at St. Columban’s, Magheramore, Wicklow
Sister Kathleen Coyle ssc
It is with great joy and gratitude that we celebrate this happy occasion of the diamond jubilee of five Columban sisters
who have spent many years in diverse and often difficult missions. Missionary commitment brought Sisters. Maureen Byrne
and Justin Cassidy to Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1980s. They nursed and cared for Chinese tubercular patients at a
time when tuberculosis was rampant and a life threatening disease. Many of their patients were refugees from China, a
country closed to missionaries since the Chinese Revolution. During these years, Sr. Justin also administered the Sandy Bay
Orthopedic Center for children – set up by the Society for the Relief of Disabled Children. Her two hundred patients were
young polio victims and children suffering from bone deformities. Both Maureen and Justin not only administered their
institutions well, but cared personally for their patients and were the inspiration of the nurses, doctors, and staff.
Sr. Bernardine Rush began her missionary experience among the Kachin people of Northern Burma or Myanmar.
The newly founded Columban mission included a high school and a large but simple boarding school for girls from far flung
villages, who otherwise would have no opportunity of getting an education. Their missionary efforts were short lived however, for in 1964 the military junta took over the school. The sisters were deported the following year and it was with heavy hearts that
Sr. Bernardine and the sisters said goodbye to the Kachin people. The slow, sad tolling of the funeral bell expressed the
people’s sentiments as the sisters departed. Sr.Bernardine then set out again for another mission, this time to the Philippines,
where she spent many years of committed missionary service.
Srs Maura Dillon and Catherine Hurley began their missionary commitments among the Mexican people of Los
Angeles. They taught classes and administered the school. However, the demands of mission brought Maura to the
Philippines where she set up a diocesan theological institute, under the modest title of a Catechetical Center in Olongapo
City. The Center prepared high school teachers to teach religious education in the schools of the diocese. This was a new
venture for the Philippine church in the 1970s. The Center continues to train teachers until this day, a sign of its relevance
and importance for the Philippine church.
Sr. Catherine Hurley, on the other hand, was called to the administration of the congregation. Her leadership role
was a demanding one in the 1970s – a very disturbing decade for the Church and for missionaries – as the significance of the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council were only then being grasped. It was her task to see that the mandate of the
Council to adapt our missionary charism to new global challenges was faithfully carried out. When Catherine completed
her term of office in the early 1980s she set off again for another mission, this time to Chile, where she served until her
These frontier missionaries adapted to new cultures, climates, and languages at a time when Ireland was still
economically depressed and stagnant and when we could never have imagined Cable T.V., the Celtic Tiger, the Euro,
or the Heinekan Cup!
During these long years of missionary service our five jubilarians were nourished by the invitation of today’s gospel
which they have chosen for their celebration: abide in my love. The word abide is used repeatedly in this chapter of John’s
gospel (10 times in verses 1-10). It is variously translated as live in Christ, remain in Christ, and make your home in Christ.
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican mystic says there is no need to call Christ from afar because we are abiding in
him, the resurrected, cosmic Christ. Our first reading today reminds us that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual
blessing (Eph 1:3). We abide in Christ in a deliberate, conscious way when we pray or meditate, because prayer is an invitation
to soak in divine energy and enter into deep mystical oneness with Christ. Meister Eckhart again adds that we are within Christ,
joined to him and therefore to one another. And Julian of Norwich adds that we are not outside Christ looking in, we are in
Christ looking out.
When Jesus said: I am in (abide) the Father and the Father is in me; I come from within the Father; I draw life from
the Father; his words came from the depths of his contemplation as he experienced the unfolding of the divine through him.
Being deeply rooted in the divine, he grasped his consequent mission, to transform the divine energy within him into
compassion for tax collectors and traitors, for prostitutes and the paralytic at the pool, for widows, and the lepers who
called out to him from afar. He dined with the broad category of “outcasts” and “sinners” as an expression of solidarity with
them. His mission demanded an extraordinary lifestyle and passion for mission and for people. The scandal of his ministry
was that everyone was invited to his table and he treated all with devotion, reverence, and respect.
These words abide in me were spoken by Jesus at the Jewish Passover meal, which became his last meal and
supper. The Passover meal was a solemn family meal (not unlike our Christmas dinner) and Jesus and his disciples – the
men and women who had accompanied him in his last days in Jerusalem, all of them Jews – would have been present. It was
to these ordinary fishermen, tax collectors and housewives who became his disciples that these words were spoken. And he
told them to keep his memory alive – “Do this remembrance of me,” by abiding in him and living the life that he lived.
Our five jubilarians, Bernardine, Maura, Maureen, Justin and Catherine have spent many years abiding in the Father, soaking in divine energy, as they lived out their passion for mission and for people. They brought compassion, the fruit of their
contemplation to all those to whom they ministered. Since all of them have had an experience of living in Asia, we will recall
a relevant Asian story here:
A salt doll journeyed for thousands of miles and stopped at the edge of the sea. It was fascinated by this moving
liquid mass, so unlike anything it had seen before. “What are you?” said the doll to the sea. “Come and see, said the sea
with a smile” so the doll walked in. The further it went, the more it dissolved, till there was only a pinch of salt left.
Before that last pinch dissolved, the doll exclaimed in wonder, “Now I know the meaning of mystery, now I know what I
Gradually dissolving into and abiding in the divine presence, our missionaries brought their mystical moments into their
ministry and vibrated that divine energy to others. To paraphrase the words of Hafiz, the 13th century Sufi mystic, our
missionaries helped their communities to “taste sacredness” because for Hafiz caring for others is an experience of being
“knee-deep in ecstasy.” In the words of St. Paul, they brought to others “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, shining
in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:7).
However, missionaries often experience failure and frustration in their work and they might often have made their own
the sentiments of Adrienne Rich in The Dream of a Common Language:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed,
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
On such occasions they would have gone to their inner divine fountain to be refreshed, perhaps even on occasion to rise like
a phoenix from the ashes, to continue the work of mission.
While the focus of today’s liturgy is on the five sisters, it is also an important celebration for their families and friends
who have come here to celebrate with them. The message of today’s gospel – abide in me, abide in Christ, the resurrected,
cosmic Christ – is for each one of you here. Divine presence or divine energy cannot be quantified, nor can one have more or l
ess than another. The invitation to soak in divine energy and transform it into compassion is an invitation to you today. It is
within family life as well as in your work place that you are nourished by divine energy and are called to become divine.
There are many ways of entering into mystical oneness with Christ. It is equally experienced by you at home as you rear and
educate children, and prepare them to leave home and become responsible and compassionate members of the society.
That’s the mystical message of today’s gospel – for our jubilarians and for each one of you present – to stand at the edge of
the sea of divinity, to gradually dissolve like the salt doll until we finally and totally abide in the cosmic Christ. That is our final