The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 9
Exclusive Excerpt from Sending Positive Vibes by Fr Bryan Shortall
We have to make our minds up to be joyful. It comes down to a choice; do we stand out in the sunshine or do we prefer to stay indoors with the curtains closed? It is easier said than done, depending on what kind of form we are in. Negative thinking saps our energy and closes us in on ourselves. And it is harder these days to avoid the onslaught of bad news and even aggression out there.
It is hard to focus on this when at times there is no escape from the bad news and the bad weather. But if I can’t find a way out and if I feel like I’m smothered by all this, then I’ve got to reach out. I need others. We need each other and I’m lucky because I’m part of a religious order and so from day one I was accepted as a brother and I live in community. Now, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I envy you guys living on your own. And to be fair, the other fellows that live with me probably find me hard to live with at times. I remember when I was a student one of the older friars was grumbling at us because he couldn’t hear the 9 o’clock news and he shouted; ‘Grrrr! ye harriers!’ (‘Harriers’ was the name the older friars gave to the student friars in temporary profession before we made our final vows.) Quick as a flash, one of the lads said; ‘We are the fruits of all the prayers ye said for vocations!’
So, we’ve got to reach out. I couldn’t do what I am doing without going for regular spiritual direction and also pastoral supervision. I was perpetually professed as a Capuchin friar in 1994 and I was ordained priest in 1997. I’ve been in school chaplaincy, local leadership in two of our friaries, I’ve been on our Provincial Leadership team, and I’ve been in hospital chaplaincy in Beaumont. While I was chaplain in Beaumont, I began to go for supervision, and it was one of the best decisions I made. I found hospital ministry very challenging, and working in that environment, with emergencies, sickness and death, over a 12-hour shift either at night or during the day, isn’t easy. I remember one night being on duty from 8pm to 8am and during the night seven people died. Going from one family to the other over the night for anointing and prayers was very hard. Yet many of them were concerned about me. ‘It must be very hard for you, Father.’ I will always be grateful for my time in Beaumont Hospital where I learned so much and where no matter who came through the emergency department, bad or good, all were triaged and treated. I salute the skills of our nursing, medical and care staff. So, I’m lucky enough to be in ministry, and if there’s any place where we are challenged to keep the highest standards it is in ministry today. We minister in the name of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Being in religious life and in the priesthood is a great joy. I would say the challenge for me is to balance ministry with the administration of the parish. Thank God we have good personnel and Archbishop Martin has set up good diocesan offices and an excellent HR office which greatly helps us in running the machinery of the parish. I tend to switch off when there’s talk of finance and paperwork. So, I try to concentrate on the ministry side, the people side.
St Michan’s Parish is situated in the heart of the fruit and vegetable markets, so many of the Moore Street dealers live in the parish and many of them come regularly to Mass. They are a tonic to talk to and deeply generous people. The church is 200 years old this year and one of the things we did as a parish in preparation for the Mass of thanksgiving on 25 August, the Feast of St Michan, was to go out to the different parts of the parish to bless homes and families. The people in many ways took over. They put up bunting, they put out little altars and we had hospitality after the prayers. I told the archbishop at the Mass: there isn’t a house that isn’t blessed in this parish!
I get great life in identifying times and occasions of encounter with the people. In many cases this is through the celebration of the Sacraments. This gives me hope when I begin to pay attention to the attacks on the Church and our Catholic life out there. As I said at the top of this talk, it’s hard to avoid. We are called to be joyful ministers of the Gospel, and in his Holy Thursday Chrism Mass homily in 2014 Pope Francis spoke about the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders as a source of joy for the priest himself and for the people we serve; and it reflects the generosity of God for us and in us.
‘For me, there are three significant features of our priestly joy. It is a joy which anoints us, it is a joy which is imperishable and it is a missionary joy which spreads and attracts, starting backwards – with those farthest away from us.’
Pope Francis says that joy anoints, in that Grace fills us to the brim and overflows, fully, abundantly and entirely in each priest. We are anointed down to our very bones … and our joy, which wells up from deep within, is the echo of this anointing. It has been there from the start and we need to remember to tap into it in prayer especially in the Scriptures and before the Blessed Sacrament.
