Though I did not always see it, and I certainly was not always thankful for it, I have realised with the passing years that I was blessed in my parents, and indeed in their parents, my grandparents. Yes in all six of these special people I have much to be thankful for. With the exception of Frank McDonald, my Dad’s father, I had all of them long enough, to various degrees, to make a difference to my life. Frank McDonald died seven weeks before I was born. However his influence on me is more than residual, funneled into my young life through his wife, my granny, and his children, especially my Dad, his youngest child, Joe. Though not without their flaws and certainly their idiosyncrasies they taught me a lot of goodness and they certainly shaped my sense of family and fun, and though they would have varying degrees of discomfort with my saying so, they also influenced my faith.
That I am writing this, the last of my ‘rumblings from the bunker,’ from Lourdes, after a very rewarding pilgrimage, is no accident. I have managed to step into the footsteps of Bernadette Soubirous this week and not for the first time marveled at how under appreciated she is, and in turn how substantial a signpost she is, on the pathway to holiness, to which we are all called. Underneath all the devotions and duties, the Holy Spirit outdone herself, as always, in the sacred dance she swirled in the depths of my soul and no doubt that of others. This in turn led me to reflect on the whispering, or the nudging of the Holy Spirit, which has been in my life as long as I can remember. These movements of the Spirit have led me to places and people and indeed events that have fundamentally shaped me and how I am in the world.
In the tiny scullery in our house on the Falls Road, the two ornamental plates on the wall, presented John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie and over a little on the same wall, Pope John XXIII. I was born on September 1st, (is that today, pray for me, my first day in my new parish), 1961, therefore I got to look at them for two years as a toddler before I started to hear, more likely overhear, that they were both dead. Who knows what precisely I managed to take in over those first three or four years. What I remember is more of the broad strokes of life back then. At some point I became aware of danger, of threat, of trouble in the streets. Somewhere it began to dawn on me there was an ‘us and them’. Even though my parents did not feed it, sectarianism and division were gradually boiling over into what was to become a long bloody conflict which would be known as ‘The Troubles’. The seeds of this were in persistent and gross injustice. At some point I soaked in my young parents’ sadness at the cruel assassination of the bright Irish Catholic President Kennedy.
The man on the other ornamental plate had no tie, no wife – actually looked a bit strange. He wore unusual clothes, he was big, his ears looked big to me…but he was smiling. When he was spoken of, whilst I knew his death was not a tragedy in the way the President’s was, I knew people were sad. They called him the ‘Good Pope’ and ‘Good Pope John.’ Strange as it may seem it feels like he has always been on the edge of my life. Always a benign presence it is as it were that he is always there. Peeping in on me. Smiling. It seems now that I begin the next chapter of my life that he seems exercised to shuffle in a bit closer. I’ll keep you posted.