to enter into the great hope?'

Read the full interview with Bishop Perrier in today's bulletin from Zenit. (My naughty mind is asking that since water is so central to the whole Lourdes story is that why Bishop Perrier was appointed there?!)

You can also find my article on Lourdes in the current issue of Misyon with photos by Fr Tim Finigan.

20 February 2008

'Hitting the road'

In my second post I quoted a poem by Father Pádraig Ó Croiligh of the Diocese of Derry, Ireland, Tóg leat do bhata is cuir chun bóthair, 'Take your stick and hit the road'.

Maybe 'staff' would be a better translation, which means I'll have two staffs with me in Luzon next week, my metaphorical walking-staff and my editorial staff.

So, like a good peregrinus or pilgrim, following St Columban, my missionary patron, I'll be hitting the road tomorrow and won't be back here in Bacolod till late on Sunday 9 March, God willing. I'm not sure how much I'll be able to post during that period. But then I'm not sure if anyone is reading my posts!

A Prayer by St Columban

I beg you, most loving Saviour,
to reveal yourself to us who beseech you,
so that knowing you, we may love you only,
love you alone, desire you alone,
contemplate you alone by day and night,
and ever hold you in our thoughts.
May your charity possess all our inward parts,
and your love own us all,
and may your affection fill our senses.

More important to be a spouse than a parent

I'm off to Manila again tomorrow, this time to attend the National Board Meeting of Worldwide Marriage Encounter (WWME). I'll be visiting different parts of Luzon after that with my editorial staff. The following week I'll be in Ozamiz City, Mindanao, giving a directed retreat to four deacons from the Diocese of Dipolog.

An aside: very few Filipinos live on 'cartoon islands', the ones you see with a shipwrecked individual standing under the solitary coconut tree helplessly waving his tattered shirt at a ship on the horizon. Luzon, the main island in the north, is nearly as big as Britain and Mindanao, the main island in the south is bigger than Ireland, around the same size as Iceland. The Visayas, the group of islands in the centre of the country, are all large. Bacolod City, where I live, is on the island of Negros and it would probably take me two days to drive around the island if I were so inclined, which I'm not. I guess that people from the mainland of Britain and the mainland of Ireland have a different perception of what an island is from a mainland Canadian or American, for example, or a mainland European.

I made my WWME Weekend in Toronto in October 1982 while on a sabbatical year there and have been a team priest since then, with some inactive periods. You can find some testimonies by priest on an emagazine of WWME in the USA in the Priest's Corner. (The editor in me is thinking, 'Shouldn't that be Priests' Corner, with the apostrophe after the "s"?')

I have found my involvement over the years with WWME very helpful in living my life as a priest. The weekend emphasises the importance of the two sacraments: Matrimony and Holy Orders and how those called to live each support one another in being faithful to God's call. One thing I have become convinced of is that the most intimate and the most important of all human relationships is that between husband and wife. I sometimes think that the Church in speaking about the importance of the family doesn't stress enough the foundation of the family that is marriage.

In other words, it is more important to be a husband or wife than a father or mother. If a couple put their spousal relationship before everything else as God's will for them they cannot be but good parents if God grants them children. The Church honours St Joseph on his solemnity on 19 March (this year 15 March in most countries because of such an early Holy Week) as the Husband of Mary.

For the priest it means putting his relationship with Jesus the Risen Lord before everything else: When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep (Jn 21:15-17).

19 February 2008

'Good night, Mrs Murray, wherever you are'.

When I was reading today’s gospel at Mass (Mt 23:1-12) I thought of Mrs Murray when I came to the last two verses: 'He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; ‘whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’

When I was in the Boys’ Kindergarten at Stanhope Street School, Dublin, run by the Irish Sisters of Charity, from 1947 to 1951, there was a woman working there whom we knew simply as ‘Mrs Murray’. She was a cleaning-lady, probably in her 40s or 50s. But a young child has no real idea of age! She was always cheerful and smiling.

Though it never happened to me, there were occasions when boys had very embarrassing ‘accidents’ and soiled themselves. Mrs Murray always cheerfully took care of them, cleaned them up as best she could, comforted them and, as far as I can recall, took them home. I never knew anything about her family or where she lived. But I often think of her cheerful, constant presence.

Six years ago when I was based in Glasgow for a few months I went to the men’s room in one of the shopping malls. It was the cleanest I had ever seen in such a place. The janitor happened to be there and I thanked him for his work. His face lit up with joy.

In my brief homily I mentioned these two persons as the kind Jesus had in mind when he spoke the words above. And we prayed for them.

To paraphrase a well-loved entertainer, Jimmy Durante, who wasn’t ashamed of his Catholic faith, ‘Good night, Mrs Murray, wherever you are!’

18 February 2008

Misuse of the Mass in a good cause?

‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ez 18:23)’ is the scripture reading for Midday Prayer in the Breviary for the first four Mondays of Lent and also the antiphon before and after the psalms of Midday Prayer each day during Lent.

These words were reflected in the main running story in the Philippines media at the moment. Rodolfo Noel Lozada Jr, known as ‘Jun’ is being grilled by the Philippine Senate at the moment because he has spilled the beans about financial corruption at a very high level of government.

Recently on arriving from Hong Kong at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) he was whisked away by men he didn’t know in a manner that suggested he was being kidnapped. He turned up a few hours later at the De La Salle school in Greenhills in Metro Manila that his four children attend. They are staying there at the moment for safety and Mr Lozada held a press conference at around 2am after his arrival, surrounded by religious sisters who were protecting him.

The government denies that he was kidnapped. But ‘if it looks like a duck . . .’ And NAIA, formerly Manila International Airport, was renamed after Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino who was shot dead on 21 August 1983 just after his flight landed there, allegedly by a lone gunman, a petty criminal named Rolando ‘Rolly’ Galman who, like Aquino, ended up lifeless on the tarmac. The joke going around at the time was that Ninoy was surprised to see Rolly Galman at the Pearly Gates before him. There’s no doubt that Aquino was murdered by one of the soldiers escorting him, not by poor Galman. But who was behind the murder still isn’t clear.

