On a sunny yet windswept June afternoon almost 300 family members of deceased Columban Sisters gathered in Magheramore for Cemetery Day. It was a day for remembering loved ones whose missionary calling had taken them far from family for a significant number of years.
Mass was celebrated by Fr Pat Donohoe in the chapel, then all processed to the Convent cemetery for the blessing of the graves and the memorial plaques to the Sisters interred overseas in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Philippines, Korea, Peru and US. As the Blessing was being given, the name of each deceased Sister was announced. Sister Ita Hannaway gave the Mass Homily the text of which follows below:
“I think it is a wonderful coincidence that, in the Year of the Gathering throughout Ireland, we should have our own special gathering here in Magheramore, although our gathering today is somewhat different from many of those throughout the country. Not only have we come together physically, we come also in a spiritual way to gather home to us in memory, love and prayer – our dear sisters, aunts, cousins and Congregation members – the women who, in the past, offered themselves to be scattered to the ends of the earth for the sake of Jesus to whom they had dedicated their lives perpetually.
Today is an expression of our fidelity to them whom we have never forgotten – a day on which we can be grateful for them and inspired by them as we reflect on their loyalty to their calling and their fidelity to the peoples amongst whom they spent their missionary lives.
The Readings of our Mass which we have just heard spell out for us both the substance of our missionary message and the means by which we remain faithful to our missionary dedication. St. Paul teaches that the core of our missionary undertaking is:
… to make known the unimaginable riches of knowing the love
and wisdom of God.
What is more, he tells how to go about our proclaiming the values of the Gospel:
with boldness and confidence based upon our faith in Jesus. (Eph 3:7-12)
In the Gospel of St. John we find Jesus explaining to the apostles why they can be both bold and confident. They are to identify themselves as his friends, chosen and commissioned to go out and bear fruit. They are to be confident that their heavenly Father will look after them. And there is one condition regarding all this, namely that they love one another: ‘By this will all people know that you are my disciples, the love you have for one another.’ (John 15: v17)
The story of each Sister whom we are commemorating today testifies to the truth of her courage and boldness in the face of the challenges which missionary life surely offered her, both amongst the people to whom she was sent and in community. It illustrates that her friendship with Jesus was paramount in her life and in her best efforts as she served the people of her mission and made her special contribution to the community or communities wherever she was assigned. But not only that! Each Sister’s story, if it could be told today, would testify to you, her family’s faith, courage and friendship with Jesus which enabled you to agree to her joining this Congregation, not knowing where her future life might lead her. You have been part of her missionary life, and that means that your have an on-going place in our Congregation’s life and missionary endeavours. You remain with us, keeping alive your sister’s or relative’s place amongst us and supporting us through your prayers, your interest and your generosity towards the upkeep of our missions.
Mission today is as challenging as it was in 1926 when our first six Sisters set out from Cahiracon for the unknown land of China, believing that they would never return. The course of history changed that expectation – China forced the withdrawal of missionaries in the mid 1940s. Even today, there is not too much certainty regarding permanency or security in our missions. That is where faith in God, courage, friendship with Jesus and unfailing love for one another sustain us as day follows day – in China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Burma, Korea, Peru/Chile, Pakistan, and here in the West, in the U.S., Britain and Ireland. In all of these areas we rely upon one another including you, for the fruitfulness of our missions and the safety of our Sisters.
A second coincidence today, in addition to the coincidence of our being together in the Year of the Gathering, is the fact that today marks the centenary of our founding Father’s, Father John Blowick’s, ordination to the priesthood in 1913. It was Father Blowick who chose the first women to be the foundation members of our Congregation and who, together with the Irish Sisters of Charity, instilled in them the spirit which would characterise them as Columban Sisters. This was the spirit reflected in our Readings today, one which we as Columbans try to keep alive amongst us.
Vocations to missionary religious life are not very common today, especially here in our Western world, despite the fact that vast outreaches of the world have not yet received the message of the Gospel. In the course of his life on earth Jesus asked his apostles very earnestly to ask our heavenly Father to send labourers into the harvest. In asking them He was asking us too. Perhaps that is why, when I was thinking about this homily before preparing it, it struck me, or perhaps the Holy Spirit was nudging me, to suggest to each of you today that you ask God to call and send a young woman into missionary life as a replacement, please, for your sister whom he has taken to heaven. That is why you have in your Mass booklet a short prayer for vocations. I invite you, on behalf of our Congregation, and in memory of your deceased sister to take this prayer away and offer it with the boldness, courage and confidence to which our Readings today call us. God listens to prayers and answers them in his own time. I ask you to be one with us in praying for vocations.
Our gathering today with all the joy it brings is but the faintest glimpse of the joy we will all experience when, at the last, God calls his peoples from all generations and from the vast reaches of the world, to come Home for the best of all gatherings, an eternal gathering of overwhelming joy, peace and love.
Let us pray: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen