Visitors to the annual National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Co. Offaly were offered a blessing with the cross which Blessed John Sullivan SJ held in his hands as he died. This year, Anna May McHugh, the visionary who started the whole event, came to the Jesuit stand for her own blessing. “She made my day,” said Fr Kevin O’Rourke SJ, who was giving the blessings with the cross at the event.
The cross belonged to Fr John Sullivan’s mother and is kept in Gardiner St Church by Paul Farquharson SJ. He gives blessings with it to the many people from Ireland and further afield who come to visit Fr John’s tomb and pray usually for healing or a special intention, for themselves or someone close. Fr Paul also takes the cross to the sick and dying in hospitals when requested.
According to Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications it is always a special occasion when the cross is brought to ‘the ploughing’ as it has been for the last four years. The National Ploughing Championships is the largest outdoor agricultural event in Europe attracting up to 300,000 visitor annually.
This year the Jesuit stand was in the Dolmen tent, right beside the Messenger Books’ stall. Visitors to the Messenger stand were able to buy biographies of Fr John published by Messenger Publications. Many of their other publications by Irish Jesuits were also in demand including the ever popular Sacred Heart Messenger, according to Elizabeth Foley, who manned the stand for the duration of the event.
This year Fr Kevin O’Rourke and Pat Coyle were helped out by Cait Cullen, who assists Fr Conor Harper SJ in the promotion of Fr John Sullivan’s cause in her native county Kildare. Cait has great devotion to Fr John and was able to share his story of healing and friendship with the poor and the sick, with the many visitors to the Jesuit stand. “It was a very moving experience for me to meet so many people and hear their stories of hope and pain,” she said, “and to learn that lots of people who came to us had also stories to tell about how their friends or relations were helped through Fr John’s intercession”.
There was a continual stream of people coming for a blessing, according to Fr Kevin. “People from nearly every county in Ireland,” he said, adding: “It’s always a privilege to see how moved people are as they hold the cross and pray in the secret of their hearts to him to intercede for them. We had the sick and the dying, the worried and the hopeful coming for a blessing. No-one went away disappointed.”
Pat was particularly heartened by the goodness of the people she met and spoke with. “In the light of all that has happened recently regarding abuse scandals and cover-ups, along with personal attacks on the Pope, I was worried that people take out some anger or frustration on us. But there was none of that. Only kind words and welcome from those who came to the stand”.
Myles O’Reilly SJ and Barney McGuckian SJ were on hand one of the days to give the blessing with the cross and talk to people who wanted a comforting or listening ear. Unfortunately the eight novices Kevin had lined up to help out on Wednesday were stopped in their tracks by Storm Ali. The howling winds inflicted quite some damage on a number of tents and organisers decided the event would be cancelled for the day on health and safety grounds.
“That didn’t stop Fr John though”said Fr Kevin. He was stuck in a car in the car-park when the storm was at its height. Unable to get into the ploughing arena, he could not get out of the car park either as it was packed. At one point concerned stewards were going round asking people to remain in their cars. The one who went to Kevin’s car saw his collar and began talking to him. “When she found out what we were doing at the ploughing she was in shock. Her own grandparents had known Fr John personally and she had been brought up with a deep devotion to him. Next thing she was in the car getting a blessing!”
Fr Simon Bishop SJ, the novice master who was over with the novices from Birmingham, had a similar tale involving a steward. This time the woman was a Muslim, formerly Catholic. The novices were out of the cars by this time and standing around with Pat Coyle, hoping they might get in to see the tent they were supposed to have been working in. They fell into conversation with the steward. “It went pretty deep quite quickly”, recalls Pat. “Before I knew it, Fr Simon, who had the cross in his pocket, was gently and tentatively offering her a blessing with it and she graciously accepted!”
When Pat eventually got into the Dolmen tent to check out their stand she was more than relieved to see that not even a leaflet or prayer card had been moved on the table. “The Dolmen tent was a great place to locate in,” she noted. “That’s because there are lots of other stands there selling all sorts of stuff, like make-up, scarves, children’s books, electronic goods – there were even massage chairs that weary travellers could sit down in and relax. I liked that because Fr John’s cross was there in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and commerce. And there was a lot of footfall drawn by those stands – God and mammon working in harmony!”
Messenger Publications were also happy with their few days of promotion and selling, agreeing with Pat the their new tent location was busier than the one tent for all Jesuit works in previous years.
Michael Thompson of the Peter McVerry Trust popped over from their stand in another section of the ploughing. He had his usual bundle of Christmas cards that they were selling to raise funds for the homeless. He confirmed that once again the cards were a big hit. So too was a panel discussion on homelessness that they hosted in their tent.
As Fr Kevin noted, once again the interest in Fr John and the Jesuits shown by people, and the general feedback from those visited the Jesuit stands, was confirmation of another successful trip to the ploughing – storm Ali notwithstanding!