So, naturally, Jun Lozada thought he was going to be murdered like Ninoy Aquino. 25 years ago there were no mobile phones, no internet.

Former President Corazon Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, arranged for a special Mass to be celebrated yesterday, Sunday, at the school in Greenhills. The Philippine Daily Inquirer headlines this as ‘EDSA spirit at Mass for Lozada’. ‘EDSA’ is Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Metro Manila where the ‘People Power Revolution’ that toppled the Marcos Dictatorship in 1986 too place. It was also the place where ‘EDSA II’ helped then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo replace President Jose Ejercito, known by his movie name Joseph Estrada, in 2001.

Ejercito was recently found guilty of plunder and sentenced to life in jail. During the case, which lasted for years, he was under ‘house arrest’ in one of his mansions and even allowed to go to Hong Kong for treatment. President Arroyo pardoned him ‘for the sake of national unity’. Meanwhile, in Davao City, where one of the president’s ‘security advisers’ , Rodrigo Duterte, who thinks he’s ‘Dirty Harry’, is mayor. He just laughs at the hundreds of unsolved murders of petty criminals and even children in his city. He’s a firm believer in ‘Law and Order’.

This is part of the background of the appalling corruption in the Philippines.

Jun Lozada said yesterday at Greenhills ‘I did it because I wanted to save my soul’. Maybe he had read the words of Ezekiel. When asked after the Mass if she would demand the resignation of President Arroyo, Mrs Aquino said ‘I’m praying for her. I’m praying for her’. Maybe she too has read the verses from Ezekiel and wants the president to read them too.

But I am very unhappy at the way the Holy Mass is used here in the Philippines as a form of demonstration, no matter how just the cause may be. The widespread and shameless corruption affects everyone, not just Catholics. It is as citizens that Catholics should be living out their faith. The priest says at the end of Mass, ‘Go, the Mass is ended’. That means ‘Go now and live your life as a Christian to the full’.

That’s precisely the problem: for so many the Sacrifice of the Mass ends at the church door as they leave. I’d be prepared to bet that a far higher percentage of politicians attend Sunday Mass in the Philippines than members of any other profession or way of life (except priests and religious!). Like the third staircase in Reb Tevye’s ‘If I were a rich man’, in terms of their journey towards eternal life, they’re ‘going nowhere just for show’.

But Jun Lozada at least, who’s a bureaucrat, not a politician, sees his personal situation from the perspective of eternal life.

But I am very unhappy at what I see as the misuse of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the central act of worship of Catholics.

17 February 2008

'Bring back the clip around the ear'

My late Dad's favourite threat to my brother and me was 'I'll give you a good clip in the ear'. He never carried out the threat because he led by example. When we grew up we used to kid him about it.

I thought of this when reading the item below from Jenny McCartney's column in today's Sunday Telegraph. I've emphasised Jenny's point about children learning from observing adults.

Fire crews are regularly facing violence and abuse when they turn up to extinguish a fire, it emerged last week. Youths are even making hoax calls in order to lure firemen into a situation in which they can be attacked.

The situation for undertakers is only marginally better. John Harris, a funeral director in London's East End, said that drivers are regularly overtaking and cutting in on horse-drawn funeral processions, and that on one occasion children threw stones at the horses.

This represents not only the disintegration of ordinary respect, but that of the force that promotes it: the invisible web of social taboo, which children sense by observing adults. When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, many such taboos revolved around drink and generosity: I perceived, for example, that among adults it was bad form to drink noticeably more alcohol when the drink was free than you generally would if you were paying for it. It was also mildly shameful to exclude anyone from the offer of a cup of tea.

My father grew up in a tough working-class area of West Belfast, in which it would have been unthinkable for children to attack firemen or stone a funeral procession - not least because they would have been punished by any adult in sight, and later by their own parents. The right of any adult to discipline within reason any badly behaved child was not questioned. Now that such confident interference is the one thing that is considered taboo, it appears that all the others are melting away.

Servites, serving persons with cancer

17 February is the Feast of the Seven Founders of the Servite Order, the Order of Friar Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the website of the Province of the Isles (Ireland and Britain) of the Order I found a beautiful Marian prayer for a friar who has died:


May the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose Servant(s) you have been, welcome you as she welcomed the Beloved Word of God.
May She take you under her protection on your journey to God, as She watched over you during your time on earth.
May She lead you with all the beloved Servants into the presence of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the one only Mediator of us all, in whose Resurrection from the dead is our Hope and Salvation.
So may the Communion of Saints be made more rich and full, that you may be welcome into the glory of God the Most High.

The Servites have a special ministry to persons with cancer and their families through St Peregrine, a Servite, who is the patron of those with cancer. The website of the US Province has a page about him.

16 February 2008

Good News of forgiveness

Two stories of forgiveness

My previous post wasn’t overflowing with Good News but two recent events are for me genuine expressions of the Gospel. The gospel (Mt 5:43-48) for today, Saturday of the First Week of Lent, reads:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It seems to me that this Good News has been proclaimed very forcefully in the following two stories.

On 11 April 1985 a young Italian priest, Fr Tullio Favali PIME (Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions), was brutally shot dead in Tulunan, North Cotabato, Mindanao. He hadn’t been very long in the Philippines. The real target was another PIME priest, Fr Peter Geremia. Recently one of the killers, Norberto Manalo, was released frm jail and met Father Geremia in the bishop’s house in Kidapawan. Ma. Ceres P. Doyo wrote about this in her column, Human Face, in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 6 February.

Ceres Doyo had read Father Geremia’s book Dreams and Bloodstains: the Diary of a Missioner in the Philippines before it was published some years ago. She ends her hope-filled article thus: ‘”Dreams and bloodstains end in forgiveness”. In this season of Lent.


Another story that I came across only today, even though it’s a month old, also gives me hope. President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor asked his people to forgive former President Suharto of Indonesia when the latter was dying. Suharto was responsible for countless deaths in this small country when Indonesia invaded it in December 1975 after the Portuguese left. Some of President Ramos-Horta’s own family were killed.

