Fr Bryan Shortall
Talk about ‘out of the mouths of babes’. I was over with some parishioners who had been recently bereaved and we were to plan the funeral liturgy. Naturally there was sadness in the household as they were coming to terms with their big loss.
The house was full with relations and neighbours calling in to sympathise – indeed there was a large group of people gathered inside and outside the house. There were kettles on the boil to make pots of tea and coffee and plates of sandwiches that friends and neighbours brought to cater for the visitors.
I am continually amazed by the goodness and generosity of our people to one another in times of sadness. Despite the sorrow, there was also laughter, tears, and stories, as they all shared their own memories with each other. The best therapy in the world is to give time to hear and share each other’s pain and struggles at a time of tragedy.
This occasion was particularly poignant as the one who died was barely in middle age and the body was laid out in the living room of the family home.
There were some small children there who brought a degree of distraction to the situation and their innocence helped the older ones to cope. One of the young lads, maybe about five years old, looked at me before the prayers and pointed to the coffin and said, “Is that yours?” In other words, did I own the coffin? I didn’t know what to say. What does one say?
But another child, again about four or five years old and sporting a pair of glasses, quite like a junior Harry Potter, was running in and out and came over to me and said, “You sent my Nanny up to Heaven.” All the theology in the world couldn’t prepare me for what came out of that child’s mouth; I was speechless. The only reply I could manage was: “That’s a lovely thing to say, thank you.”
And it was a lovely thing to say. I have known this particular family and indeed their neighbours for the last few years and I have been with them for baptisms and funerals. One of the grown-ups would have told the child that I offered the funeral Mass for his grandmother and the phrase “that priest sent your Nanny up to Heaven” must have been used. And the little boy remembered.
Priests are honoured to stand at the baptismal font to welcome a new member of our Christian family. In Ireland it is still mostly infant baptisms.
We are there to solemnise a marriage between a man and a woman and we stand at the foot of the altar to welcome a coffin and sprinkle it with holy water. These are three big occasions in the life of a family, intimate and emotional occasions, which people will always remember and we are the privileged ones to be allowed inside.
To be seen as someone whose prayers and Masses help to bring another close to God or to send someone ‘up to Heaven’ is something I feel will take a lifetime for me to understand. To be In Persona Christi as a priest is awesome. Perhaps this child was spot on. And there’s no doubt that I was reminded of the responsibilities that go hand in hand with it too.
Jesus exclaimed: “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.” (Mt 11:25)
Working in a city centre parish, one of the nicer things I get to do is to make what we call the ‘First Friday’ visits. Here we visit elderly and housebound parishioners to bring them the sacraments and to pray together with them.
These people have lived in the parish all their lives and they have a wealth of knowledge, experience, and history which they love to share.
Listening to them is sometimes like going back in time to a different Dublin and a different church.
They have recollections of the joys and sorrows, the hardships and the laughter of their childhood and when they were rearing their families. Calling to see them, all of them in their late eighties or nineties, I can see they have great inner strength and great faith.
They are not theologians in the formal sense, but they have a relationship with God that has stood the test of time.
This is the faith that they first heard of at the fireside and in the cradle. And they themselves often tell me of their mothers and grandmothers who taught them how to say their prayers.
I appreciate how they easily merge their relationship with God with their own lived lives.
It’s as if their relationship with Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Lady and the saints seamlessly crosses over into their day-to-day lives with their children, who are now often grandparents themselves.
And when the kids call to see nanny or granddad, often they are the great-grandchildren. The Ireland of the kitchen table has been portrayed in times gone by with the pictures of the Sacred Heart, Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy on the walls. This may be a quaint image that can raise all sorts of lively opinions about where we want to be as a nation into the future. Sophisticated society may say that this is not the real Ireland anymore.
When I call to see these people who have given the best years of their lives to the growth of our nation, I see that one of the main ingredients of their endeavours was the old Faith. And one still sees a picture of the Sacred Heart or a statue of their favourite saint over the fireplace.
On the first Friday of each month, they are waiting for me to call. RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke or Newstalk’s Pat Kenny might be on the radio or Jeremy Kyle might be on the television.
We take a moment and turn the sound down. One woman holds her late husband’s rosary beads in her hand, her link to the relationship they had which spanned almost sixty years. Another elderly man prays with me as we look across at happy family photographs on the mantelpiece that tell many stories of times gone by. One couple in their 80s have some children’s toys around the living room, waiting for the next high-energy visit to nana and granddad.
The reality of age and ill health is never far away and despite some of these people being dependent on medication, and while oftentimes a caregiver is present when I call, there is still a smile on their faces. “Father, there’s worse off than me,” they would say.
Whenever I hear of another bad news story locally, or further afield, I think of the many people who are painfully able to look beyond their own troubles and think of another’s. This is true Christianity and true humanity and I will never fail to be evangelised by these people of simple, yet sterling Faith.
The feast of the Holy Family can be seen as a sign of contradiction. Let’s not get too caught up with the popular images of the Holy Family in that almost clinical and sterile way they can perhaps be portrayed. They had their struggles and fears. Just look at the infancy narratives of Luke’s Gospel.
They must be held up as a model for families today all over the world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph identify with the highs and lows of family life with all its complexities.
Look at the images coming from airports and ferry ports as families are joyfully reunited for Christmas. There’s so much joy and excitement around the Christmas dinner table and the living room fireside. Yet, there can be tension and stress too, especially as families make that extra effort. The Holy Family know that struggle.
And as surely as our young people come back to the family for Christmas, there are also the looming departure gates. I really pray that very soon our young people especially will be in a position to return home to Ireland if that’s what they want. For those that have made a new life and formed relationships overseas, may we always find new ways to make our world a smaller place.
I am also conscious of the families who will have an empty chair at the Christmas table: families broken by emigration, unemployment and death.
The Holy Family of Nazareth, the model for all families, knows the struggles and sadness, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are with all families as they face the new year with hope or fear. May this Christmas time and this coming year be blessed for all.
The above are extracts from Tired of all the Bad News, by Fr Bryan Shortall, published by Columba Press, with a foreword by Joe Duffy.