Homily at Re-opening Ceremony of the Cathedral of the Assumption

5th  October 2003

“I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of your house and the place where your glory dwells.”

This text you can see on the front of the chancel.  I hope your Latin has not gone too rusty!  “Domine dilexi decorum domus tuae et locum habitationis gloriae tuae”.  This comes from Psalm 26.  If you can recall the Mass in Latin you will remember that it was recited by the priest as he washed his hands before the Preface and Canon.  “Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas”, “I will wash my hands among the innocent”.

The psalmist seems to be a pilgrim who has been falsely accused by his enemies.  He seeks refuge in the Temple in Jerusalem and pours out his troubles.  He protests his innocence to the Lord.  Then he observes the cultic practice of washing his hands so that he can take part in the Temple ceremonies.  It is clear that he believes that God is present and that he will hear his prayer.  He feels secure and at home in this holy place and he looks forward to being among the other worshippers…”I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of your house and the place where your glory dwells”.

You can understand why this verse was placed prominently in front of the sanctuary, the altar and tabernacle when the Cathedral was completed in 1879.  We can make it our own today as we reopen the church.  We too have loved the beauty of God’s house and the place where His glory dwells.

The Temple was the centre of Jewish worship. It was their special place of prayer and sacrifice.  It was the place of God’s presence par excellence.   As King Solomon’s Prayer in the first reading today expresses it, “My name shall be there”.  God’s presence was represented by the Ark of the Covenant which contained the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.

Our Christian Liturgy is based on Temple worship. Scripture readings and the singing of psalms (responsorial psalms) to musical accompaniment were built upon the heritage of Judaism. We also inherited from the Jewish people, an intuition to build places of worship worthy of the Lord’s presence.  As Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical on “The Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church”;

“Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no ‘extravagance’, devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.  No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room”, she has felt the need down the centuries, and in her encounter with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. Could there ever be an adequate means of expressing the acceptance of the self-gift which the divine Bridegroom makes to his Bride, the Church, by bringing the Sacrifice offered once and for all on the Cross to successive generations of believers and thus becoming the nourishment for the faithful?”

This explains why Christians, as soon as they emerged from persecution in the early centuries, built churches.  The Middle Ages produced the great cathedrals of Italy, France and England and Ireland. Of special interest to us are the Cathedral on the Rock of Cashel and the Cathedral at Pisa on which this Cathedral is partially modelled.  Cormac’s chapel, on the Rock, was also influential.  Both Pisa and Cormac’s chapel are Romanesque at a time when Gothic was the fashion.  The Cathedral in Pisa has three parts at a distance from one another, the baptistery, the main building and the bell-tower.  The bell-tower is none other than the Leaning Tower.  Dr. Leahy gathered them into a unified whole but he positioned the tower firmly between the body of the Cathedral and Ursuline Convent, just in case! The Christian churches were intended to be worthy of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Real Presence.  The altar and tabernacle were to be the two main foci of attention.  This is very clearly the intention of the architect of this Cathedral. The chancel is almost half as long as the nave.

In the centuries between St. Patrick and the Norse invasions the monasteries opened their churches to the local people.  The Mass was celebrated according to the Celtic rite. The Stowe Missal was the one widely used then. This was actually produced in the monastery of Ruadán Lorra, Co. Tipperary according to the best authorities.  We can imagine the monks and the faithful singing the oldest Eucharistic hymn, “Sancti Venite”, “Come Holy People”, which was composed in Ireland in the sixth century.  It was the first Eucharistic hymn in Western Europe and it was the only one until the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

The Book of Kells, and others like it, if not equal to it, would have been used for the readings, reflecting the respect in which the Word of God was held.  The Derrynaflan Chalice would have been used in this region, while the Ardagh Chalice was used in others, showing that nothing was too precious to contain the blood of Christ in the Mass.  The two aspects of the Eucharist – the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice were both central to the people’s faith from the earliest times.

The Norse invasions disrupted everything for a century or more but the coming of the religious orders from England and the Continent, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians and the Carmelites began a revival during the years before the Reformation.  These religious, who preached and said Mass in their friaries and in the parish churches, did a methodical catechesis of the people.  The Franciscans, in particular, who were undergoing their own renewal, were true to their founder in fostering a warm love of the Eucharist.