He himself is now out of danger and recovering in Darwin, Australia, after an assassination attempt at his home last Monday. Let’s pray for his full recovery.

'Can you carry the responsibility for God?'

A commentary on today's readings, Saturday of the First Week of Lent, in the Vatican II Weekday Missal by Celia Sirois reads: 'Both readings tell us that to be chosen by God, to be children of God brings with it an awesome responsibility. It demands that we act accordingly. The holiness of our lives must show forht the wholeness (the "perfection") of God. Reflecting on this, Dag Hammarsjköld wrote (in Markings), "Your responsibility is indeed terrifying . . . You fancy you can be responsible to God; can you carry the responsibility for God?"'

Dag Hammarsjköld was Secretary-General of the United Nations when killed in a plane crash in 1961. Nobody knew about his inner life but I never remember anyone linking him with corruption. His integrity, as I recall, was a given. Perhaps this came from his silent inner journey of faith.

Here in the Philippines at the moment there's a stench of corruption that is the worst I can recall since coming here in 1971. The Martial Law years under Marcos were worse in terms of killings, the undermining of the Constitution, the courts, the legislature and the corruption of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. But he always had a fig-leaf of constitutionality to cover his crimes.

Now there's no pretence at the use of even a fig-leaf. One of the sad things about all this is that most of the elected leaders in the Philippines are Catholics. Many of these are involved in blatant corruption but parade their Catholicism. Ma. Ceres P. Doyo wrote plaintively in her column two days ago in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 'I just feel let down upon realizing that it is difficult to find someone who is willing to tell all and at the same time is also beyond reproach.'

Each of us has to answer for our personal sinfulness. But each of us by virtue of our baptism is called by God to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ by our private and public lives. This awareness seems to be almost totally lacking in public life in the Philippines.

07 February 2008

No posts till at least 15 February

I'm off to Manila tomorrow for some meetings and won't have much access to the net so I don't expect to post anything till at least 15 February, if not a day or two later. God bless everyone.

Put the 'SAINT' back in St Valentine's Day

Opening Prayer from the Mass in honour of St Valentine

All powerful, ever living God,
You gave St Valentine the courage to witness to the
Gospel of Christ,
even to the point of giving his life for it.
By his prayers help us to endure all suffering for love of you
and to seek you with all our hearts,
for you alone are the source of life.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

For the last few years I've been trying to 'rehabilitate' St Valentine. Although he's not on the general calendar of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church anymore - he's been replaced on 14 February by Sts Cyril and Methodius - he is still venerated by the Church. There is some confusion as to whether there were one or two saints by that name. I think there was only one. The heart of the matter for me is that he seems to have been a Roman priest who defied the Emperor Claudius in 269 or 270. The pagan emperor was trying to force people to worship the ancient Roman gods and in order to get more soldiers to fight his wars, he forbade young men from marrying. You can read all about this on a webpage of the Carmelite Order (OCarm) in Ireland.

There are relics of St Valentine in Whitefriar St Church, Dublin, which belongs to the Carmelites.

For me as a priest who has been involved with Worldwide Marriage Encounter since 1982, St Valentine is a saint we need more than ever to pray for us, a priest who gave up his life in defence of the sacrament of marriage. WWME is one of the sponsors of World Marriage Day, 10 February.

Here in the Philippines St Valentine's Day is a day for the expression of innocent and real friendship for many young people, especially those still at school. But, sadly, for many it's a day of sin. Motels, which here are not places where travellers stay, are full.

Here is a photo of the saint's shrine in Whitefriar Street.

Whitefriar Street Church also has a shrine in honour of a modern martyr who was a priest and journalist, Blessed Titus Brandsma OCarm. You can see all the shrines in the church here. I remember reading that Blessed Titus preached at the church before the War, possibly during a novena in honour of St Valentine or one in honour of St Thérèse of Lisieux. I'm not sure.

The text on the shrine of Blessed Titus reads:


Born at Bolsward (The Netherlands) in 1861,Blessed Titus Brandsma joined the CarmeliteOrder as a young man. Ordained priest in 1905, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in Rome. He then taught in various schools inHolland and was named professor of philosophy and of the history of mysticism in the Catholic University of Nijmegen where he also served as Rector Magnificus. He was noted for his constant availability to everyone. He was a professional journalist, and in 1935 he was appointed ecclesiastical advisor to Catholic journalists. During the 1930’s he visited Ireland and stayed in Kinsale with the Carmelite Community there to improve his English before giving a series of lectures in theUnited States. Both before and during theNazi occupation of The Netherlands he fought, faithful to the Gospel, against the spread of the Nazi ideology and for the freedom of Catholic education and the Catholic press. For this he was arrested and sent to a succession of prisons and concentration camps where he brought comfort and peace to his fellow prisoners and did good even to his tormentors. In 1942, after much suffering and humiliations he was killed at Dachau. He was beatified by John Paul II on November 3rd, 1985.

Here is the Opening Prayer from the Mass in honour of Blessed Titus Brandsma (27 July)

Lord our God, source and giver of life,
you gave to Blessed Titus the Spirit of courage
to proclaim human dignity and the freedom of the Church
even in the throes of degrading persecution and death.
Grant us that same Spirit so that in the coming of your kingdom
of justice and peace we might never be ashamed of the Gospel
but be enabled to recognise your loving-kindness
in all the events of our lives.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

150th Anniversary of Lourdes apparitions

Monday 11 February is the 150th anniversary of the first apparition of Our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette in Lourdes. I have an article about the shrine and some who have gone there on pilgrimage in the current January-February issue of Misyon, which I edit.

Happy Lunar New Year

A Happy New Year to all who observe the Lunar New Year today, especially Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese. The Missionary Society of St Columban was formally established in 1918 to work in China. We have members working there today and also in Taiwan. We have worked in Korea since 1933 and have Korean lay missionaries working here in the Philippines. Two Columban priests are former 'boat people' from Vietnam who found their way to Australia where they were ordained, Fr Nguyen Van Hung in Taiwan and Fr Nguyen Xuan Tien in Japan..

