We sit on the shoulders of giants
8 December last was the 160th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of African Missions by Bishop Marion deBrésillac at the Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Fourvière in Lyons, France. Each year, we SMAs remember this event with Thanksgiving Masses in our different communities throughout the world.
Emeritus Bishop Tim Carroll SMA, first Vicar Apostolic of Kontagora, Nigeria, celebrated the Mass for the SMA Blackrock Road community, which was also a celebration for four SMA priests celebrating their Ordination Jubilees.
Fr Fionnbarra O’Cuilleanáin from Cork City [Golden Jubilarian] joined with three others who were celebrating their Diamond Jubilees: Fathers Michael Igoe [Westmeath], Mattie O’Connell [Sligo] and Con O’Leary [Cork]. SMA priests from Wilton also participated in the Mass. We also welcomed Fr Richard Wall [also a Diamond Jubilarian], Bishop Patrick J Harrington SMA, emeritus of Lodwar, Kenya and Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly SMA of Cashel and Emly.
Here we present an edited version of the homily which Bishop Tim delivered during the Mass.
Today we are celebrating our Foundation Day.
But here at Blackrock Road, we are also celebrating our Jubilarians living in this house: Fathers Michael Igoe, Mattie O Connell, Con O Leary and Fionnbarra O Cuilleanáin. May the good God continue to give them health of mind and body.
Our Founder still cares about his Society and its Mission. He is now in a special position to intercede for all of us his disciples. My guess is, he is not too worried about Rome conferring on him, at this late stage,what God has already given him, namely, citizenship of the kingdom of heaven.
Today, I would like to remember the parents of our jubilarians, the parents of Michael, Mattie, Con, and Fionnbarra. “A good tree bears good fruit” we are told in Matthew 7:17. When you were in Africa, they prayed for you, and lit many a candle for you in your local churches. May they continue to pray for you.
Our jubilarians gave the best of their years to Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, Australia, USA, and to parishes in Ireland. Some had their work in Africa cut short because of ill health.
Today Foundation Day, we naturally remember our Founder. He set out clearly in his writings, his vision for the future of his Society. One of these, that I would like to mention, was his vision for an indigenous clergy. Let me quote his words: “I implore your blessing, O my God, to use all my strength, and all the means at my disposal, to contribute to the formation of an indigenous clergy.”
Our jubilarians, and all of us here present, have seen this dream realised, in the span of our missionary years, and contributed to it in no small way.
Talking from my own experience, when I went to Ilorin diocese in 1966, then under the leadership of Bishop William Mahony SMA, the clergy was 100% expatriate. Today all those dioceses, where SMA once toiled, from Benin on the shore of the Atlantic in the South, to Kano, on the fringes of the Sahara, in the North, have now their own indigenous bishops, priests, sisters and a thriving laity.
This has been repeated across Africa, wherever SMA worked, fulfilling the prime wish of our Founder. Like St. Paul, who set up the local church, and its leaders, and then moved on to other areas of need. We SMAs have done the same thing, and then moved on to new areas of Primary Evangelisation.
Now with the new units in the Society, the work of our Founder goes on, with African missionaries in the real sense, evangelising Africa. We must never forget that Africa was converted by the unanimous, and often forgotten missionaries, labouring away year in, year out, like our jubilarians, often the detriment to their own health, beating no drum, but the silent drum beat of a heart, beating for the love of God and of Mission.
These people are the unseen roots, that sends nourishment upwards, feeding and supporting the once frail, and delicate tree of SMA Mission, that later blossomed and was heavy with fruit. We look at the fruiting trees today, and can forget the unseen roots. But no roots, no trees.
There is a proverb: “when an oak tree falls, the whole forest hears it. But hundreds of acorns are planted in silence, by a gentle breeze.” Countless acorns of the Gospel were planted by our jubilarians, and by all of you here today, in the gentle, silent breeze of the Spirit of God.
In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreamt of a ladder from earth to heaven, “a ladder standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven”. We too have our own SMA ladder, a ladder of bones. Read the Necrology of our early days in Africa. They died in the prime of their lives, some as young as 25 – 30, and are buried in Africa. The same can he said of early OLA Sisters.
We in the Irish Province also contributed some rungs, even in our lifetime. Their flesh and bones have long since become the very soil of Africa, enriching it. They are Africa.
The hardships and sacrifices of these early days of SMA have been blessed and rewarded by God. We reaped the harvest of those early SMAs, who laboured before us. “I sent you to reap a harvest, you had not worked for… You have come into the rewards of their troubles.” (John 4:38)
Let us never forget, that all of us, as we travelled the roads of Africa and elsewhere, we were carried on the shoulders of others, of parents, family, of friends, sponsors and supporters but especially on the shoulders of SMAs who laboured before us. We too planted Gospel seeds, that later SMAs and indigenous priests reaped.
Let me quote from John of Salisbury, a twelve century monk. What he said is still valid today:
“We are sitting on the shoulders of giants,
we see more things,
and things that are more distant than they did,
not because our sight is superior,
or because we are taller than they were.
No, but because they raised us up,
and by their stature, they added to ours.”
We can all continue to be missionaries, and continue to influence the work of SMA, by our parcels of prayer,sent to God for the Missions, just like St. Theresa, Patroness of the Missions, sent up her own from her convent.
As the baton of Mission is now being handed over to other SMA priests – from many African countries, from Poland, Philippines and India, they will continue the journey, across the Mission fields of tomorrow. May the God who called our jubilarians, and all of us, so many years ago, continue to speak to us. May we all walk with him into tomorrow, although our step now is not as quick as it used to be.
I will finish with a quotation from John’s Gospel, John 4:35-38:
“Have you not a saying, ‘four months and then the harvest’?
Well I tell you, look around you, look at the fields,
Already they are ripe for harvest.
Already the reaper… is bringing in the grain of eternal life.”
We SMAs, we were the planters, we were the reapers in the fields of God.
“In iothalainn De go dtugar sinn.”
Into the barns of God may we all be gathered in. Amen.
8 December 2016
After Mass the community and visitors enjoyed a lovely lunch in the community dining room during which Fr Eddie O’Connor gave a brief speech and presented each of our Jubilarians with a token gift to mark this special anniversary in their lives and that of the Society of African Missions [SMA].
Ad Multos Annos!