Ordination of Dominic McGrattan

Dominic McGrattan was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Noël Treanor on Sunday 29th June in the parish of Portaferry. Dominic spent one year in the ‘wing’ at St. Malachy’s College followed by five years of training in Philosophy and Theology in Rome.

HOMILY OF FATHER DOMINIC MCGRATTAN ON THE OCCASION OF HIS FIRST MASS OF THANKSGIVING SAINT PATRICK’S CHURCH, PORTAFERRY MONDAY, 30TH JUNE, 2014.

On 18th May, 1991, my mum and dad brought me to this parish church to receive my First Holy Communion. I believed then, with all the earnestness a seven-year-old could muster, that Jesus was really and truly present in the Mass and that he would gift his very self to me in Holy Communion, because he loved me. I give thanks to God that that simple, child-like faith has never failed me in the twenty-three years of growing up which have followed. The memory of that first encounter with our Eucharistic Lord, a memory which has remained alive and real, is especially present to me this evening as I celebrate my First Mass of Thanksgiving. God has given me, as unworthy and inadequate, as I am, the great privilege of participating as a priest in that most awesome of mysteries, the Mass. Tonight, I will place the bread and wine on the altar and, after speaking the words of consecration, ‘This is my Body given for you, this is my Blood poured out for you’, they will no longer be bread and wine, but Christ our Lord Himself, truly with us now.

Pope John Paul II, in the last year of his life, called the experience I have just shared with you – the experience of simple, child-like faith in the presence of Jesus in the Mass – ‘eucharistic amazement’. At Mass, when we approach Holy Communion, when we spend time before the Blessed Sacrament, we ought to be amazed. St. John Vianney, patron saint of diocesan priests, used to point to the altar and tabernacle of his tiny church in Ars and say: ‘He is here. He is here, the One who loves us so much, He is here’. When we cast our hearts and minds back to the readings for yesterday’s Ordination Mass, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Simon Peter must too have been amazed in the presence of Jesus. It is in Peter’s recognition of who Jesus truly is, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ we notice that in that very moment, he also discovers who he truly is, his own unexpected vocation, ‘you are Peter,’ the rock on which the Church will be built. And, it is in our encounter with the Eucharistic Lord that we discover who we truly are, who we are called to be. Pope Benedict reminded us of that truth when he visited our neighbouring shores back in 2010: ‘Dear…friends [he said] only Jesus knows what ‘definite service’ He has in mind for you!’ To discover this, the Holy Father invited all who had gathered in London’s Hyde Park to join him in meeting Christ, ‘present among us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar,’ in those silent moments of adoration many will long remember.

Of course the wisdom of experience tells us that our journey through life does not always admit of child-like amazement. Our religious sensibilities, our imaginative faculties can give way to very grown-up feelings of disillusionment, even cynicism. We can forget who Jesus is, and in the process, who we truly are. We can experience a spiritual wilderness, and go seeking after all kinds of manna. To illustrate, I will share with you a short but significant moment of realisation, of spiritual remembering on my own journey toward priesthood.
One Sunday morning in the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, my fellow seminarians and I awoke to the sound of a bell. Nothing unusual you might think. Countless bells ring out on the Lord’s Day, not just in Rome, but throughout the world, calling the faithful to prayer and worship. What was unusual about this bell was that it wasn’t a Roman bell, but rather an Irish one. It had originally called the nuns of Portstewart’s Dominican Convent to prayer and had been brought to the Caelian Hill as part of the preparations for the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress. The successor of Peter, Pope Benedict, would ring the bell at the Vatican and send it on pilgrimage to Dublin, during which it would travel the highways and byways of our land, calling each of us to an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.

To be frank, I was sceptical about the Congress bell. Would a gesture such as this, have any resonance in an Ireland where, if the secular punditry was to be believed, the faith of our forebears was in such chronic decline? True, news from home was grim. The gravely sinful wrongdoing of the past had been rightly, but painfully exposed in a series of reports. The all too human, perhaps inhuman side of our church had been laid bare to reveal failings which, for many, threatened its continued moral authority, its right to be given a fair hearing in the public square. News editors were running with obituaries: ‘a church dead’; ‘a vestige of Ireland’s dark past best forgotten’. Not surprisingly, those of us who had committed to discern our vocation to priesthood questioned what we’d gotten ourselves into, what God had gotten us into! Morale was low and disillusionment high and we wondered how a single, unassuming bell might be heard above the din, the cacophony of acrimony and recrimination.