Then came the Reformation with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. The Book of Common Prayer was to replace the Mass.  Public celebration of Mass was banned.  The Mass Rock and Mass in private houses became the practice.  Priests celebrated at peril of their lives and the faithful risked the loss of their property and even their lives when they attended Mass or hid priests in their homes.  Fr. John Kearney and Fr. William Tirry, in this area, died martyrs’ deaths after being found in Mass vestments.  Dermot O’Hurley, Archbishop of Cashel and Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishop of Emly, were also martyred.  Let me say in fairness, that Catholic governments in other parts of Europe, at the same time, dealt similarly with Protestants, many of whom also chose to die rather than abandon their faith.  Religious intolerance was rife in a number of countries throughout Europe after the Reformation.

But, during the Penal days, the Mass was all important to the people throughout a century and a half of religious persecution.  This recalls what the victims of persecution in the early Church in Rome reported, “only for the Sunday we would have been lost”.  When the Penal Laws were relaxed, the faithful immediately set about building more worthy churches except in very poor areas or in places where the landlord refused them a site. This was to repeat again what happened when the Christians in Rome emerged from persecution. Thus, the second half of the nineteenth century saw an extraordinary growth in church building.  The priests and people wanted to have churches worthy of the Lord’s presence.

This cathedral came comparatively late in the day because the existing church, the Big Chapel, on this site, was a very worthy building for a provincial town at the time.  Archbishop Patrick Leahy did not think it was worthy of “the Metropolitan status of the Diocese” and in 1865 he announced the building of a cathedral.  He had to overcome considerable opposition from some of the priests, who felt that the existing church was quite adequate, and besides, the times were bad.  Fr. James O’Carroll, who kept a diary, not for publication, described the project as “Utopian – the Archbishop’s attempt to super-immortalise his memory”.  It was unnecessary; it would cost £30,000, where would the money come from?  “He will not live to see his hopes realised”, he concluded.  It reminds me of the controversy about a National Sports Stadium a few years ago!

But Dr. Leahy was not only a man of vision, he was also a man of courage and he proceeded to go around the churches collecting. In his own words, “the people, gentle and simple, contributed cheerfully as an act of religion”.  His critics said that this was not exactly true since he had the names and the contributions called out in public.

The good people of Cashel & Emly of this generation have been most generous in their turn.  The people of Thurles contributed willingly to the Cathedral collection.  The people of the parishes joined the Cathedral Draw which allowed them to keep half of what they collected for their parish, the other half going towards the Cathedral.  So how does this compare with Dr. Leahy’s people, “who contributed cheerfully as an act of religion”?  I would say it was 33⅓% religion, 33⅓% parish loyalty and 33⅓% the gambling instinct!  I should like to thank the individuals, the groups and organisations, the people of Thurles and all those who organised the Draw and those who undertook various other initiatives and, in a word, all who contributed in any way to the renovation of the Cathedral.  The Planning Committee deserve very special praise.

As a boy in secondary school, the priest who taught us history told us that the craftmen who built the great cathedrals in Europe in the Middle Ages were as careful and scrupulous about the parts which would not be seen as about those which would be visible.  God would see what was hidden as well as what was in view.  This impressed me.

I had intended to give you an account of the works carried out here since November 2002 but then I remembered a story.  It was about a country parish priest who was doing renovations on his church.  Every Sunday he went into the local town to bring his friend, the Canon, up to date on the progress.  The Canon and his two curates would be finishing their lunch when he arrived; the curates would excuse themselves at the first mention of dry rot or wet rot, leaving the Canon with no escape for two hours! It was a severe test of the better side of his nature!  One Sunday as they saw the parish priest coming up the avenue, his two hands in his overcoat pockets, his honest red face, anxious to give the next update, the Canon exclaimed, “Oh no, not again, here comes drains, gutters and downpipes!”

Let me say that the drains, gutters and downpipes are essential to the maintenance of this beautiful building or any building for that matter.  The problem which bewildered us and delayed us here for many years was rising damp. We believe we have found a solution – French drains.  I will say no more!  I congratulate our architect and engineers and other experts who solved our basic problem.

On one occasion the Temple in Jerusalem fell into a sad state of disrepair through the neglect of the priests.  The second Book of Kings relates how the money being collected for the maintenance was being kept by the priests for the own benefit. King Johoash took personal charge of the finances and the repairs.  He placed a large chest with a hole in the lid, inside the main entrance, to collect offerings from the people.  The King’s personal secretary took out the money regularly and weighed it (as some banks do today) and recorded it.  Now the interesting thing is what follows – everything except the price of the timber and cut-stone went to the workers who included carpenters, builders, masons, stone-cutters. No accounts were kept of the workmen’s pay since, the writer says, “they were honest in their work.”  I should like to pay tribute to all who worked on their renovation.  Without exception, they could not have been more honest, courteous and respectful.  I could not help noticing when I visited the site (and in the first months it was a sight!) that the workers were conscious of the sacred nature of the building.  They worked quietly and although I was living next door I scarcely knew they were there.

