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A Vocations Story

On Sunday 15 September, Holy Cross Church, Ardoyne was the setting for Gareth Thomas making his Final Profession in the Passionist Congregation. It was the first such Final Profession ceremony in almost 20 years. Brian McKee, a native of the Passionist parish of Holy Cross, shares his reflection on this special event in the life of the parish.

14th March 1967. It had taken a full six months of meeting every Tuesday afternoon. Mastering the pronunciation of the strange Latin words: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, Beattae Maria Semper Virginae, Et cum Spiritu Tuo. A time then spent shadowing the older altar boys, as we learned when to stand up, sit down, kneel, use a thurible, how many times you could get away with ringing the bell without upsetting the priest, how to undo the golden garment during Benediction without strangling that same priest, until finally the day of the “big test” arrived.

 

It was a ritual faced by every altar boy in Ardoyne. The day to prove you could serve Mass on your own.10am Mass in the upstairs oratory of Holy Cross Church. Latin responses had to be word perfect. Fr Dominic and Fr Denis were the hoped for celebrants. While some priests were better known for their lack of delay in celebrating Mass, these two men were gentleness and patience personified. Just right for the nervous altar boy waiting to gain his “medal” that entitled him to serve Mass alone.  I passed. Running back to Holy Cross Boys School with the prized bronze medal in hand.

 

What was it about these priests in black habits with the strange white signs? The Passionists, founded by Saint Paul of the Cross in 1720, came to Ardoyne in 1868. We knew they were different. While others called their priest by their surname, we were on first name terms with ours, and such wonderful names they were: Alphonsous, Ailbe, Honorious, Ultan, Conrad, Fernando, Marcellus… As altar boys we got to know the characteristics and quirkiness of each one. 

 

What was it about these priests in black habits and white signs that somehow got under the skin, and seemed to draw a deep loyalty from the people of Ardoyne? Whether it was in the rebuilding of burnt out houses; the construction of factories and jobs; the walking down riot torn streets or accompanying children through waves of hatred on the way to school; the hours spent counselling and listening to stories of hurt and loss; we knew we were not just a parish; we were a Passionist parish. We were proud of that. It seemed the Passionists were also proud of us. Men who literally put their lives on the line to minister to a people in times of conflict and trauma.

 

There is a strange attachment between the people of Holy Cross, Ardoyne and the Passionists. Maybe it was their strange habits that made them, and consequently us, different from the rest of the diocese. I think though it was more about their sheer down to earth humanity and the compassion that people received from those whom they considered as “their own.” As the white sign stood out against the black habit, so these men were a sign of hope when times were tough.

Last Sunday I attended the Final Profession of Gareth Thomas in Holy Cross Church. It is hard to believe this was the first such occasion in almost 20 years.  A Final Profession marks Gareth’s act of commitment to the Passionist Congregation for life.  What drew this big Welshman, who would not look out of place in a rugby line up, but whose favourite food is chocolate, to this Congregation of the Passion? At 31 years of age, why is this man committing his life to a Religious Congregation with a strange habit, rather than pursuing his interest in history that he studied at the University of Wales?

 

Gareth told me of being raised in an Irish Catholic family in a working class mining area of South Wales, very connected to the local church. Going to Mass as an altar boy was as normal for him as playing rugby or going swimming.  “My experience though was of a cold and dark Church, that I both loved and feared at the one time.”

 

At the age of 14 his grandmother became seriously ill, and was in hospital for several weeks before her death. “At this time a friendly priest and my RE teacher encouraged me to pray. I started reading the scriptures, particularly drawn to the stories of the Passion, and here I discovered God, holding my hand. This was a God who wanted to come close. I became thirsty for this God who revealed himself to me as a loving God.”

 

The death of his grandmother had a profound influence on the future direction of Gareth’s life. “After her death I felt God prompting me to share my experience with others, to tell people who have experienced this cold, dark and distant God that this is not me.”

 

After initial studies for the diocesan priesthood, Gareth found himself drawn to a life of community. He spent a year working with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow with the Jesuit Volunteer Community. “I was living near a Passionist Church in Glasgow. One day I went into the Church and on a beam above the altar saw the inscription ‘We Preach Christ Crucified.’ I had a deep sense then that this was what I was being called to do; to proclaim the crucified but joyful God!” Why the Passionists though?  As Gareth replied: “I saw the people coming away from this Church with smiles on their faces, and thought that these men must be doing something right.”

 

The final prayer of the Profession Mass spoke of the Passionist as one who would “embrace the burden of the burdens of the people.” As the Cross was put on Gareth’s shoulder, and the Crown of Thorns was placed on his head, I reflected on the different Church experience since the last Final Profession Ceremony almost 20 years ago. Today we were witnessing a man making a commitment “to bear the burden of the burdens of the people” in full knowledge of the difficulties within the church, a church that was both crucified and crucifying. That took some courage. I thought that Gareth’s grandmother, and St Paul of the Cross, would be proud of this man from the Welsh Valleys.