Celebrating the legacy of Meath priests Down Under

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 13th August, 2008 7:00am

'I would like to share with you a few words on a key dimension of our call to faith in Jesus Christ - the call to witness to that faith in our lives and in the values we bring to life.'

This was the theme that was at the heart of the recent celebration of World Youth Day in Australia. We had a group of 47 young adults who travelled to the gathering in Sydney, joining more than 150,000 other young adults drawn from every country in the world. It was the biggest influx of visitors that Australia had ever hosted in its history. It offered an opportunity to touch base with and acknowledge the extraordinary contribution Ireland has made to the growth of the Church in both Australia and New Zealand. Indeed about one-third of all in Australia are proud of their Irish ancestry.

Bringing over 150,000 young adults together in any city would normally be considered as posing major security problems. However, as was the case in all previous such World Youth Days, it was a week that saw no violence or vandalism on the streets, no abuse of alcohol or drugs or inappropriate behaviour. It was an extraordinary witness to the goodness that was present in all who gathered.

In the lead up to the event a section of the media tried its best to undermine and discredit the event. However, this proved very counter-productive given the exemplary behaviour and good humour of all who were present and they were forced to change their tune. Perhaps it was best summed up by a letter-writer to the Sydney Morning Herald. He asked the objectors and whingers to have patience and to enjoy the presence of so many good-humoured young adults in their midst.

In a week"s time, he wrote, they will be gone and you will have your drunks, your drug addicts, your vandals and thugs back taking over the streets. Sadly as all communities have discovered, including this community, too often gatherings of young adults too easily descend into such antisocial behaviour fuelled by a cocktail of drink and drugs. Those that travelled to Sydney gave striking witness to the truth that there can be another way and that not all our young are caught up in this sad cycle.

In the days before the main event begins, the pilgrims from around the world were hosted in parishes around Australia and New Zealand. Our group was hosted in Bathurst in the Diocese of Bathurst. A previous Bishop of Bathurst came from the Parish of Rathconrath, Co Westmeath, Bishop Michael O"Farrell. A visit to the cemetery in Bathurst evoked poignant memories. The first priest buried in Bathurst, Fr Luke Hand, came from my own parish of Oldcastle.

He was younger brother of Fr John Hand who founded All Hallows College in Dublin in 1842. This college sent 1,000 priests to Australia over the following 120 years. The other seminaries in Ireland would have sent even more between them. Working alongside these priests were a very large number of Religious Sisters, mainly Mercy and Presentation.

One evocative sight in the cemetery in Bathurst is a large block on 119 graves - 17 rows of seven - of Mercy Sisters, mainly from Cork, who had worked there over the past 100 years. All of them left all for the sake of the Gospel, travelling to Australia in the knowledge that they would not return. It is truly answering the call to faith.

Following the events in Sydney, I spent a few days in Auckland, New Zealand as I wished to acknowledge the contribution that Thomas Poynton, from Ballivor parish had made to the founding of the Church in that country. With his wife, he had travelled to live in New Zealand in the early 1830s. There was no priest in New Zealand at that time. When their first child was born they brought the child by boat to Australia for baptism - a round trip of 2,400 miles.

They did the same for their second child. On the third such visit they persuaded Bishop Ponsonby in Australia - at that time the only bishop in the country - to send a priest to New Zealand. The first Mass ever celebrated in New Zealand was said in their house on January 13th, 1838. His name is held in high honour in New Zealand and it was a special moment to stand at their graves in Battersea cemetery in Auckland. The fidelity and faith of Thomas and Mary Poynton were the instruments used by God to plant the Church in New Zealand.

In his homilies, Pope Benedict posed a very direct challenge to the young. He asked them - and indeed us - 'What will you leave to the next generation? Are you building your lives on firm foundations, building something that will endure? Are you living your lives in a way that opens up space for the Spirit in the midst of a world that wants to forget God or even reject Him in the name of a falsely conceived freedom? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?"

These are questions all have to answer in their own lives. Fr Luke Hand and countless Irish men and women answered it by giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel in a country very far from their homeland. They left an enormous positive legacy for future generations.

The faith of the young who gathered in Sydney - young people from every country in the world joining the youth of Australia - were a living witness to that legacy. These young people who gathered in Sydney were a sign of contradiction in a world in which so many of the young have lost their focus in life, lost their way.

In the Gospel at Mass last Sunday, Peter faltered when Jesus asked that he join Him on the water. Eventually he found the courage to walk with Christ and the faith to say 'You are the Christ the Son of the living God". Fidelity to our calling as children of God demands that we too find the courage and strength to echo this profession of faith made by Peter as we strive to be witnesses to the faith in which we were baptised.

Dr Michael Smith is the Bishop of Meath.

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