“It is really a gift, it shows religion at its best when it is done as a communal act.”
The words are those of Fr Michael Murtagh, CSsR, Rector of Clonard Monastery in west Belfast and he is talking about Clonard Solemn Novena in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which begins at 6.45am next Wednesday morning.
Its theme, The Church on the Streets: Living the Gospel Today, is inspired both by the teachings of St Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists and by Pope Francis.
Established more than 70 years ago in 1943, in the middle of World War II when Belfast was reeling from the Blitz with terrified citizens sheltering in the crypt below Clonard’s High Altar, the Novena (which attracts at least 15,000 pilgrims daily) is one of the most striking and enduring public demonstrations of faith in these islands.
Fr Murtagh is chief organiser of the Novena and until his arrival as rector in 2008 that responsibility could be delegated to an able confrere, the inspirational Fr Adrian Egan, CSsR, now Rector at Mount St Alphonsus, Limerick.
But dwindling vocations and resultant pressure on Clonard’s Redemptorists to help out elsewhere in the diocese means that the rector has had to take on the huge responsibility of heading up the Novena.
Fr Murtagh explains there are 16 priests and one brother in the Clonard community and one of those priests is retired.
The community is still coming to terms with the death of Br Tommy Walsh CSsR (68) one month ago today who had been based in Clonard since 1977.
Three priests are usually out on missions, five are based in parishes, another is a hospital chaplain and Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR devotes much time to Clonard’s much loved ecumenical ministry.
That means there is no surplus of priests to provide 24/7 pastoral cover and to celebrate four Sunday Masses plus a Saturday Vigil, and three daily Masses except for Thursdays when there are five Novena Masses.
Talking to Fr Michael in Clonard’s Parlour 4, a room warranting a footnote in the North’s troubled history as the venue of the seminal Hume Adams meetings set up by his late colleague, Fr Alec Reid CSsR, it is evident that he relishes the challenge.
There are only a few days to go before this great logistical tour de force gets underway and if there are any late snags keeping Fr Michael awake at night, he is keeping them to himself.
He goes out of his way to stress that he is merely the captain of a superb team that has been planning the Novena since last year.
That team includes those who manage the sacristy, Eucharistic ministers, music, church stewards, car park attendants, publicity and “two young people to keep us in touch with Facebook and Twitter and all the stirrings of youth”.
Fr Murtagh (46) was brought up on a farm by the shores of Lough Ree in Newtowncashel, Co. Longford and joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer or Redemptorists in 1989.
He was ordained by Bishop Colm O’Reilly in 1997 having earlier qualified as a chartered certified accountant in his early 20s while working for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General in Dublin.
The thought of the priesthood entered his mind as a teenager while a boarder at St Mel’s College, Longford where he “thought about it to and fro and to and fro and put it to one side saying I won’t do much about that now”.
He concentrated on getting a good Leaving at St Mel’s and spent two months as a fresher studying engineering at UCG but gave that up when he secured a plum traineeship with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
However, the call to the priesthood “grew stronger every year and was needling away at me until I decided to do something about it and talk to someone”.
He was attracted to the Redemptorists when he met “their team on the road giving missions and novenas in Longford in the late 80s”.
Little did he know when he came to Belfast and Clonard for the first time in August 1994 for a two-year student placement that he would return again as a priest from late 1997 until 2002 and – after a six-year stint in Dublin mainly as a formation director – return as rector in 2008.
Nor could he have known then that his FCCA (accountancy qualification) would come in so handy when it came to managing and clearing the £3m debt incurred for the ambitious Clonard restoration project which coincided with its centenary in 2011.
“I am deeply grateful to all our benefactors who have been so generous enabling us to announce last St Patrick’s Day that the debt was cleared.”
His seven-year term as rector will conclude next year when he is expected to take up another post in the Irish Province.
But just now his focus is on the Novena which over the nine days will see 10 Masses daily from 6.45am to 11pm Monday to Friday and until 8pm on Saturday and Sunday with the church packed to its 900 capacity for every session and up to 600 or 700 more filling the adjoining corridors, reception rooms, and marquee spilling over into the gardens and car park in fine weather with large screens in locations outside the church.
Confession is available throughout along with special Reconciliation services on Friday June 20. There will be guest speakers from other Christian denominations on Tuesday June 24, and on other dates special Masses for the sick and for young people and blessings for babies and small children.
At least 20,000 from all over the world are expected to watch each session on the web. No session ever looks rushed yet they all end promptly at the same time each day enabling pilgrims to depart in time to let those arriving for the next session to arrive in good time in an orderly way.
“That is because Masses are timed to last 45 minutes and the guideline for homilies is 10 minutes,” Fr Murtagh explains. He is acutely aware of the “huge responsibility” around health and safety where so many people are gathered and of the imperative of maintaining good relations with neighbours and minimising disruption.
Of the Novena itself he says: “Something happens and a spirit is created among the people who come here from all over Belfast and indeed from all over the North.”
”To get here they have to trudge through traffic, trudge through car parks, through crowds. And once they get into their seats something happens, once the singing starts, once they hear a petition, maybe they hear something in the homily, see other people there…”
Fr Murtagh adds: “Normally people leave changed in some way. They mightn’t have big smiles on their faces but some kind of burden may be lifted, some grace received. Some way they have been touched by God.”
Anyone who has been to the Novena, or who recalls the beautifully crafted 2006 BBC Northern Ireland TV /Hotshot Films documentary Hear My Prayer about Clonard Novena, directed by Sean McGuire, will immediately recognise what Fr Murtagh is saying.
Clonard Novena is an extremely moving and impressive demonstration of faith. It will conclude with the traditional concert by the priests of Clonard gathered in the sanctuary after the 11pm final Mass with many people genuinely not wanting to go home to their beds.
In a matter of hours the doors of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer will re-open.
It will be after dawn on Friday June 27, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a priest who will have skipped the concert will rise to celebrate 7am Mass.
Just another day in the remarkable ministry of the Redemptorists of Clonard, currently led by Fr Michael Murtagh, which has brought untold grace to Belfast for more than a century.
Full Novena details at www.clonard.com