Sometimes people ask me is Priesthood lonely, and of course it can be. When I reflect on my life I think it is true to say that the absence of one person, the other, or as the writer Michael Harding somewhat playfully refers to his wife, as the Beloved, such an absence is a very real experience of the Cross. In my twenties the real cut of loneliness was quite physical, or more honestly, sexual, whereas now, without over spiritualising it, the ache is now more about companionship and the sharing of one’s emotional life. I think the living of priesthood is made more healthy if one enjoys ministry, if one prays, and has a variety of both friends and interests. On the question of returning to the empty house it is helpful to state again the important distinction between loneliness and solitude: the former being a killer disease, and to be resolutely avoided: the latter being, at least potentially beautiful balm for the soul. What has come to me on a number of occasions recently is the question, are we actually ever alone?
I have become more and more aware as I get older of the notion of ‘ the communion of saints’. By this I do not just mean the dead. Nor am I only referring to the ‘ canonised saints’. Let me start at the beginning. Do you believe in angels? Do you believe in the Archangels? We have their names, Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. Those angels, or archangels, are involved in the big stuff, defending world peace, or announcing God’s message. What about your very own guardian angel? Could it be that there is an angel for each of us? Is our guardian angel with us at all times? This angel may well constitute the first member of our silent company. However there are others. As a matter of fact they form quite a club of silent and prayerful figures that are always with us. In this sense we are never alone.
I would like to elaborate on this with myself as the guinea pig. From a spiritual point of view, as I walk in the world, just over my shoulders is the spiritual yet very real presence of both my Mum and Dad, and just beyond them their parents, my grandparents. Hovering around in a similar space are others who from the time I was a small boy modelled for me God’s unconditional love. Just behind Granny, I see Lily, my Dad’s only sister who was a good aunt. There’s Maureen, Mum’s sister, another aunt, eccentric, kind and very funny. The Old Canon. The first Christian Brother to teach me. There are others. Thomas Merton, Henri Nouen. The Saints I am named after, figure from time to time in this holy mist. They are just behind me. They are in the realm of what some call the aura, or in Catholic tradition what we define as a halo. For me there is John, the Beloved, Joseph, the Worker, the beautiful Martin de Porres and of course the one whose name I took as a Brother, Declan of Ardmore or Declan of the Decies. I am guessing that at any one time there might be as many as fifteen to twenty of these ‘ fellow pilgrim-souls ‘ rooting for me. In solidarity with me, bolstering me up, giving me protection and encouragement. On a given day, Merton, Fr. Louis, the famous Trappist urges me to prayerful silence. Martin de Porres the Dominican lay Brother reminds me to keep humble, whilst I could learn much from the leadership of Declan. Have you worked out yet who might be in your entourage of spiritual companions? Who is your patron? As a housewife? A factory worker? A joiner? The patron saint of Parish Priests is Jeanne Marie Vianney. Do I know him? Might it not be time to make friends with him?
Guess what, there is actually more. At any one time, in a given week the Church suggests holy women or men that might have something to offer us by way of ‘soul food’. For example today it’s the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. Some might say they never heard of her, others that she is an unknown or obscure. The truth is she is only as obscure as you let her be. In fact even though she was royalty, she suffered greatly at the hands of a brutish and abusive husband. What I find fascinating is the journey that so many of these people made. Admittedly not all as dramatic as Saul the great persecutor becoming Paul the great Apostle, but nevertheless each of them moving closer to the Lord as they journeyed the pilgrim path. There’s quite a line up during the coming month including the aforementioned Declan, on July 24th. For all interested in the Camino, the Feast of James on July 25th is noteworthy. The day we remember the grandparents of Jesus, the parents of Mary, Joachim and Anne, has to be pretty special. The last day of July, 31st, is the day we give God thanks for the soldier-Saint, injured in the battle of Lepanto, who went on to found the largest religious order in the Church, the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits. Actually the first day of August is a very special day for our wonderful neighbours the priests of the Assumption and Cherry Orchard parishes, for on this day we remember their founder St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists. If you meet any of them on August 1st be sure to wish them a happy feast day. So my friends it is natural at times to feel a little lonely or isolated. The reality is though that in truth we are never alone because we belong to what we refer to in the Creed, as ‘ the communion of saints’!!