The Columban have also been in Japan since after World War II where the Lunar New Year, I understand, is still observed by some in rural areas.

So Happy New Year to all!

Character and leadership

One of the things that has struck me reading various articles and listening to interviews about the Munich Air Disaster 50 years ago yesterday is the emphasis on character and leadership. John Giles in a column yesterday in the Irish Independent writes about the leadership of Matt Busby the manager who was gravely injured in the crash. Survivor Harry Gregg, in a radio interview with Eamon Dunphy, who started his career as a professional footballer with United, speaks about Busby’s style as a leader. Everyone referred to him as ‘The Boss. Only twice did Gregg ever hear Busby raise his voice. One occasion, post-Crash, was when two players, who didn’t get along well, got into a row after a game. Matt Busby didn’t allow any discussion after games. In those days most games in Britain were played on Saturday afternoon and Busby analysed the match with the players the following Monday. Everyone saw him as a real leader.

Jimmy Murphy, the assistant manager who wasn’t on the plane because he had been on duty with the Welsh national side the night before, showed his leadership in being a great assistant to Busby. But he was ready to take over while Matt Busby was recovering, had to deal with funerals and finding new officials for the club, as some had died in the crash. An article in the Manchester Evening News paints him as a man who could spot talent. His style was more aggressive than that of Busby but he nurtured the giftedness of the young men in his charge.

When the ‘Busby Babes’ were on the ascendant – and their average age at the time of Munich in 1958 was only 22 – the outstanding Irish team was Shamrock Rovers, the squad at the time all young men and known as ‘Coad’s Colts’ after their manager Paddy Coad, an ‘old man’ in his 30s. These players, unlike those in Manchester, were part-timers but had great pride in what they did. Those who played with that great team speak of Paddy Coad, not only as a man who formed them as a team, but as one who made men of them.

My own father was a carpenter and spent most of his life as a highly-respected foreman on building/construction sites. He led by quiet example, by honesty and integrity. He never swore at a worker, nor at anyone else. My mother told me more than once that she had never heard him swear, nor had I. The summer before my ordination, when I was a subdeacon, I worked as a labourer with my father. I saw what I knew to be true, the deep respect the workers had for my Dad.

Leadership comes from character and expresses itself in different forms. Matt Busby was in charge of his club. Jimmy Murphy was his assistant and it was as such that he showed leadership. My father was a leader as a husband, father and foreman. I doubt if he could have managed a football team or club. But he was a leader where God called him to be a leader and for which God had given him the ability and grace.

The website of Manchester United FC has many items about the 50th anniversary. And the Manchester Evening News yesterday also had many items, both articles and videos.

06 February 2008

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it'.

55c Stamp issued by An Post, the Irish postal service, 4 February 2008

On 6 February, 1958, a British European Airways flight crashed in Munich after attempting to take off during a blizzard. Twenty-three of the forty-four passengers died in the crash, including eight Manchester United football players returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia.

A twenty-two year old, Liam Whelan, a member of the Republic of Ireland national team and one of Manchester United's most talented young players, was one of the fatalities.

Liam, from Cabra in Dublin, began his playing career with Dublin's Home Farm Football Club. His skill as a footballer was obvious and, at just eighteen years of age, he joined Manchester United. After a couple of seasons, he was playing regularly for United's first team and was regarded as one of their best players.

The stamp is based on a photograph of Liam Whelan with the clock commemorating the disaster, located at Old Trafford, Manchester, in the background. The first day cover depicts members of the Manchester United team leaving for the European Cup match in Belgrade. Included is Harry Gregg (second from the right), from Northern Ireland who survived the disaster. Both the stamp and first day cover were designed by RMG Target, with additional typography by Steve Simpson.

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it'.

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died 50 years ago today and who is buried near my parents. Only last year I learned that when they were both around 14 Liam rescued a close friend of mine who had got into difficulties in a swimming pool.

The average age of Manchester United's players was only 22. One who was only 21, Duncan Edwards, from the English Midlands, was considered by many to have the potential to become perhaps the greatest footballer ever. He died 15 days after the crash.

These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. Their counterparts today are often spoiled millionaires. Imagine if the top players in the Philippine Basketball Association were paid only the same amount as a public school teacher, or if the members of the New York Giants or the Boston Red Sox were limited to earning little more than a bus-driver. That’s how it was with these young men who filled stadiums week after week.

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as a ‘devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Clearly young Liam Whelan had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I spoke about him at Mass this morning. I see Lent as a time to focus on the essentials, God’s love for us sinners, the hope that the life and death of Jesus offer us, the necessity of acknowledging our sinfulness to enable God’s love to break through.

But the deaths of so many talented young men still leaves a deep sadness among those who saw them play and followed their fortunes. I was feeling that sadness quite heavily this last week but it has lifted now. The February issue of The Word an article, A Sporting Tragedy, in which John Scally speaks for me : ‘Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future’.

You can listen to a wonderful interview with Harry Gregg, one of the survivors, on Bowman Sunday Morning on 27 January. To hear the programme, go to this page, then click on the link titled 'Programme 4 Sunday 27th January'.For the start of the United item, you will have to move the dial to 24 mins 30 seconds. On 3 February the interview is continued in the first part of the programme, which includes the voice of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, a genuine Manchester United fan, recalling how he heard the news of the tragedy as a seven-year-old. (H/T Brendan Allen.)

The Daily Telegraph has a short video in which Sir Bobby Charlton, another survivor, recalls his team-mates. (If you don't see the thumb-size picture on the right, type 'Munich remembered' into the 'search'.)

May all who died as a result of the tragedy 50 years ago today rest in peace.

05 February 2008

'The many hundreds who have called me Father'

A Columban friend emailed the letter below to me today. I remember receiving a copy from Father Jim McCaslin himself when he wrote it. He was a priest for nearly 49 years and wrote a number of books including one on the spirituality of the Columbans. But it was his life as a missionary priest rather than these that spoke volumes.