He explains that it is imperishable, in that the fullness of the Gift, which no one can take away or increase, is an unfailing source of joy: an imperishable joy which the Lord has promised no one can take from us (John 16:22).
Pope Francis continues that it is missionary, in that priestly joy is deeply bound up with God’s holy and faithful people, for it is an eminently missionary joy. Our anointing is meant for anointing God’s holy and faithful people: for baptising and confirming them, healing and sanctifying them, blessing, comforting and evangelising them.
I touched on prayer there. And that is the danger for us – whether in religious life and or priestly ministry – we just touch on prayer. Twenty years ago, one of our late great friars, now gone home to God, spotted something in the Sunday Independent one morning after Mass. It was about a well-known priest at the time and he had made the news in some area of pastoral activity, and I think the headline was ‘Popular Priest … ’. And he was off. ‘Popular Priest, what does he mean Popular Priest?’, ‘Oh, he’s great with the youth’, ‘Father such-a-body gives a great homily.’ ‘Years ago we had golden priests and wooden chalices,’ he lamented. ‘Now we have golden chalices and wooden priests … what we want are holy priests.’
And he was right. We need to rediscover our call to holiness and, of course, this is about the whole self, mind, body and spirit. The holiest men I know and knew in the order were kind, prayerful, approachable, available, accountable, transparent and obedient. That didn’t mean they didn’t have their moments; look at St Padre Pio – friars often had to be on hand to meet upset penitents when he ran them from the confession boxes. But they were holy men, they were deeply prayerful in a down-to-earth way and holy through and through. One of them wasn’t much of a preacher and he’d carry a load of books into the ambo with him and he’d stumble right through the homily, but he was so kind and caring to those who were in trouble or any need. He had a real empathy for the bereaved and a great ministry to the dying. He never had a minute and I remember when he got his first mobile phone he was tormented.
Another man who I judge as holy was a former provincial minister, now gone to God. He was provincial in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. If there was ever a man who blessed the order it was him. A missionary, home from Zambia, an Irish Capuchin but a native of the U., told me the story of asking for holidays to see his family in north-west England. In those days they got home to Ireland for six months every six years. He went to the previous provincial in Church Street and asked could he go on to visit his family in the UK and it was ‘Let me think about it’. Then he got an answer after dinner; ‘OK – go to England but be back on Friday’ (and this was Tuesday). So he travelled on Wednesday, had Thursday with his mother, and back to Ireland on Friday. Horrible. Years later, the next provincial apologised for the way he had been previously treated and told him to go and spend as long as he needed and see his family. At his funeral in the early 2000s the Capuchin friar who preached said this provincial minister was ‘Our Pope John’.
Finally, a word from the writings of St Francis of Assisi about priests and the friars who are priests. He sets the bar very high when he speaks of priesthood. He had an enormous respect for the priesthood. He wasn’t a priest himself as he felt genuinely unworthy of it, although we know he was a deacon because in the sources we see him minister as a deacon in the story of the first Christmas crib at Greccio. We also know he was a cleric because he speaks of ‘we’ who are clerics. He accepted diaconate also because he was minister general of the order.
From the Testament of St Francis of Assisi, we read:
Afterwards the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the holy Roman Church because of their order, that if they were to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon had and I came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live.
And I desire to fear, love and honour them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters. And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most Holy Body and Blood which they receive and which they alone administer to others …
I would argue that St Francis would urge all of us to be joyful ministers of the Gospel for our time, a time which is understanding priesthood, celibacy and a lifelong commitment less and less.
In the 21st century the world still holds up Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226; our present pope took his name. It seems to me that Francis of Assisi’s values are things that the world needs more and more. But this is the thing of it; Francis of Assisi always points to Jesus Christ. I’ll leave you with the first Chapter of the Rule of Saint Francis of Assisi:
This is the rule and life of the Friars Minor, namely, to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, in poverty and in chastity. Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to Pope Honorius and to his successors who shall be canonically elected, and to the Roman Church. The other brothers are bound to obey Brother Francis, and his successors.