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Fr Billy Swan

Last Friday 21st June, Bishop Ger Nash launched my latest book 'The Anima Magna - How Christian Faith Revives and Expands the Soul'. Here I share the words I spoke on the night at the launch of the book. Copies of the book are available from the Parish Office here in School St in Wexford or to order online at

Bishop Ger, Rev Fathers, Sisters, parishioners, friends, ladies and gentlemen. I am honoured and deeply grateful to you who have come here tonight for this launch of my new book ‘The Anima Magna: How Christian Faith Revives and Expands the Soul’. I would like to thank Monica Crofton, our compere for this evening, for agreeing to do what Monica is gifted in doing – in being a wonderful MC but also someone who can make all the connections between people, history, faith, culture, literature and who of course is an author herself and knows what it takes for a book to be born.

I would also like to thank Bride St Folk Group who have given their time this evening to treat us to a sample of their beautiful music. This year, Bride St Folk Group celebrate the 45th anniversary of their foundation. We are so blessed to have their musical talent in our parish that they share with us every Saturday night at the Vigil Mass in Bride St and as they have do here this evening.

I would like to thank Fr Thomas and his colleagues from St Paul’s Publishing who have come all the way from Maynooth to be with us here this evening. I thank them for their kind words and for recognizing the spirit of my work as being in keeping with their mission today to do what St Paul did in the early Church – to share the Good News in every way possible. This is the second book I have published with St Pauls and I have found them to be competent, professional, friendly and very easy to work with. Please do check out their website for a wonderful selection of resources designed for adult faith formation and resources for parish communities too.

I would like to thank Bishop Ger for launching the book here this evening. I hope and pray it can make some contribution towards the mission of the Church here in the diocese and beyond. Books are never written in a vacuum or fall from thin air. They emerge from a context. The context this book has emerged from is one where the Church landscape is changing. Many of these changes are challenging but others are welcome. One of the changes we welcome is the opportunity now opening up for many more lay people to study theology and spirituality, perhaps for the first time. Now is a time when many have come forward to discern how the Lord is calling them to serve as catechists and pastoral care workers.

In September this year, almost 30 people from our diocese will begin studies in theology, spirituality and ministry at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. In recent interviews I had with them, all of them without exception, shared how the gift of faith in their lives is life-giving and life-changing. And during the past 6 month period of discernment, they shared how the opportunity to explore their faith at a deeper level, has left them hungry to experience more. This is exactly my own experience too – that diving deeper into our shared faith tradition confirms the deepest instincts of our faith in Christ as being true and beautiful. I am delighted to see some of these candidates here this evening and I hope this book with help all of us, in the words of St Peter, to: “Always be ready to give an answer when others ask you a reason for the hope you have”.

So thank you Bishop Ger for leading this time of renewal in our diocese and I hope this book contributes in some small way to our Church, having the desire and confidence to know our faith better, and better equipped to share it with others. In this sense, this book is not an academic exercise. It is not like a trophy to be left on a dusty shelf. It is as all theology books should be, at the serve of the mission and the witness we give as joyful and missionary disciple of the Lord. St Thomas Aquinas once wondered why Jesus never wrote a book. His answer was he didn’t have to as the witness of his life spoke louder than any book could have. Therefore, books like this one are always at the service of what is our greatest and collective calling – to bear witness to Christ and his Gospel leading to a more humane, fraternal and joy filled life.

Just a little more about how this book came about. It is a series of 25 articles that have already been digitally published on Bishop Robert Barron’s ‘Word on Fire’ website ( that is dedicated to the mission of evangelization. The theme that unites all 25 is that of magnanimity and the basic idea that Christian faith is like air coming into a balloon - it not only expands the human soul but breathes new life into our lives too.

One of the defining features of our culture today is the strong focus on the individual self and one’s autonomy. To be able to do what we want and when we want has a strong appeal to a deep desire to be free. This personalism has many good points including the rights of individuals, the dignity of every human being and the respect that is due to all. However, when this freedom becomes the most important thing above all others, then trouble ensues.