The first time I met him was during the summer of 1969 or 1970 when I was studying in New York. We were driving down the New Jersey Turnpike when something happened that for me was straight out of a Hollywood movie with nuns. We saw three or four Sisters in their habits standing helplessly by the side of the road, looking forlornly at their car with its flat tyre. We did the gracious thing and stopped. The Sisters were Italian with hardly a word of English. If they had seen 'Going My Way' maybe they thought we were 'Fr Bing Crosby' and friend. We changed the tyre, I acting in my usual supervisory role in that situation.

Father Jim was an utterly dedicated and happy missionary priest, with a gentle sense of humour and who could bring you down to earth when you were taking yourself or some issue too seriously.

I have highlighted a couple of phrases in Father Jim's letter

Letter from Father Jim McCaslin (13 March 2003) Father Jim died on 15 September that year

Nebraska 68134

I began this on February 3, the feast of Saint Ansgar. Who? Saint Ansgar, a bishop born in France at the beginning of the ninth century. In 826 he began his missionary efforts in Denmark later going to Sweden, and it seems those peoples were not very receptive to his efforts. It is said that "he endured many difculties in his work of evangelization but his spirit never failed". He died in 865. You never heard of him? Well, I wouldn't have either except that he has appeared in my prayer' book (the Divine Office or the Breviary) every February for many years. His feast may be celebrated in Denmark, Sweden and possibly in Hamburg, Germany where he at some stage became bishop — I don't know.

However, his feast in the universal church is not very important and is called `optional'. So why am I writing about him? He was a missionary, that's why, and so am I. This year I opted to read the lesson given for his feast and found it was from The Decree of the Second Vatican Council on the Missionary Activity of the Church (nos 23-24) I was struck in a special way by what was said about missionaries, some of which I want to share with you:"Every disciple of Christ has the obligation to do his part in spreading the faith. Yet Christ the Lord always calls whomever he chooses from the number of his disciples 'to be with him and to be sent by him' to preach to the nations. "Therefore ... Christ inspires the missionary vocation in the hearts of individuals. At the same time heraises up in the church certain groups which take as their special task that duty of preaching the gospel whichweighs upon the whole church. "For there are certain priests, religious and lay people who are prepared to undertake mission work in their own countries or abroad and who are endowed with appropriate natural dispositions, character and talents. These souls are marked with a special vocation, Sent by legitimate authority, they go faithfully and obediently to those who are far from Christ. They are set apart for the work to which they have been called as ministers of the gospel so that 'the offering of the gentiles may become acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (Rom 15:16)."Yet a man must so respond to God's call so that, without consulting flesh and blood, he can devote himself totally to the work of the gospel.

This response, however, can be made only when the Holy Spirit gives him inspiration and strength. For he who is sent enters upon the life of Him who 'emptied himself taking the nature of a slave' (Phil 2:7). Therefore, he must stand by his vocation for a lifetime, and renounce himself and all those whom he consider as his own instead becoming 'all things to all men' (I Cor 9:22).

Forty-eight years ago in 1955 I was sent by the Church through the Columban Fathers as a missionary to the people of the Philippines. Although the vast majority of Filipinos (about 80%) were baptized Catholics, only a small percentage were evangelized in any real sense. I don't know precisely how I was chosen by the Church to be a missionary and as such sent to evangelize Filipinos, but I have always had the firmest conviction that I was, and doing so has been the warp and woof of my life both as a priest and as a man.

Seven years ago I came down with colon cancer in Hong Kong where I had in the previous year gone to continue to help in the evangelization of Filipinos forced by economic necessity to go abroad in search of a livelihood. Cancer is scarey enough that I wondered if my life as missionary among them had been aborted, but after an operation and chemotherapy in Omaha was happy to learn that there was no sign of cancer, and I was free to return to my work of both evangelizing and being evangelized by Filipinos. For that indeed had been happening for a long, long time.Within a year, however, new cancer appeared in the lungs and I began five years of chemotherapy in Hong-Kong, during which time I was able to stay on as a very happy and productive missionary. That was true until July 2002 when I was vacationing in the USA and my lung cancer suddenly began to grow while new cells at the bones at the base of my spine. In that condition I could not return to Hong Kong but had to return to Omaha for radiation and a new chemotherapy. Meanwhile, I reached my 75th birthday while the chemo sapped my strength and Filipinos wondered by phone and letters when I was `coming home'.

My body and my doctor told me that at the very least it would not be very soon, yet I remained optimistic that I would indeed return. After all, I was a missionary who had to stand by my vocation for a lifetime, As a priest and as a man I knew no other life, nor did I want any other. Then about two months ago (in January) my latest chemo was shown to be no longer effective and the cancer was growing again. Since then I have been treated orally with a new one which the literature suggests is resorted to when "everything else fails"! I am not particularly frightened by that news but it does sadden me.

Am I still a missionary when I can no longer be with those with whom my whole life has been spent? Can I be a missionary when I am scarcely able to leave my brother's house, where I have been recuperating and awaiting a return of health that would permit me to be back among them? I can now put more time into prayer and reflection on God's word, but I don't know that I pray any better than before, I have more time to remember with great joy the many hundreds who have called me Father, whose love has sustained me for such a long time. I have always believed that a priest must be a man of prayer if he is to be worth anything at all, a missionary perhaps more than others. The time I had expected to put in face to face I can no longer give. Yet, as their father whose heart they know they own, I must continue give that time even during the long lonely hours of each day, and not forgetting the many others, non-Filipinos, who have also been so much a part of my life, who have loved me more than I deserve and who also call me Father. As poor as my prayer may be,'I have come to realize that for now it's the only way I have of being missionary, And I promise to follow that way as long as I still have breath within me. Perhaps I can apply to myself what I have preached to elderly others, that this time may be the most productive of any other time in a long missionary career. May it be so. Pray for me. Thank you Saint Ansgar, wherever you may be.

