A new name was added to the complement of Parish Readers for the Moville Group when a Commissioning Service was held in Ireland’s most northerly parish, Cloncha, on Mothering Sunday.
Ironically, given the day that was in it, it belonged to Alan Cousins – husband of the local Curate, Rev Suzanne Cousins. Alan was following in the footsteps of four other parish readers – all female – who had been commissioned last July.
The service took place in Cloncha Parish Church in Malin. Rev Cousins was joined by the local Roman Catholic Priest, Fr Peter Devlin, and by Rev Chris MacBruithin, a Curate in Enniskillen who had trained for the ministry with Rev Cousins and been invited to speak at the service.
There was a distinct Celtic feel to the evening, with local guest musicians, Ceolan, performing a number of hymns, and Rev MacBruithin – a gifted linguist – leading the congregation in a recital of the Lord’s Prayer in gaelic.
Rev MacBruithin said he was delighted to come back to the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, where he had spent eleven years, although he said he couldn’t wait to get back to Enniskillen and tell people that he had “stood in the pulpit and preached in the Star Wars Parish”.
Given that the service was an evening of Celtic-inspired worship, Rev MacBruithin said he would follow Celtic tradition and tell the congregation a story. He talked to them about God’s call to St Patrick, who had been kidnapped and ‘human-trafficked’ fifteen hundred years ago.
Rev MacBruithin recounted how Patrick had at first ignored God’s call - stuck his fingers in his ears, perhaps - and escaped from slavery, eventually to return to Ireland to preach God’s word. “When Patrick got there, he saw the druids, he saw the pagans worshipping their Gods. Patrick didn’t scold them. He didn’t arrive and tell them how wicked they were. He didn’t wag his finger at them. He built a monastery – or, at least, what today we would call a monastery – but back then, the ancient Celtic church had a different name for it: they called it ‘a colony of heaven’.”
The preacher said these colonies of heaven were places of hospitality. In Ireland then, people were divided into tribes and attacked one another frequently. “But anybody who knocked on the door of the colony of heaven was told, ‘Cead mile failte isteach – you are very welcome to come in.’”
These colonies of heaven were places of learning, the preacher said. Many years after Patrick’s time – when the rest of Europe, with its fancy cathedrals, fell into darkness in the Middle Ages – these little colonies of heaven had people who kept copying the Gospels and who kept that light going for centuries. “They were places of art and culture, places of refuge. If you were in trouble, you always had somewhere safe to go, if you could just get to one of Patrick’s little colonies of heaven. And it makes us think, doesn’t it: wouldn’t Inishowen, and Enniskillen where I come from, and wouldn’t the whole world be a better place if we were little colonies of heaven?”
God knew what he was doing when he called Patrick, Rev MacBruithin said, and knows what he’s doing when he calls each of us, as he was calling Alan. God always calls us to do something. We just have to sometimes take the fingers out of our ears and hear what he is saying. “He asks us to do hard things. And sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to go back somewhere that we’ve been before and to forgive, or to welcome, or to look somebody different in the eye. But Patrick did.
“And it’s a huge pity that we might dishonour his story and his life, and turn it into a caricature in a few days, with a green mitre and silly wig, sipping green-dyed Guinness. But there’s a very good reason why our churches will remember the real Patrick on Saturday.
“On an island where our denominations spread across jurisdictions, an island struggling still to get past the trauma of past years, an island where we’re still a bit suspicious of ‘the other’ – the stranger – we know that forgiveness is important but just, ‘God, don’t make me do it’.
“So, in a way, Patrick’s story is all of our story. And what’s God telling us tonight that we’ve tried for a long time maybe to ignore? Have you been sticking your fingers in your ears? Try taking them out tonight. What’s God telling you? What hard thing is he maybe asking us to do that could make Inishowen a really beautiful colony of heaven, where God’s will takes place on earth just as it does in heaven?”
In her final blessing, Rev Cousins referred to the preacher’s Star Wars comment, and prayed that a different force might be with her husband as he embarked upon his new career as a parish reader. The evening ended with refreshments in the church and an opportunity for parishioners from throughout the Moville Group to see new facilities that had been added to Cloncha Church recently.