One problem is that in our determination to be free, we mark exclusive boundaries around ourselves that are drawn up by our own fears and desires. This is what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor called the buffered self that shields itself from the world, protects itself against pain, dispenses with sacrifice, commitment and discipline and lives within a narrow and confined space. And when we stay within than narrow space, we can easily become blinded to the needs of those around us. This is the attitude of the man in the Gospel story of the talents who, because of fear and excessive caution, decided to bury his talent, to play it safe and not to risk anything. According to St Thomas, such a person has a pusilla anima or a small soul that shrinks from great things because of selfishness or fear. The fruits of this attitude to life are sadness, boredom and the tragedy of an unfulfilled life that never achieves its potential.

In contrast, St Thomas praises the person with a ‘Magna Anima’ or a large soul that takes the risk to love, to serve and go on mission. With Mary, the Mother of Jesus, such a soul Magnifies the Lord as it rejoices in God, causing it to revive and expand in a way that makes room for God and for others. The Magnanimous person puts his/her own self-preservation last and takes the risk to respond to God’s invitation to go on mission, to take that chance, to have the courage to leave the safety of the harbour and to put out into the deep water of adventure. The person with a soul inflated with the Spirit of God knows that this might be the more difficult path but in the words of the late Pope Benedict, we are not made for comfort but for greatness.

In my book, the first chapter is about a prophet of magnanimity whose preaching first inspired me not to be afraid, to trust in God and to go to where he wants you to be. I speak of Pope St John Paul II who spoke this message to his own people, oppressed by decades of communism and Nazi occupation before that. On 2nd June 1979 in Warsaw, what he said amounted to a revolution in how people understood themselves – not as a people to be controlled or beaten down but as the people of God with a dignity and a future. What he said to his people was: “This is what they tell you who you are. Let me remind you who you really are”. He then went on to masterfully put before his own people a vision of themselves than they had forgotten. Through his words that day, he not only revived and expanded the soul of millions and of a whole nation but did so in a way that changed history.

Similarly with the youth, John Paul urged them not to live for themselves but for God and his kingdom. He told them they were right to be disappointed with “hollow entertainment, passing fads and aiming at too little in life” (World Youth Day, Toronto 2002). He encouraged them to embrace “the law of the gift” where we receive back true freedom and happiness in the measure that we give ourselves away in service and love. To the hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in Rome for World Youth Day 2000, the Holy Father spoke about the love of God in Jesus Christ that created them for a special purpose:

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted…It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal”.

This is the spirit of the Magna Anima that pervades this book. It tries to show how the Spirit of Christ that touches every aspect of the human condition, heals, transforms and takes us to a new place on our journey. That’s why there are chapters on human woundedness, vulnerability, freedom, solidarity, and the unity that binds us together. There are chapters that shine a light on the lives of the saints and how they arrived at greatness of soul. With my science background, I include a few chapters that encourage us to look down less on what we have made and to look up more on what God has made so that the expansiveness of the universe might stretch out our souls with it.

I would like to conclude with a few more ‘Thank Yous’. To those who have endorsed this book on the back cover – Dr Matthew Petrusek from Word on Fire, Dr Alex O’Hara, National Director for Catechesis of the Irish Episcopal Conference and Fr Vincent Twomey, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. I would like to thank Fr Martin Pender for proof-reading this book and Whites Hotel for hosting this evening. Many thanks to Neil and Noirin for managing the sale of the books tonight including some of my previous publications.

Finally, thanks as always to my family, to Frs. James, Michael, deacon Eamonn and all the parish staff for their constant support and friendship.

And so, friends, having written this book, I have decided that on my headstone will be the following words: “When I am dead and gone may it be said, though his sins were scarlet his books were read”. I hope you enjoy reading this book.

Thank you for listening.


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