Foul weather was no match for the faith, love and hope we witnessed
We had a stormy entrance to the month of March where I live. We had howling winds with gusts of such power that trees bent until I thought their backs would snap.
We had relentless, driving cold rain. We had moonlit nights and sub-zero temperatures.
We had sunny spring days and we had three days when I had to shovel snow off the car park.
It was exactly the weather I was dreading when we planned our annual Novena of Hope at The Graan. The date of our Novena of Hope is determined by the moon because, as you know, it is the moon which determines Easter and Easter determines Lent and Lent determines when our Novena is held.
In the circumstances I would have forgiven people for not coming out to the Novena and I knew for certain that no one would travel long distances to attend our twice daily services.
But I was completely wrong. Over nine days we had 20 sessions and none of those sessions had less than 1,000 people attending. As well as a huge local support we had people from almost every county in Ireland and a few from further afield.
Reflecting at the beginning of the Novena I had suggested that nobody would hand out hope like a leaflet. Real hope comes from within. It is already there deep down and often stifled by the troubles of life. Our speakers at the Novena, I told them, would inspire us enough to nurture that seed of hope deep within.
We had speakers who were Protestant, Catholic, men, women, believers, non-believers, strugglers, priests and ministers. We welcomed the sick by blessing them and feeding them strong tea and sweet cake.
Eventually, though, it came down to honest people telling honest stories of brokenness and vulnerability and through their own brokenness inspiring us to dare to hope again.
Joe Brolly quietly, passionately and sincerely convinced every one of the sinful waste it is to bury good human organs that could provide life and a pain-free existence for others. He made us laugh and at other times we were as close to weeping as he was.
Niall Martin introduced us to a forgiving God in a sacrament especially made for those who find it hard to forgive themselves.
Ryan Feeney, with all the enthusiasm of a young intellectual, opened our eyes to the possibilities we have within our communities to build a future for our families.
Peter Sheridan reminded us of a dreadful past that could only be overcome by good people talking honestly to other good people.
Ruth Patterson, who was ordained a Presbyterian minister almost 40 years ago, opened the scriptures and restored our spirits with a reachable hope.
Liamy MacNally began by telling us that he is a Catholic priest who is married. Because he is a Catholic he is not allowed to practice as a priest. He reminded us that in his town there are 11 ordained priests. Three of them are retired, two of them work night and day to provide Catholic services in their church. That leaves six other priests. Only one of those six practices publicly as a priest – and he’s a priest who became an Anglican and is the vicar in the local Church of Ireland cathedral. The other five are forbidden to act as priests simply because they fell in love and married.
Liamy is one of those. He led us through the history of imposed celibacy and left us in no doubt that the church has wilfully wasted the gift of vocation by insisting on compulsory celibacy.
On the last day we had the delightful Daniel O’Leary. To a packed church he spoke quietly about the God of love. He told us to believe in the incarnation and to understand that everything we do is the love of God in action.
There is no unreachable chasm between the secular and the spiritual. After 55 years in the priesthood Fr Daniel simply lifted us up to a new level by revealing to us the hope that we always had right at the centre of our hearts.
Inside the church it was warm and cosy and joyful and the storms outside never entered our minds or darkened our spirits. The sweet music of Lisa Mc-Hugh, Paul Kelly, Philomena Begley, Nathan Carter, Michael English, Gene Stuart, Hugo Duncan and dozens of others made our hearts dance with joy. It was nine days of faith, hope and love.