Fr Billy Swan
On 7th June, I celebrated the Silver Jubilee of my ordination as priest. To mark the occasion, we had a wonderful concelebrated Mass of Thanksgiving in Rowe St Church led by Bishop Ger. In my homily at the Mass I reflected on the role of the priest which has changed in those 25 years and yet remains as it ever was. Yet what remains at the beating heart of every priest's life and ministry is his relationship with God and call to live a radically holy way of life. Here is the homily in full:
Dear friends. I would like to echo Bishop Ger’s words of welcome to you all at the beginning of our Mass. I thank you for coming to join me here this evening in returning thanks to God for the past 25 years of priestly ministry. There have been many memories and feelings in my heart these last few days but the one that is strongest right now is that of gratitude. I am so thankful to be here, to be alive, and to look back with awe and wonder over the past quarter of a century and to witness to how God’s grace has made this possible. The words of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ come to mind that look back on the past but also looks to the future:
‘His grace that brought me safe thus far; And grace will lead me home’.
A brother priest recently told me that a jubilee celebration is more about God persevering with us than it is about we persevering with him and the mission he has entrusted to us.
Therefore, in the spirit of this Mass and indeed every Mass, my prayer tonight is one of profound gratitude and it is under this theme of thanksgiving that I share a few thoughts with you.
First, as always, I thank God for the past 25 years. To the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God of love, source of mercy and Lord of life, be praise and glory forever and ever. That God is loving, merciful and the source of all life and truth is not just something I learned from a book nor is it just the party line of the Church. I stand before you tonight as a witness that it is true – that my experience of God is that He is loving, merciful, the source of truth and life. I never would have survived if that were not true or if I didn’t believe it.
Over the years, my understanding of the mystery of God has grown and hopefully matured. I can say that it has grown closer to the understanding of God that Jesus teaches us with the image of the vine and the branches in this evening’s Gospel. This Gospel is all about connection. It is about a profound life-giving connection that we have received by being grafted on to Christ at our baptism and welcomed into the Church. It is the gift of God’s own life within us that is sustained by faith and prayer, especially the regular celebration of the Eucharist. It is the sap of the Spirit that connects us to the vine and connects us to one another in the body of Christ in the Church.
In the First Reading this evening, God calls Jeremiah. His Word comes to him, consecrates him, appoints him and then sends him. Jeremiah is chosen and despite his fears, he says ‘Yes’ to what God asks of him.
25 years ago, I too felt the same fear of saying ‘Yes’ - what it meant and where it would take me. Even today, there is always some amount of anxiety for us all in trusting and letting go. But looking back of the past 25 years, I thank God for the courage to trust him. And in that time, I have learned, often by mistakes and struggles, how faith in Christ is always vindicated and how trust in him is never misplaced.
This year is a year focused on vocation, especially on the diocesan priesthood. The theme is ‘Take the Risk for Christ’. This focus on the diocesan priesthood is not to exclude other vocations because the essential nature of ordained ministry is directed to the flourishing of the vocation of all the baptised. In other words, my role as a priest is to help you be priests, prophets and kings; to be witnesses in the world; to be salt and light and to be missionary disciples of Christ. With the Church, I believe that the more the laity’s own sense of vocation is deepened, the more what is proper to the ministry of priests will stand out.
In those 25 years, much has changed in Ireland and in the Church. Yet much of what it means to be a priest remains as it ever was – to serve and to lead; to minister the sacraments in the person of Christ and his Church; to preach and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles; to pray with God’s priestly people and intercede before God for them; to care for them and encourage them, especially the sick, the poor and wounded; to work together with our bishops, fellow priests and the whole people of God. All of this while knowing that we carry a treasure in the clay of our own fragile humanity.
