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Forefathers who built our parishes gave true sacrifice and service: we should remember them

We can learn much from those who have gone before us, while looking forward to a flourishing future, says Fr Jamie McMorrin

Back in June, as the long, sunny days of summer stretched out before us, the priests of my diocese gathered with our archbishop for two ordinations, to celebrate with two men setting out on the great adventure of the priesthood.

Earlier this week, as the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to fall from the trees, we gathered once more, this time to celebrate the funeral of one of our number.

At his death, Canon Stephen Judge (pictured above) had been a priest for 61 years. One of the parishes he served happens to be the one in which I now say Mass almost every Sunday.

Every time I approach the altar to celebrate the Eucharist, I’m following in his footsteps; the pulpit from which I preach was once his; the families who now attend Mass in what I (wrongly) think of as ‘my church’ were Baptised, instructed, married, Confirmed and formed by his labours. He, and others like him, sowed the seeds of ‘my’ harvest.

Church’s pilgrimage

Canon Judge was trained in a different age, formed in a different approach to pastoral ministry: like all of us, he had to adapt to changing times.

To wish to go back to a supposed ‘golden age’ is as impossible as it is undesirable. Today, with all its challenges and opportunities, is the ‘favourable time’ given to us by the Lord.

The Church is always on pilgrimage through history, faithful to her inheritance, but looking forward—not backwards—toward Him, and His coming Kingdom.

But we can learn a great deal from those who have gone before us. We can learn from their hard-work, their sense of duty, and their zeal for the Lord’s service.

Unknown names

As a seminarian, I was once looking around a church in which I was on placement and noticed a plaque on the wall which gave the name of the priest who had built the church, house and school, more than a century before. He had been 27 at the time. What vision he must have had! What hope for the future!

Of course, he didn’t do it alone. The church in our country was built with the prayers, the money and the hard work of many others who don’t get plaques on the walls or chapters in the history books. Only God knows their names.

My grandparents are among their number. I remember my grandmother—now also gone to her reward—telling us about going around the neighbourhood collecting money and jewellery to purchase a new chalice for the church.

Many of those who made contributions—my grandparents included—gave generously, not from an affluent abundance, but at great, personal sacrifice.

Archbishop’s crypt

It’s a good examination of conscience to ask myself what they—Canon Judge, my grandparents, the priests and people who together built the Church in Scotland—would make of my generation and me.

Would they be proud of us? Would they think us ungrateful? Would they reproach me for my own relative lack of zeal, lack of generosity, lack of courage?

There’s another plaque, this time in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, which bears the names of the archbishops buried in the crypt and the verse: “Remember your leaders who preached the word of God to you,” (Hebrews 13: 7). The plaque ends there, but the verse continues: “Consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their Faith.”

It’s good to remember and imitate what is best in those who went before us: to remember the priests who Baptised us, heard our Confessions, gave us the holy Eucharist; the priests who encouraged us in our vocation and in our relationship with the Lord.

Centenary prayer

But not only them. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents who brought us to Mass, taught us to pray and led us by their example; our teachers and youth leaders who patiently explained to us the mysteries of the Faith; the ‘pillars of the parish’ who visited the sick, welcomed the stranger and fed the hungry and thirsty with tea and biscuits after Mass.

Those who cleaned the church, ironed the linens, weeded the garden, washed the dishes, repaired the kneelers, repainted the signs—all for God’s glory. As we say in the funeral liturgy, ‘let them now rest from their labours, for their good deeds go with them.’

Canon Judge was parish priest at the time our church celebrated its centenary. In the foreword to the parish history he wrote: “On the whole, I think our forefathers would be pleased with us. We are still here. We are still a community. We still come to worship. God is important.
“To the older parishioner who said, ‘we had the best of it,’ although I’m happy for him, I’d like to think he was wrong. It was good. It was very good. But I hope and pray that there are even greater things in the future for our parish. Vivat! Floreat! Let it live! Let it flourish!”

As we pray for the happy repose of his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, may their prayers for us bring that wish to fulfilment.

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