I believed, as a young lad, that Drimoleague was a dangerous place to be a parish priest. It wasn’t because I believed the work was particularly difficult or that the people were hostile. It was due, rather, to an impression I had from my visits to the graveyard to pray for our dead. Every time I walked back towards the car park, I couldn’t help but notice the line of high crosses on the eastern side of the graveyard. They marked the plots where priests were buried. Since I also knew that this was the “new” graveyard, it hadn’t taken long to fill a row with priests!
Sense (a little, at least) came with age, and I realised that some of the priests died in the parish because it was a “senior” parish — one where older priests got promoted to. Some native sons (including a grand-uncle of mine) had also been brought back to be buried in the parish after working and dying abroad.
I remember only Fr. Kennedy, but they all are part of a long tradition of faith. They came from other places, and gave their lives in service to the Church, and folded up their earthly tents in Drimoleague.
I have often thought, too, about another line — one which started in the parish rather than ended here. It’s difficult to cross the dioceses of Cork & Ross without travelling through a parish where there’s a Drimoleague native as priest today. The list would fill a section of this page, so I won’t begin to list them. (Besides, I might leave someone out, and I’d hear about it at the races!) The list would grow even longer if we include all those who are working on the missions and in Britain. I’m sure the most recent man from the parish to be ordained a priest is based in Australia. And it’s no coincidence that he, Barry O’Brien, is also from a great townland!
I shouldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, forget all the men and women from the parish who are Brothers and Sisters. Virtually every religious congregation under the son has people in it from Drimoleague. Each of them continues to make their unique contribution.
Against this background then, it’s puzzling to know that Drimoleague parish had the service of three priests when I was born, and that now it has one. And I don’t mean this as a reflection on my friend Fr. Ted Collins.
It’s a reflection, rather, on the fact that our dioceses have fewer priests than this time last year. There are fewer priests available to allocate to parishes, whether in Mayfield, Cape Clear or Drinagh. Bishop Buckley commented in one place recently that “we can’t appoint people we don’t have.”
As the number of priests and religious decreases, so too does their average age. In turn, this means that the external, official face of the church is changing dramatically.
But what about the interior of the church? What’s happening among the faithful? What’s the condition of the “Body” underneath the skin? That’s a far more urgent issue.
Most creatures have the ability to heal when hurt. But they also, including humans, are constantly renewing the external coating. Snakes shed their skin in a dramatic way, but we all loose layers of skin all the time, but in a less obvious way. Without this ongoing renewal, our health would be in danger.
I honestly believe that the changes that are happening in the external face of the church — especially in priesthood — are part of God’s plan for keeping our faith community healthy. What the church looks like from the outside is not half as important as what it feels like on the inside. The huge numbers of people who freely gave of themselves in service to God and his church in the past were indicators of a deep underlying faith of all the people, of the parish. The church will always be able to grow, change, adapt, renew as long as it has a believing people at it’s core and as long as it is the life of Christ that flows in its arteries.
We tend to look back at Christmas and remember the way things were. And sometimes, we convince ourselves that the way things were was the best and only way. I still believe that God is calling people to have the generosity to serve in priesthood and religious life. But maybe there will also be other ways of looking back from future generations to measure the faith of the parish.
As we mark the birth of Christ this Christmas, may we look forward with hope, knowing that it is his light that guides us all. Then we’ll discover what marvellous things he has prepared for all those he loves.
(First published in the Dec 2007 edition of Drimoleague Newsletter.)