Yesterday the doctor told me I should have another C-scan to see whether the present chemo is producing the desired effect, to bring the cancer under control. My blood tests have been good but I am losing weight, and I am also frequently sick to my stomach with lots of vomiting. Not so promising, but God continues to look after meI am sending this especially to the many who have written me but have heard nothing from me for a long 'time. Forgive me. I really have been unable to do what I am doing now because physically it has been too painful. You are worth it but I can't promise to be able to do it again. Depend on my prayers — and my love. Jim McCaslin
(Latest cat scan shows spread in lungs and liver and pancreas. My future seems to be in the past.)

********************************************************************************************************** The Missionary Vocation: Vatican II Decree ‘Ad Gentes' nn. 23-24. (Breviary Office of Readings: Feast of Saint Ansgar — February 3rd)

We must boldly proclaim the mystery of Christ Every disciple of Christ is responsible in his own measure for the spread of the faith, but Christ the Lord is al-ways calling from among his followers those whom he wills, so that they may be with him and be sent by him to preach to the nations. Through the Holy Spirit, who distributes gifts as he wills for the good of all, Christ implants in the hearts of individuals the vocation to be a missionary, and at the same time he raises up in the Church institutes which make their own the task of spreading the Gospel that belongs to the whole Church. A special vocation marks out those priests, religious and lay people who are prepared to undertake the missionary task in their own country or abroad, and have the right natural disposition for it, with suitable gifts and talents. Sent by lawful authority, they go out in obedience and faith to those who are far from Christ. They have been set apart for the task to which they have been called as ministers of the Gospel, to make the Gentiles an acceptable offering, sanctified in the Holy Spirit. Those whom God calls must answer his call in such a way that, without regard for purely human counsel, they may devote themselves wholly to the work of the Gospel. This response cannot be given except with the inspiration and strength of the Holy Spirit. The person who is sent enters into the life and mission of him who emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave. He must be ready therefore to be true to his vocation for life, to deny himself, renouncing all that he had before, and to become all things to all men. In preaching the Gospel to the nations he must boldly proclaim the mystery of Christ, whose ambassador he is, so that in Christ he may have the courage to speak as he ought, and not be ashamed of the scandal of the cross. He must follow in the footsteps of his Master, who was gentle and humble of heart, and reveal to others that his yoke is easy and his burden light. By a life that is truly according to the Gospel, by much endurance, by forbearance, by kindness and sincere love, he must bear witness to his Lord, even, if need be, by the shedding of his blood. He will pray to God for strength and courage, so that he may come to see that for one who experiences great hardship and extreme poverty there can be abundant joy.

03 February 2008

First experience of death

The earliest specific date indelibly linked in my memory, as distinct from learning a date from others, is 3 February. On this date 58 years ago my Auntie Madge (Margaret Collins), a younger sister of my mother, died from rheumatic fever. She was only 26, still single, and a beautiful person in every way. I was a few months short of seven at the time but still miss her all these years later. My father was with her when she died. My mother and the rest of the Collins family had been taking care of her around the clock at home, helped by the brothers-in-law.

I'm the third eldest among our generation of first-cousins, all on my mother's side - my father was an only child. My mother brought me to the wake, the first time I was in the presence of a deceased person. I'm very grateful to her for that. Some parents in the western world try to hide the reality of death from their children. Indeed, some people try to hide the reality of death, period. I remember the experience vividly. But the memories I have of Madge are of my living 'Auntie Madge', someone who loved her nieces and nephews.

I have one particularly fond Christmas memory. I'm not sure if it was the December before she died or the previous December. She took Billy, Joan and me, three first-cousins born in the same year, to Pims (or Pyms), a department store in South Great George's Street, just off Dame Street in the heart of Dublin. (People just called it 'George's St' but on the other side of the Liffey a street named after one of the King Georges was always called by its full name, 'North Great George's Street'). She took us for a ride on the 'train' in the toy section of the store, where we experienced the rocking of the 'train' and watched the 'scenery' as it passed by. The 'train', of course, wasn't going anywhere and the 'scenery' was simply a painted canvas being turned around on a frame. Being five or six we thought we were on a real train and a on real journey. In a sense we were - on a precious short journey with a dear aunt who would go ahead of us on her final journey before very long.

Though I still miss Auntie Madge, I feel blessed by my memories of her and feel sorry for my younger cousins who never knew her. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, No 48, Pope Benedict writes: The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? I can not only pray for Auntie Madge but I can also say 'Thank you' to her, knowing that she hears me. So 'Thank you, dear Auntie Madge!'

Madge is buried with my maternal grandparents, William Patrick and Annie, and one of her brothers, my Uncle Mick, in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, near the grave of my parents. Each time I visit those graves I pass that of Liam ('Billy' as he was called in England) Whelan of Manchester United, who died in the Munich Air Disaster 50 years ago on 6 February aged only 22. I'll come back to that in a later post. But when I was praying this morning I couldn't but think of Liam and the image that kept coming to me was that of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus who was around the same age as this brilliant young footballer still at the beginning of his career.

May all of these rest in peace.

02 February 2008

Seven new novices; the cost of discipleship

Today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, is 'World Day of Consecrated Life / Religious Life. So it was fitting that I celebrated Mass this morning as six young women and one not quite so young, began their novitiate with the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family. The Sisters came from Spain to the Philippines in 1982 and include members from Central America and especially from Colombia, where the Congregation is strong. They now have many young Filipino Sisters.

Here's something I wrote about the work of the Sisters here in Bacolod City. It's on the website of the Columbans in the USA.

Please pray for the new novices; Rhea Lei, Willyn, Leslie, Irene, Franes Laraine, Mylah and Antonieta. They're in reverse chronological order, starting with a 19-year-old. Antonieta had been working with the Sisters for some years before hearing God's call.

Antonieta and I have a mutual friend, now on the 'Simeon and Anna' side of 50, who is a novice with the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity. Sr Mary Anthony has a sister with the Siervas de San Jose, Sr Violeta, and a brother, Father Bert Layson OMI, who is working in Mindanao, where the family is from.

