SERVING COMMUNITIES Fr Seán Noone, Pastor Emeritus in the Parish of Kilcommon, Erris, at the the old monastery wall in Pollathomas Graveyard.
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last month my fellow Mayo News columnist John O’Callaghan wrote of a visit to the Erris village of Knocknalower. Here he met Fr Seán Noone, a native of the village and a noted local historian. He has written a history of the ancient parish of Kilcommon, entitled ‘Where The Sun Sets’. He has also written his autobiography, ‘Crossing the Channel’, a comprehensive and often compelling narrative of growing up in Erris in the 1930s and 1940s.
On July 10, Seán celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination. It was my privilege to give the reflection at the Mass in Aughoose Church. It was an opportunity to honour the contribution of the pastoral priest, of whom Seán is a fine exemplar, to the life of the Christian community. Seán has ministered in England, the US, Dublin, the diocese of Killala and as a chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea. At the age of 86 he continues to help in the parish of Kilcommon.
Seán’s half century of priesthood has coincided with a torrid time in the Catholic Church. He has ministered against a back drop of clerical scandals, hierarchical cover ups, Vatican dysfunction, rapid cultural and social change and an oppressive conservatism that refuses to dialogue with the positive insights of modern experience.
In the midst of a steep decline in Catholicism in Ireland, Europe and the US the pastoral priest, often acutely aware of their inadequacies, have quietly continued their ministry, celebrating the sacraments and binding up hearts that are broken.
Pastoral priest are the ones who Sunday after Sunday celebrate the Eucharist and seek to make meaningful connections with the lives of their congregations. They realise that they often fail. They ruefully reflect like Fr McKenzie in The Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that they write sermons no one will hear.
They are the ones who stand at baptismal fonts and welcome new life. They are there for the innocent joy of First Communion and Confirmation.
They are the ones who witness weddings, sense the fulfilment that an intimate relationship can bring and often wonder is that vital element lacking in their owns lives. They are the ones who at funerals, to echo some words of the poet Thomas Kinsella, seek to give spiritual discipline to ‘shapeless sorrow’.
They are the ones who are often privileged to be privy to people’s private pain. They are the ones who, in the words of Seamus Heaney in his magnificent poem ‘Station Island’ are doomed to the decent thing, visiting neighbours, drinking tea and praising homemade bread. They are the ones who know the existential loneliness of returning in the evening to an empty house after a busy day of ministry in the community. They have kept going. The phrase calls to mind another poem that Seamus Heaney wrote, this one to honour his farming brother (‘Keeping Going’). Like Heaney’s brother, they to have often been at the end of their tether. They too have sometimes wondered, is this all? They too have stayed on ‘where it happens’.
Pastoral priests, at a time when the institutional Church is crumbling, have rescued for it some shards of credibility. As the former Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Welsh, a prophetic voice in Irish Catholicism, has written: “People distinguish between image and reality. The reality for them is the priest they see on Sunday, the priest who visited Mother in hospital, the priest who cried with us when we lost our child, the priest who did not pass our door even though we were not married in church.”
Congratulations Seán. Ad multos annos. Keep going.