66 Memory in Mayo
Bangor Church ~ The Quiet Mystery of God
Bangor Church sits below the town, down from the main street, across from the new school, and close to the Owenmore River as it flows freely and sometimes forcefully under a sturdy bridge that carries the road out to the local cemetery and beyond into the wilds that take travellers to Mulranny and another world. The church is a plain and simple building, lovely in its simplicity. It was built more or less on the site of the old church and its date of construction is 1947, the year of my birth. We are exact contemporaries.
The Church is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and in this I find a further point of similarity. My own little church in Lancashire, where I grew up and went to mass is also dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so I was very pleased to discover that my mother’s place of worship carried the same name and the same message of love.
My introduction to the mystery of God is precisely in this name and this title. It speaks of an open and generous love for all and so that became my way of looking and of seeing the world. My introduction to the mystery of life came in the form of great affection. I was cradled in the love of my mother and father. I was blessed to have two sisters and a brother and a collie dog. I was happy to find myself in a school that was nothing but joy to me, and beside the school was my little parish church of the Sacred Heart. I played football for the Sacred Heart. My life was steeped in this mystery.
I became a priest, not really by choice but by the unfortunate chance of programming. Once I was in the system at the age of 11, I was on a programme that carried me through, and by using holy obedience, deprived me of my own power of making choices for myself. The gospel of love, which holds me still, gave way to the institution of religion, which held me prisoner.
During my thirty years as a priest the church and the world changed utterly. In Ireland this change has been painful and shocking, disturbing and necessary. Some years ago I remember hearing a report in which some young Irish people were asked what advice they would give to clergy. Their response was eloquent. ‘Give up giving out,’ they said. I recognised the bull’s eye truth of this comment.
Just recently, in England, I have read another comment that I find unerringly accurate. Someone asked why is it that cathedrals continue to be popular and to be visited, whereas churches do not. The answer given by a clergyman who works in a cathedral was because ‘cathedrals don’t go banging on about God.’ I love this answer.
Whenever I hear anyone say, ’God says,’ I turn away. This direct appeal to the divinity, usually made to press a point, has no value in a world where ‘nobody has ever seen God’. To speak in this way is unhelpful and unwelcome. This human life of ours calls us to speak to one another in a human way and to share with one another all the human feelings and experiences that make up our life.
We can speak about Jesus about his life, his death and his resurrection. We can speak about everything that he said and we can learn more and more about the Lord by our daily prayer to him. Jesus is alive and all his words are living words that speak to us whenever we listen to them.
‘God says’ puts an end to all good conversation. Jesus, however, is the human face and form of that divine mystery. He meets us on equal human terms and wishes it to be so. You can meet this person and talk with him in your own heart, and in the scriptures and in conversation with others. It is a human thing. Today’s feast of the Holy Trinity says as much. God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.
In the old days we were brought up to fear God in a way that was not healthy. The true fear of God is an attitude of respect for the mystery of life, for a world and a universe we have scarcely begun to comprehend. In human terms the fear of God finds its expression in the respect that we show for one another, knowing ourselves to be frail yet worthy of honour.
My little church of the Sacred Heart in Lancashire is closed down now, but a preservation order keeps it from being demolished. I suspect that wind and weather will eventually do what church administration was prevented from doing. It was a beautiful little church and it served an immigrant Irish community very well.
The church in Bangor is still there and the Owenmore River still flows with great power and authority close beside it. The days of compulsory mass going are over. There is no one to give out to anymore. There is no need to bang on about God. But the gospel truth remains.
I thank God that I grew up to know the Sacred Heart of Jesus.