But we know too that this indeed is a time of great change. Since 1998, there has been a shift in how we understand our mission and how we do things. One way of describing it is that today, priestly ministry is not just about us praying but teaching others how to pray. It’s not just about preaching and teaching the faith but raising up a whole army with the confidence to do this as well. If one person holds a bag of seed and sows those seeds, that’s good. But if the same person puts a bag of seeds into the hands of a whole community, then the harvest is multiplied. And this is why I am hopeful for the future. There is an opportunity here for the Church to grasp and to become alive and vibrant as a Church of communion, participation and mission.
Finally, I would like to thank you, the fellow branches of the vine through whom the sap of God’s Spirit has flowed and has sustained me and nurtured me for the past 25 years. In the Rite of ordination, there is a beautiful prayer the bishop says on behalf of the Church. He says:
‘IN YOUR SIGHT WE OFFER THIS MAN FOR ORDINATION; SUPPORT HIM WITH YOUR UNFAILING LOVE’
Looking back, I believe this prayer has been answered through you, the people of God. Reaching this milestone makes you realise that in that time, God has sustained you through the Church as his people. You have not made it alone. You come to know that it isn’t all about giving but about receiving too.
Therefore, to all from whom I received, I begin by thanking my family, the first domestic church where I learned about God, and about the basics of the faith. I thank my mother Eileen, my sister Roisin and brother Brendan. This evening, I remember with affection and gratitude my late father Billy, friends and family members who have died since 1998. Their loss has been compensated by the gift of new life and new members of our family since that time. To Philip, Kay and my seven nieces and nephews, please know how much a blessing you are and how important your love and support is to me.
To the people of my native parish of Glynn where I grew up and where I love to return, a sincere word of gratitude. I give thanks to God for my first appointment to the parish of New Ross and I thank many of the people of New Ross for coming here this evening. With the support and example of people like you, the late Fr Jack McCabe, Sr Aidan Cummins and Billy Woods, I was truly blessed with a great start in the priesthood. To my fellow students, friends and colleagues of the Irish College in Rome where I spent ten of those 25 years, a word of thanks for the memories and the times spent away from home. To the people of God in St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, for your closeness, friendship and for sharing the journey together for eight-and-a-half very happy years.
To the people of God in Wexford my current appointment – the parish staff, parishioners, students and staff members of CBS Primary School, Our Lady of Fatima and St Peter’s College, I thank you for support as we work, witness and work together for the youth, looking forward in hope. I would like to thank in a special way Ger Lawlor, Donagh Wylde, Roisin Dempsey and the members of Bride St and Rowe St choirs for their preparation for this Mass and beautiful music for this evening’s liturgy.
I would like to thank my brother priests for their friendship and support over the years both those from Ferns and from dioceses elsewhere. To all the priests and seminarians I have studied with, lived with, worked with and ministered to, I have been blessed by you and have learned from you. A special word of appreciation to my Parish Priest of Glynn for 24 years, Fr Pat Stafford. I would like to thank the bishops with whom I have served in those 25 years for their guidance and care – to Bishop Brendan Comiskey, Bishop Eamonn Walsh, Bishop Denis Brennan and Bishop Ger Nash.
And so, brothers and sisters, to all of you, grafted onto the vine with me, I thank you for the life that you have shared and that continues to sustain me.
I would like to conclude with the words of my old friend St Patrick who looked back on the journey of his life and made the following prayer of thanksgiving. For me, it captures my feeling of gratitude as I look back on the last 25 years and so I make his words my own:
“I thank my God without ceasing so that today I can offer a sacrifice to him with confidence…Today I constantly praise and glorify your name wherever I may be among the nations both in my successes and my difficulties. Whatever happens to me-good or ill- I pray to accept with an even temper and always give thanks to God who has shown me that I can trust him without limit or doubt” (Confessio 34).
In that spirit of trust, I now begin another chapter, walking with you from here and placing my faith in the same God who mercifully brought me through the past 25 years. With God’s word to Jeremiah, we begin again: ‘Go now to those to whom I send you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to protect you. It is the Lord who speaks!’ Thank you!.