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For the past, thanks! For the future, yes!

Fr Michael Sheil, Rector of Clongowes Wood College SJ in County Kildare, reflects on his 50th anniversary as a Jesuit priest. 

Dag Hammarksjold – the second Secretary General of the UN from 1953 to 1961 – died in a plane crash in Zambia while trying to negotiate peace in a civil war in the Congo. He was a Swedish Lutheran – and was an economist and diplomat – described as an intensely dedicated public servant – who drew sense from his sense of communion with God. His diary was published posthumously by his friends – and I first came across it just before my Ordination.

The discovery was, for me, an important moment – when, in a page of the diary, I read:

Night is drawing nigh ……. for all that has been -Thanks! – To all that shall be – Yes!

Hammarsjold’s entry in his diary was made as he started out in the job which was to define his life – and I made bold to put it on my Ordination card – as I began my priestly life: For the past, Thanks! – for the future, Yes!

I find it difficult to realize that to-day – 25th June 2020 – I celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the day – 50 years ago – 25th June 1970 – when, with 10 Jesuit Companions, I was ordained a Priest in Milltown Park, Dublin.

As I look back now at this significant milestone in my life – and try to gather the myriad images of the past – my first reaction is one of grateful wonder and amazement at the richness of God’s gift of the people I have met in my life – young and old – Family – Students and Parents – Jesuits and Religious – and personal friends.

As we grew up in the post-war years in Belfast – where being Catholic was part of our identity – our Parents lived out Fr Peyton’s clarion-call: The Family that prays together stays together. In a wonderful older Brother (Peter) – myself and my Twin (John) had someone who cared for us and was our model [not that we always recognized it when younger!] – of someone who never put himself first – e.g., on my Ordination Day, Peter gave priority to my Twin to receive my First Blessing. Looking back now – I recognize God’s presence as, in each of them, He sowed the seed which was to lead me to where I am now. As for further comment – perhaps discretion is best observed – as I say to our Parents and Peter [now with the Lord] – and to John – still happily with us – and a very special Twin [one year we gave each other exactly the same book on our Birthday] – a simple, deepfelt Thanks!

After my Family must come the gift of Clongowes [our Father was an OC 1910-14] – with that very special bond which so many OCs recognize is ours. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the – Jesuit and Staff [all now gone-to-God] who cared for me and my companions here – and also to those who shared teenage school life in the very different Ireland of the 50s. My companions of those days have to take the credit [and the blame!] for helping shape my character – and it is always a joy to meet up with them anywhere in the world – when we can talk as though we had met only last week! [remember my meeting with an OC in Khartoum after 30+ years!].

I thoroughly enjoyed my school days in CWC – however, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that, while in the Holiday Camp – I hated rugby [it was compulsory for all] and loved cricket and soccer!

I am often asked when did I decide to join the Jesuits …….. I could not name a particular date or an event – it simply seemed the most-natural-thing-to-do when I came to take that last journey down the main avenue – and out into the waiting world!

And so, on leaving Clongowes in 1956 – I joined another Family which took me to its heart – the “Js”.

St Ignatius and his First Companions – when asked who/what they were, simply replied that they were Friends in the Lord! That has been so true for me – as I have been cared for by many wonderful Jesuits and have come to know more closely those who had looked after me during my time in CWC. I firmly believe that I will inherit “eternal life” – for Jesus has kept His promise of the hundredfold in this life to those who leave family to follow Him.

The first 16 years were spent in “formation” [16! …. He must have been a bit slow!, I hear you say! – but, while it was a long wait for my Family to Ordination day – those years simply flew by.] After two years in the Novitiate came First Vows – then 3 years at UCD [Latin, Greek, French] – 3 years for philosophy [1 in Tullabeg and 2 in Chantilly, France] – 3 years of regency in Gonzaga in Dublin – 3 more in Milltown for Theology – and, finally, 2 years for Catechetics at the Institut Catholique in Paris – giving a grand total of 16!

Since then – apart from a year’s sabbatical in 1985 [Jesuit Refugee Service in Sudan – 4 months in Zambia – 3 in St Beuno’s Wales – 1 in the Holy Land] – all my working life has been in our Colleges – Mungret, Belvedere and Clongowes. How blessed I have been through it all! With how many wonderful young people have I been privileged to share their lives – not just at school but also later – continuing friendship with the joy of Weddings and Baptisms – and the sharing of less happy times of sickness and bereavement. Two Sacraments stand out – the Eucharist [the source and summit] and the Sacrament of Reconciliation [a humbling and rewarding experience – and one which has allowed me be a Minister of Christ who said: “My peace I give you”] …………… the wonder of it all !

Words cannot do justice to how paternally grateful I am to you – my extended family.

I say paternally ……… which reminds me ……. One day in autumn 1985 I was bus-driver for a Parish Social Service group to a meeting in a Zambian village in the bush. As I sat reading a book I became aware of about 25 young children around the bus – and we got chatting. When I asked them how many families lived in the village I was surprised to hear that there was only one. They told me that the Chief, their Father – had 6 wives! I was duly impressed – but was taken aback when I was asked how many children I had! Thinking quickly [and cheating a bit – I had just been HLP in CWC!] I replied that I had 67 [RH’85] – which drew quite a reaction from my audience! “And how many wives, Father?” ……. “None,” I said ……. a pause ……. then: ”What ?! All those children and no wives?!”

“No wives.” …… another pause .…… then: “Father, you lucky ! You so lucky!” Bus-driver = head down into book!

Another part of this Family – may I call them the In-laws?! – has been my Colleagues – Teachers and Staff [at all levels] in our Colleges who – partners in the Ignatian vision and our Jesuit ethos – have become close and valued friends. I have met very few who were simply “doing-a-job” – for they were generously [and often heroically] following their own God-given vocation. Their friendship and example have been truly inspiring.

There has been one other great gift I have received – an off-shore one, if you like. For the past 50 years I have helped out in a parish in Normandy – on the D-Day Landing Beaches [the Royal Ulster Rifles liberated Lion s/mer on 6th June 1944 – which gives me a great connection with my Ulster roots!]. I went there only 2 weeks after Ordination – to an old Curé de campagne [very much old style] who became a second Father to me – and who taught me so much about the practical side of pastoral care in the priesthood. I was with him for 30 summers – and also when he died in 2001. I have continued to spend my summer break there ever since – my 50th this year!

One piece of advice of his I’ve never forgotten – and often practise: Never close a door which is half open!

Now – as I look back over the years – I do so with a sense of immense gratitude to God for such a fulfilled and enriched life. I make my own the prayer of Dag Hammarksjold – hoping that my YES will – with God’s grace – be for His Greater Glory and [as Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises] for the good of souls.

Perhaps I can best sum it up in the words of my favourite Psalm 138: For You created me and shaped me – gave me life within my Mother’s womb – for the wonder of who I am I praise You – safe in Your hands all creation is made new!

And so back to Dag Hammarskjold’s great prayer of gratitude for the past and confidence for the future:

For the past – to God and to YOU – Family – Friends [old and young] – THANKS!

– and to God and to YOU – for the future – YES !

I beg your indulgence – now, as I dismount from this weekly runaway horse – and take my rest awhile. Full summer approaches ……… if the Spirit moves me from time to time – you might see me in the saddle again!

But for now let me simply say thank you and leave you with this prayer:

May the Lord bless you and take care of you –

may He be kind and gracious to you –

may He look on you with favour and give you His Peace! [Numbers 6:24-26].

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