Father Bert was working at the Cathedral in Jolo when Bishop Benjamin de Jesus OMI was murdered in front to the church on 4 February 1997, 11 years ago come Monday. Ten days later Bishop Antonino Nepomuceno OMI, at the time a former auxiliary bishop of Cotabato in Mindanao, died immediately after the funeral of his confrere and brother bishop when the small plane he was in crashed just after take-off.

On 28 December 2000 Father Benjamin Inocencio OMI was murdered at the back of Jolo Cathedral and this year, on 15 January, Fr Jesus Reynaldo A. Roda OMI was murdered in a kidnap attempt on one of the most remote islands in the Vicariate of Jolo, which includes the most southerly islands of the Philippines. Please keep the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in your prayers.

The face of evil

Pope Benedict's General Prayer Intention for February is:

Mentally Handicapped. That the mentally handicapped may not be marginalized, but respected and lovingly helped.

(An alternative English version is: That people with learning disabilities be loved and respected so that they can live life to the full.)

The urgency of this intention is seen in today's news in The Daily Telegraph and other news sources:

Baghdad market bombers 'mentally impaired'

By Damien McElroy in Baghdad
Last Updated: 3:24am GMT 02/02/2008

Two women with Down's Syndrome were used to deliver remote-controlled bombs to the heart of Baghdad's thriving markets, killing at least 93 people and shattering the Iraqi capital's fragile peace.

Disturbing details of the "brutal and barbaric" attacks emerged last night, with Iraqi officials claiming the women may not have known they were on a suicide mission.

Instead, they may have unwittingly become part of al-Qa'eda's campaign to kill off any semblance of normality in the Iraqi capital. Read the full story here.

This is surely the face of evil. In Irish someone with Down's Syndrome is spoken of as 'duine le Dia', ' a person with God'. If this report is accurate the incident can only be described as diabolical in the full sense of that word.

Related to this is a debate in the House of Lords in London a few days ago (H/T to Fr Tim Finigan, 31 January, 'Life unworthy of life?' with a link to the blog of John Smeaton, Director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).

Hitler's ideology is now respectable.

01 February 2008

A Brigidine blessing for newlyweds

The Church in Ireland has a new Mass formulary for St Brigid, one of the Secondary Patrons of Ireland, whose feast is today. Here is the Collect:

Merciful God,
origin and reward of all charity,
you called Saint Brigid to teach the new commandment of love
through her life of hospitality and her care of the needy;
give to your people, by her intercession,
a generous spirit, so that, with hearts made pure,
we may show your love to all.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Brigidine Blessing at the end of a nuptial Mass.

(It’s amazing the number of people, even priests, who mispronounce ‘nuptial as ‘nupjewal’. But then President Eisenhower, as many others still do, used to pronounce ‘nuclear’ as ‘nookyular’!)

Last year while preparing with the couple a wedding ceremony that was celebrated almost entirely in Irish and in Hiligaynon, the language of the region of the Philippines where I‘m presently living, I discovered a beautiful Brigidine Blessing for the end of the nuptial Mass in Leabhar Aifrinn an Pharóiste, ‘The Parish Mass Book’, an Irish language liturgical resource book published by Veritas, Dublin. I don’t have an English text so the translation is my own.

Coincidentally, a variation of St Brigid’s name is ‘Bride’ and in Scotland she’s usually called ‘St Bride’. We have place names in Ireland known as ‘Bridewell’ which would indicate an ancient well in the saint’s honour. There is a police station in Dublin known as ‘The Bridewell’ and I think there’s one in Cork too.

During the blessing at the end of the nuptial Mass the priest holds the St Brigid’s Cross in his right hand. He makes the Sign of the Cross with it over the couple and over the people. Then he gives the St Brigid’s Cross to the bride. According to ancient custom the bride places the Cross on the wall of the house every St Brigid's Day.

Here is the text of the blessings:

Priest: Síocháin an Athar libh,
Síocháin Chríost libh,
Síocháin an Spioraid libh,
Gach lá agus gach oíche.

People: Gach lá agus gach oíche. Amen

(The peace of the Father be with you,
The peace of Christ be with you.
The peace of the Spirit be with you,
Every day and night. Amen.

People: Every day and night. Amen.)

Priest: Coimirce and Athar oraibh,
Coimirce Chríost oraibh,
Coimirce and Spioraid oraibh,
Gach lá agus oíche de bhur saol. Amen.

People: Gach lá agus oíche de bhur saol. Amen.

(The protection of the Father be on you,
The protection of Christ be on you,
The protection of the Spirit be on you,
Every day and night of your lives. Amen.

Every day and night of your lives. Amen.)

Priest: Beannacht an Athar oraibh,
Beannacht Chríost oraibh,
Beannacht an Spioraid oraibh,
Go coróin na beatha síoraí. Amen.

People: Go coróin na beatha síoraí. Amen.

(The blessing of the Father on you,
The blessing of Christ on you,
The blessing of the Spirit on you,
To the crown of eternal life. Amen.

To the crown of eternal life. Amen.)

Priest: Bail ó Dhia oraibh ó Shamhain go Lá ‘le Bríde,
ó Lá le ‘Bríde go Bealtiane,
ó Bhealtaine go Lúnasa,
ó Lúnasa go Samhain;
is go mbeannaí Dia uilechumhactach sibh,
Athair, Mac + agus Spiorad Naomh.

People: Amen.

(May God prosper you from Hallowe’en to St Brigid’s Day,
from St Brigid’s Day to May,
from May to August
and from August to Hallowe’en,
and may almighty God bless you, the Father, Son + Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.)

Priest: Go dté sibh slán faoi shíocháin Chríost.

People: Buíochas le Dia.

(Priest: May you go safely under the peace of Christ.

People: Amen.)

