A glimpse of the past fifty years with the Augustinians!

It was blustery, exhilarating and energising this morning in Tolka Valley Park as I walked. The wind marked the mood of my memories. Fifty years ago today I joined the Augustinians. What an adventure! If I knew then what I know now – would I have done so? The shy, quiet, reserved and very young man that I was couldn’t have even imagined how that journey might turn out. It was beyond the stretch of my mind. The bookends of those fifty years are the Vatican Council (the hope and excitement) and this new Era with Francis. (Exciting and hopeful also).
Religious life and priesthood may be now an easy target for ridicule and caricature but my own story is one of excitement and awesomeness. What teases me (a little) is that I can never tell the full story! (John Heenan was right when he wrote – ‘Not the whole truth.’) It is impossible even for those close to us, to have a real glimpse of what goes on.
The friendships and camaraderie along the journey was extraordinary. The intimacies shared by so many were humbling. I smile so often now in the crises of life when the media reports that counsellors are on hand to help. The quick cure of such professionals on the spot for the moment can do so little. Our business is to be around all the time. We aren’t confined to the office hours. We are there. Religious and priests were there before the professionals became fashionable and are still there. I am concerned when blanket dismissals of the whole caste of Religious and Priests are thrown around almost in a libellous manner. That damages the fabric of trust that matters deeply in the general population. We bring something to life that no-one else can bring and we are there. That too has been my story.
I see that 14 entered Maynooth this year. Fourteen of us began in Orlagh on the 26th August 1964. Does it worry me that numbers are down? Not really. What would I say to someone who had a stray thought about this way of life? I might say this: I do not believe that any other ‘job’ or any other ‘profession’ would have offered me such a fulfilling and satisfactory life. However I would need to see evidence that anyone intending to join in this business would be very flexible, be very adaptable, be very open-minded, be very sociable, be very disciplined, be very humble, be very open to the wonders of God in every place and person, be very strong and tough to face the rough and tumble. There is no room for rigids or those who like the comforts of orthodoxy. The trappings will never carry anyone through the hidden demands.
The ‘job’ has to mean being able to work with people and able to bring out the best in everyone. Those fifty years have been extraordinary. Every day has been blessed even if at times, it may not have felt that way. Many ask me why I don’t take time off or holidays. I can only answer, ‘I find fun and enjoyment and contentment in what I do.’ And I suppose I also answer in this way – ‘what parent takes time off or grandparent?’. In some ways, we are ‘parenting.’ We are always there. The job never finishes. The door never stops. The phones don’t give up. The e-mails continue. A trip to the toilet will always be interrupted (like parenting!). No day is ever complete, There is more left undone than done. However the mind/heart must be able to say – ‘thanks be to God’ for the day. It takes great discipline to manage the time/energy/day. It takes great robustness of mind to let go what can’t be completed. I set the goal of 50 homes a week to visit. Do I get there? Most times, I don’t. The crises take over and I adapt and that too is fine. If I allowed it; the desk could monopolise me. The preparation of words for every situation could imprison me. A deep need to do things well and thoroughly (perfectionism) could freeze me but I have to move on and out.
Mary McAleese threw out the line re the Synodal members: ‘Did any of them ever change a nappy?’ It is catchy and in some ways is right. However, I can say that there is worse than what you encounter in a nappy, and on many days we are up to our oxters in it!
What sustains me? Every Eucharist is a prayer. That sounds obvious but isn’t. The folk around me lift my spirit. Every day and everywhere, I am lifted by the faith of people. Church moments – feed me. Because the Bread of life in people is broken and shared. Each day is full of humanity and humour. There is fun and banter and argument. I need that. The Parish Team (weekly meeting) is essential. The Scripture group stirs my soul. The PPC enlivens me. The abundance of ministers in every aspect of life carries me. The open homes and open hearts humbles me. The message of God is tormented and teased into the experience of our lives. God is with us.
What does strike me now is this: We have no children. No one is following us. We get older. Our energy drains. In days past, every church was packed with youngsters. Youth groups abounded. Music groups were everywhere. Community involvement was marvellous. I visit some of my past recently and I recalled how youthful our church communities were.
Now, it has all aged. We age. The volunteer section of any community has aged. That then means whatever wish we have, to share out our ministry – age and energy becomes a problem. More is demanded of each of us and there are fewer to do everything.  There is a great need to be much more imaginative in regard to how to create our future Church. Clustering? Will that do? I’m not sure. It becomes more demanding than helpful. Many who are incapable of team work are put together and asked to do it. However, we must rethink what church is; what priesthood is; what ministry is; what Scripture is; what Eucharist and Sacrament is. A new world is opening up but many of us are getting too tired to think. Life has to be coloured by the bigger picture. Much of our thinking has been too narrow and simplistic and arrogant. The world of God is explosive and expansive. It is never small!
It is easy to focus on what was done wrong but church people have been wonderful. Society needs to begin to remember and note with gratitude what has been done and is being done before it all disappears. If people aren’t grateful, something in themselves will be destroyed. It is amusing in some ways – even with a funeral such as a State funeral for Albert; how the Church provides a forum and a space which is so powerful and telling. …..
I conclude. I have been blessed. It has been a wonderful life. I cannot believe that the fifty years have turned out so magnificently. God has been good to me in so many people. Have I been awkward or argumentative? Yes. The quiet, reserved person that I was, has remained within but I had to change. I can’t shelter and hide however much I want to.
Summer is supposedly a quieter time especially with school off and some of the usual parish activities taking a holiday. But it wasn’t quiet. The house was crowded also. I liked my young grandniece being around for a while. She was 13 months old. What did she do? She went for the toilet brush; went for the bin; found contents in cupboards that I never knew existed; stuck her fingers in every socket. She was curious and was being normal as a child. How we all need to catch such curiosity in our new way of being church and ministers. The child in us needs to create confusion and chaos and then somehow a new world of the Gospel will emerge. Gerry Hughes wrote some years ago – ‘God of Surprises.’ I have lived that. Francis wrote of the ‘Joy of the Gospel.’ That indeed has been my fifty years as well. I have been blessed.   I must now organise a Service for Tommy Kennedy who has been missing for the past four week!
Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. Its funny how some Churchmen are miffed about Mary McAleese’s inappropriate use of language when she uses the example of changing a baby’s nappy to show how out of touch the Church is with real life. And when Pope Francis uses the example of telling his clergy not to be afraid of getting down and smelling like sheep its accepted as bringing about a new era in the Church!

  2. “I conclude. I have been blessed. It has been a wonderful life.”
    Wow, what a description of priesthood. You don’t expect to hear the likes of that every day.

  3. Dick Nahman, OSA says:

    Hi Seamus …
    Congratulations on your 50th.
    Nice to read such a positive musing …
    I donned the novice habit in 1957. Isn’t God marvelous in the blessings he bestows day by day … if we but only savor them amid the nappy content distractions. I wonder whether it is the load or the giggling tyke which captivates the parent’s attention at changing time.
    Dick Nahman, OSA (Villanova Province)

  4. Seamus, those of us who have known you have been privileged. The people of Currie and Balerno, and Dundee too, still miss you, even after all those years; a legend in your own lifetime.

  5. Happy Feast Day of Augustine to you! I am pleased to have knowledge for this year’s Feast Day of St. Augustine, that there were 2 Augustinian priests, by the names of John and Francis Starrs, who were born and raised in Philadelphia, but, whose grandparents were from Ireland.

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