90th Anniversary of SMA House, Dromantine
On Sunday, 11 September 2016, Fr. Michael McCabe SMA, Provincial Leader, was Chief Celebrant at a Mass of Thanksgiving, marking the 90th anniversary of the Society of African Missions presence in Dromantine, Newry, Co. Down. Following is the homily Fr. McCabe delivered in the presence of Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop Emeritus of Armagh, Most Rev. John McAreavy, Bishop of Dromore, and Most Rev. Patrick Harrington SMA, together with SMA confreres, OLA Sisters and many friends and associates of the Society who travelled from across Ireland to mark the occasion:
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise
We are gathered here today to celebrate the 90th anniversary of SMA House Dromantine. We gather to acknowledge and thank God for all that this house – described by a French Confrere as ‘the most beautiful house in the Society’ – has meant for the Irish Province in its missionary service, mainly to Africa but also in Ireland. The vitally important role that Dromantine House played in the service of the SMA over the past 90 years may divided into two almost equal phases: the first phase as a major seminary for the training of Irish SMA students for mission in Africa for 46 years; the second phase as a House of missionary promotion and service to the Church in Ireland, from 1972 up to the present day.
The first era began in 1926, when, under the direction of the then Provincial Superior, Fr. Maurice Slattery – a leader of great vision and determination – the SMA purchased Dromantine House and its large estate, adapted it, and established it as the major seminary for the formation and education of its candidates in Ireland for missionary priesthood. From then until the famous move to Maynooth in 1972, almost 600 young men were ordained priests and went from Dromantine to various countries of Africa.
While it is not popular today to sing the praises of the Seminary system – and Dromantine, in common with all seminaries of its time, had its faults and failings – it is nevertheless important to remember – and thank God for – those who passed through here and those who worked here as members of the Staff (administrative and teaching, clerical, religious, and lay). A special word of thanks for the many OLA sisters who serve in the House and to the loyal lay Staff. While the formation given may have been far from perfect (like the game of golf there is no such thing as a perfect formation), it surely helped to imbue in the young men trained here that passion for mission which informed their lives of dedicated service to Africa. Many who were formed in Dromantine have passed on to their eternal reward (three only very recently – Derry O’Connell, Dan O’Neill and Vincent Lawless). Others, still in their seventies and eighties, continue their missionary work in Africa. What ‘miracles of grace’ have been achieved through their lives of dedicated service, only God can reckon. For certain, they played a vital and indispensable part in what Pope John Paul II has termed “‘the historical drama of charity, heroism and sacrifice’ which has made the African Church the vibrant, fast growing plant it is today – a Church that is today itself missionary and which provides the SMA with the vast majority of its vocations at this time. Dromantine did not train armchair philosophers or theologians but men who embodied the Gospel spirit in eminently practical ways, who ‘walked the walk rather than talked the talk’, men who followed the injunction of that great patron of Mission, St Peter Claver: “We must speak to them (the people to whom we are sent) with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”
The second phase of Dromantine House, which began in 1972 and continues up to the present day, was focused on developing the promotion ministry of the Province and establishing the Retreat and Conference Centre. This phase was, and is, complementary to the first phase – for it is essentially a missionary service very in line with the missionary vision of the Second Vatican Council and of Papal teaching since then. Many years ago I was struck by a point made by Enda McDonagh at the Missionary Congress in Navan in1968 when he stated that ‘the health of missionary activity is to be judged not simply by what it is achieving in the mission fields but perhaps more by what it is achieving back home.’ While missionaries go out from their own homeland and culture to bring the Gospel to people of other places and cultures, they are also called play a role of missionary animation and renewal in their homelands.
There is a beautiful little book on Mission Spirituality by two White Fathers called Catalysts. Missionaries, I believe, are called to be catalysts (or agents of change) in a double sense: catalysts in the encounter between the Gospel and a new people and culture leading to a new incarnation of Christ; and catalysts for the growth and renewal of their churches of origin. Missionaries have the responsibility of challenging their churches of origin to confront their accustomed attitudes and values with those of the people to whom they are sent and among whom they work, and in this way stimulate the development and maturation of the Christian faith of their home churches. For the past 44 years, Dromantine, through its promotion work and especially through the Retreat and Conference Centre has played a significant role, not only of service to the home Church, but of linking Ireland and Africa and facilitating the ongoing renewal, both spiritual and pastoral, of the Irish Church. Today we must pay tribute not only the SMA members who worked here ( to Sr Mary Connellon who is with us today) but also great number of dedicated lay staff and supporters) not only in keeping Dromantine alive but in making it a vital instrument in the service not just of the SMA, but of the Irish Church.
Today the Church is facing new challenges. If we speak of a “Church in crisis” we must remember that a crisis is a moment of opportunity as well as danger. Some of its current structures and the role that the clergy played in that structure may need to be rethought. We might wonder how much of the old structure is essential to the proclamation of the Good News. Fr Eamonn Conway has argued that, ‘when some spring cleaning is done, the Church may well emerge in a far better condition, leaner and healthier, and more focused in its mission’. I believe that Dromantine with its long history of missionary service, and its capacity to bring vital energies from the young dynamic churches of Africa into the Irish context, can play a vital role in the necessary spring-cleaning and renewal of the Church – and hence its survival into the future. People may be disillusioned with the Institutional Church or some of its features but they are, as Pope Francis, never tires of insisting ‘hungry for the liberating message of the Gospel. I will end this homily with a quotation from Pope Francis in his address for the World Day of Mission:
‘It is necessary to proclaim courageously and in very situation, the Gospel of Christ, a message of hope, reconciliation, communion, a proclamation of God’s closeness, his mercy, his salvation, and a proclamation that the power of God’s love is able to overcome the darkness of evil and guide us on the path of goodness. The men and women of our time need the secure light that illuminates their path and that only the encounter with Christ can give. Let us bring to the world, through our witness, with love, the hope given by faith! The Church’s missionary spirit is not about proselytizing, but the testimony of a life that illuminates the path, which brings hope and love.’
May this Mass of Thanksgiving which we all offer today with love and gratitude to God for the 90th Anniversary of Dromantine open up a new spring-time of evangelization and mission not just for the SMA but for the Church in Ireland.
Fr. Michael McCabe SMA, Provincial Leader