The last part of the blessing refers to the four pre-Christian festivals, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain that marked the beginning of spring, summer, autumn and winter. St Brigid’s Day, 1 February, replaces Imbolc, but Bealtaine is the Irish name for May, Lúnasa for August and Samhain for November. In Ireland the four seasons are reckoned from the first of February, of May, of August and of November. It is really impossible to translate that last part of the blessing into English. To some extent St Brigid’s Day and Hallowe’en are Imbolc and Samhain ‘baptized’. A popular title in Ireland and some other places for the Virgin Mary in May is ‘Queen of the May’. That, to some extent, ‘baptizes’ Bealtaine. The Solemnity of the Assumption on 15 August is sometimes referred to in Irish as ‘Lá Fhéile Mhuire Mhóir’, ‘The Great Feast of Mary’. That too, in a sense, ‘Christianizes’ Lúnasa.

Peregrini pro Christo, Pilgrims for Christ

The late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich of Ireland, who was an expert on the life of St Columban and a devotee of the saint, wrote in his book Columbanus in his own words: ‘He was a missionary through circumstance, a monk by vocation; a contemplative, too frequently driven to action by the world; a pilgrim on the road to Paradise’.

We Columban Missionaries, priests, Sisters and lay, are not missionaries through circumstance but by choice, in response to God’s call. But, like our patron, we are pilgrims and called to be contemplatives.

Father Pádraig Ó Croiligh of the Diocese of Derry, Ireland, wrote the foreword to his book Brúitíní Creidimh, a collection of short contemplative poems of faith, on the Feast of St Brigid three years ago. The title could be translated as Mashed Potatoes of Faith. Perhaps a similar book in the Philippines might be called Rice Toppings of Faith.

The opening stanza of Oilithreacht – Pilgrimage – reads:

Tóg leat do bhata is cuir chun bóthair.
Bíodh an Bíobla i do láimh agus Dia i do chroí,
Do Phaidrín i do phóca agat agus bia ar do dhroim leat
Agus gan ar do intinn ach turas an tsaoil

I am no poet but Father Ó Croiligh’s words could be translated as:

Take your stick and hit the road,
The Bible in your hand and God in your heart,
Your Rosary in your pocket and food in your backpack
And nothing on your mind but the journey of life.

To some extent the opening of that poem reflects a very short verse written in Irish in the ninth century:

Teacht don Róimh:
Mór saothar, beag tairbhe –
An Rí a lorgaíonn tú abhus,
Murar thug leat É, ní bhfaighidh

Contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella translates this as:

Getting to Rome
is great labour, little use.
The King you look for here
you won’t find unless you bring Him.

When St Columban left Bangor he probably had no idea where his journey would take him. He sent many letters to Rome, especially to the popes of his day, some of them about how the date of Easter should be calculated. But this great missionary, born into a Christian community that had lived the faith for no more than 100 years, certainly brought with him the King he was looking for. Extracts from his writings are scattered through the Office of Readings in the Prayer of the Church, testimony to the depth of his faith.

I’ve no idea where this blog will lead to, whether or not anyone will read it and respond to it. But if St Columban were around today I’m quite sure he’d use the resources of the internet to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Setting out on the first day of spring

Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh,
Is tar éis na Féile Bríde ardóidh mé mo sheol;
Ó chuir mé i mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche
Go seasfaidh mé thíos i lár Chontae Mhaigh Eo.

Now that Spring is here and the days getting longer,
After the Feast of St Brigid I’ll hoist my sail.
Since I took the notion I won’t rest
Till I’m right in the heart of County Mayo.

That’s my rough, non-poetic and non-literal translation of the opening lines of a poem by Antaine Raifteirí (Ó Reachtúra), 1784-1835, that we learned in school in Ireland. The poet, illiterate and blind from childhood because of smallpox, was from County Mayo in the west of Ireland, the same county where Columban Co-founder Father John Blowick was born 53 years after the death of Raftery, as his name is anglicized.

The first day of February is the feast of St Brigid (c.451-525) in Ireland and is considered the first day of spring. In northern Europe this time of year is one of hope. The long, dark nights of winter are receding, even though wintry weather may still be there. Right now there’s very stormy weather in Ireland and Britain. Nature in the temperate areas of the northern hemisphere is in tune with Lent and Easter in a way that isn’t as evident in the tropics. And in the temperate regions in the southern hemisphere autumn reigns, with winter not far behind. Though I’ve been here in the Philippines most of the time since 1971 an ‘inner calendar’ still follows the rhythm of the four seasons I experienced as a child and young man in Ireland.

I don’t know what time of year it was when St Columban (Columbanus) and his twelve companions set off in a small boat from the monastery of Bangor in the present-day County Down in Northern Ireland, on the northeast coast of Ireland. They probably arrived in Gaul, which we now call France, around 590 or 591, though some say they arrived twenty years before that. His travels, during which he established a number of monasteries, through modern-day France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, eventually led him to cross the Alps into northern Italy where he founded his last monastery in Bobbio, south of Milan, where he died on 23 November 615, the date now observed as his feast day, though some say 21 November. However, there’s no dispute about the year.

Columban lived out the motto of many Irish monks of his time, Peregrinari pro Christo, ‘to be a pilgrim/wanderer/traveller/ for Christ’. The other Co-founder of the Columbans, Bishop Edward Galvin, was born on the saint’s feast day in 1882 and chose this great missionary as the patron of the Society of St Columban, which was formally established on the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, 29 June, in 1918 to spread the Gospel in China.

I joined the Columbans in 1961 was ordained on 20 December 1967 and, after studies in the USA, arrived in the Philippines on 3 October 1971. I’ve been here most of the time since.

The gospel readings at Mass this week have featured parables of Jesus about seeds, very appropriately for places where spring is beginning. My prayer is that this blog, and The Pilgrims’ Inn, being launched very soon on http://www.misyononline.com/ , the website of Misyon, the Columban magazine in the Philippines which I edit, may both bear fruit.

Last Tuesday, 29 January, Father Tim Finigan of the Archdiocese of Southwark, England, had the video below in his blog, which fits in beautifully with the theme of spring, seed, new life and Pro-Life Sunday here in the Philippines, 3 February.

Unlike Father Tim’s blog this probably won’t be updated (almost) every day. But I hope it will be both active and interactive in the service of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Church.