Then I was reminded of another single, unassuming bell, one which was last heard in Dublin’s Pheonix Park in 1932 at an earlier Eucharistic Congress. It was the bell of St. Patrick, borrowed from the National Museum, and used at the Solemn Mass. G.K. Chesterton, the great English writer and Catholic apologist, was there to record his impressions. He observed that ‘at the moment of elevation, when Christ’s body and blood is laid bare for us and offered to God as a worthy and acceptable sacrifice, the most astonishing thing heard was something that those gathered could hardly hear. It was as faint as the sound of a far-off sheep-bell and as weak as the bleat of a sheep…It was the bell of St. Patrick, which had been silent for fifteen hundred years.’ He continues: ‘I know no poetical parallel to the effect of that little noise in that huge presence…From far away in the most forgotten of the centuries, as if down avenues that were colonnades of corpses, one dead man had spoken and was dumb. It was Patrick, and he only said: ‘My Master is here’.’

I sometimes wonder if the faint tinkle of that bell could be heard here in Portaferry when Patrick first celebrated Mass across the narrows of our lough at Saul. When I consider the rich Christian heritage of our area and the vibrancy of faith in our Eucharistic Lord which continues to nourish and sustain our people, I cannot help but think it must. We, the people of the Upper Ards, are the inheritors of that most profound of truths, a truth heralded by the sound of a far-off sheep-bell and pondered in the hearts of our forebears six centuries before the Normans came. In every age which has followed, our people have known the consolation of Christ’s presence among them, a presence of the most meaningful kind, a real presence, and a gift of the most ultimate degree.

From our first reading, we know the presence of God was shown to the People of Israel in the wilderness, feeding them with manna, giving them water from the rock, and leading them to the Promised Land. Yet the presence we celebrate this evening is of a deeper kind than they understood. Christ says as much, for the bread he gives is not like the bread our ancestors ate, for they are dead, but whoever eats the bread he gives will live forever. This presence of Christ to us is a presence so intimate that he becomes part of us, living in us. Christ’s gift of himself is total, shown during his life on earth by the giving of his life to us by dying on the cross, giving us his body and his blood. As a total gift of himself, his presence to us is therefore presence in the fullest sense, whole and entire: ‘For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.’

What this shows to us is that what we celebrate this evening is not so much the presence of God among men and women in the ancient past when they wandered in the desert, or two millennia ago, when Christ his Son walked among us, or sixteen hundred years ago, when Patrick landed on our shores. No. This evening’s feast is about the here and now. The complete presence of Christ to us is at all times, shown most powerfully when men and women come together to celebrate Mass. Here the body and blood of Christ are consumed by us, transforming us into who we truly are, men and women in whom God dwells. In this common presence of Christ we have a unity in Christ, forming, as St. Paul tells us, a single body. And this presence is not just a reality existing only when we celebrate the Eucharist, but is carried by us into the world throughout our daily lives. Little wonder that Pope John Paul II should speak of ‘eucharistic amazement’! We become who we receive and so are empowered to be Christ to others!

That is why the Christian faith tells us that we are never alone. Far from it. Even when we experience periods of spiritual desolation, of wandering in the desert seeking after manna of all kinds, God is always with us, present to us. When I cast my mind back to the disillusionment I experienced – and countless others too – during that difficult period in our church, I can’t help but think I was experiencing a kind of spiritual amnesia. In forgetting God’s presence to me, I risked forgetting who I truly was. It opened up a void in which the white noise made by naysayers and prophets of doom threatened to drown out the faint tinkle of that bell which reminded me that God is always with me, present to me. Each of us in life will, at some point, experience such a wilderness, we will think that we are completely alone, but we are not, and that is indeed something to celebrate with great joy. Let it be our prayer this evening, that our ears will always be attentive to the sound of God’s calling and our hearts open to his loving presence, that we will forever desire him, and until we reach our true homeland, know that Jesus Christ wishes in the Mass to be entirely ours, and to be perfectly united to us.

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