The faithful of Thurles missed the Cathedral when it was closed for most of a year.  They returned a few weeks ago to find the building transformed.  They were delighted that it was so bright and warm again.  Our people here have been faithful down the generations to the Sunday Mass and, for a not insignificant number, the daily Mass.  It has always been thus here and throughout Ireland since the coming of Christianity.  The Irish have regarded the Eucharist as the source and summit of the whole Christian life as the Vatican Council II was later to describe it.

As the cathedrals, churches, parish and religious were built, Mass attendance grew steadily.  In fact, the high level of attendance at Mass became a source of wonder to visitors from other countries.  Augustine Birrell, Secretary to Ireland and a devout Anglican, remarked in the early part of the twentieth century, “It is the Mass that matters; it is the Mass which makes the difference: so hard to define, so subtle is it, yet so perceptible, between a Catholic country and a Protestant one, between Dublin and Edinburgh, between Haver and Cromer”.

Whatever about the peoples’ motivation, and their motives were frequently questioned, Mass attendance here from the late nineteenth century up to the nineteen seventies,  was probably never equalled anywhere since the Church was founded! A painting by J.H. Craig, “Walking to Mass”, shows young and old, on foot, between stone fences with thatched cottages in the fields in the background. This familiar scene was described by Pope John Paul II in his homily in the Phoenix Park:

“On Sunday mornings in Ireland, no one seeing the great crowds making their way to and from Mass could have any doubt about Ireland’s devotion to the Mass.  For them, a whole Catholic people are seen to be faithful to the Lord’s command: ‘Do this in memory of me.’  May the Irish Sunday continue to be the day when the whole people of God – the ‘pobal Dé’ – makes its way to the house of God, which the Irish people call the house of the people – ‘Teach an Phobail’.

The road to Mass is, “the road less travelled” now.  The weekly attendance figure has declined gradually from a high of 91% in 1974 to 63% in 2002.  The reasons for this are many and complex.  There is the secularisation of the Sunday. From a day of religious observance and relaxation it has become just another working and shopping day scarcely different from any other day of the week.  The abuse scandals have been a factor in the decline but not as large as some claim. People now have a large variety of leisure activities.  Sports organisations run games at Mass times on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings.  Priests frequently complain about this.  Perhaps, agreements could be made at local level to prevent such clashes so as not to face young people with a very difficult choice.   I should like to thank the Tipperary G.A.A. County Board for postponing their County Final today to facilitate this ceremony.

In modern Ireland, where both married partners frequently work outside the home and many have to work on Sundays, there is a great pressure of time.  Everybody is very busy.  In my young days people under pressure of work would exclaim, “I haven’t time to bless myself”.  Today, a growing number of people haven’t time to go to church.  Some young people are anxious to be free of parental pressure, and do not react kindly to the notion of obligation, which by the way, is still there in black and white in the Code of Canon Law.

When one thinks of the generations which went before us, of the heroic sacrifices they made in Penal times and the huge efforts they made to erect worthy buildings for worship, isn’t it sad that a growing number of this generation can drift away from the Sunday Mass? They would do well to remember an ancient Irish caution: “An t-Aifreann ná tugaigí aon phioc, níl ar bith sa saol níos fearr”.  “Abandon not the Mass for anything; nothing in the world surpasses it”.

It is noteworthy that, despite the decline in attendance, a very recent survey reported that 90% of Catholics over 18 believe that Jesus is the son of God and that 75% believe that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the consecration.  This shows that faith in the Real Presence is still embedded in the psyche of our people even among those who no longer come to Mass.  This and other findings in that survey give ground for hope.

Archbishop Leahy awaits the Resurrection between the tabernacle of Giacomo Della Porta, a pupil of Michelangelo, of which he was so proud, and the altar which he described as, “without exaggeration the finest from this to Rome”. He collected the marble from various parts of Europe and Pope Pius IX gave him some of it as a gift.  While it is certainly our duty to conserve our heritage, the work of restoration completed so beautifully on this Cathedral has been truly a labour of love.  To pay our respects to Dr. Leahy and to this most worthy memorial we may adapt an ancient Irish prayer said when entering a church;

Umhláim duitse, a Íosa Críost;

Umhláim duitse, a Mhaighdean ghlórmhar;

Umhláim duitse, a eaglais Dé;

Umhláim duitse, a Árdeaglais na Deastógála.

My respects to you, Jesus Christ;

My respects to you, glorious Virgin;

My respects to you, church of God;

My respects to you, Cathedral of the Assumption.

“Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house…”