July 2018

Dear Friends,

At the June Deanery Synod meeting it was a pleasure to meet Ross, chaplain at St Francis Xavier High School. She had just returned from a bi-annual trip to Lourdes with thirty year 9 and 10 pupils (13-15 year olds). Although, she confessed, visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes took her out of her comfort zone, it had been an amazing week where there had been some real God moments for the young people. Alongside the spiritual experiences opened up by the place itself, it had also been moving to see the boys and girls cheerfully assisting the Supported Pilgrims, helping them to enjoy the services, processions and atmosphere of this special pilgrimage site. She saw the deep care for others within the hearts of these young people.

Over the last months I know that some of you have been on your own holidays / pilgrimages to special holy places including, I’m very envious, Santiago de Compostela.

Visits to such holy places with beautiful statues, miraculous healing water and relics to venerate, raise all sorts of interesting questions about spirituality and how God acts in our world and the subjectivity / objectivity of religious experience and whether that, in fact, objectivity matters to the truth and authenticity of the experience. I was asked jokingly by one of our pilgrims recently what I’d think to having some relics in our church. Well, I think I should be delighted if, for example, it should be discovered that under the floor of St Cuthbert’s church is buried a relic of St Cuthbert’s toenail or tooth! I think I would feel even more drawn to spend time praying there and would be excited by the opportunity to welcome pilgrims.

As we look back at our lives there may well be holidays, journeys and adventures which stand out as being times when we really grew spiritually. For me I look back to year I spent living in Dublin as being transformative. Somewhat frustrated by the length of time it was taking to get as far as a selection conference for the ministry, I decided to audition for a choral scholarship at Christ Church Cathedral and work out the rest from there. The rest did work out rather well and I was given accommodation by a Roman Catholic organisation working with ex-offenders, many of whom were also drug addicts, in return for doing voluntary work. The community worked tirelessly with the young men and their families, supporting and educating and giving new opportunities and skills, and then visiting them in prison when they lapsed back into what for many was a cycle of drugs/alcohol and crime. I learnt so much about people and human frailty and forgiveness and the way one person can bless another.  

There was one frightening night when one of the men we were helping tried to break into the accommodation I was staying in, and there were other challenges and difficult behaviours to handle. The Wicklow Hills and Dublin’s Phoenix park were both wonderful retreats to get away for an hour or two, but I also had a very special place to pray: the Chapel of St Laurence O’Toole in the South Transept of the Cathedral. Here hung a famous relic – the heart of Dublin’s patron saint.

Laurence O’Toole had been an abbot of the beautiful Glendalough (another special holy place to visit) before becoming Archbishop of Dublin at the age of 32. The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, led by Strongbow, in 1169 resulted in two sieges and a famine in Dublin. Laurence played an important part in defending the city, encouraging his congregation to resist the enemy and helping the wounded. In 1180, Laurence left Ireland to travel to Normandy after Henry II, for whom he was a trusted mediator. However, he became ill on arrival and died at the Abbey of St Victor at Eu.

Laurence O’Toole’s heart was returned to Christ Church Cathedral where it has remained in a wooden heart-shaped container ever since, that is, until it was stolen back in 2012. Earlier this spring there was much jubilation when the stolen heart was recovered by gardaí in the Phoenix Park. Upon receiving the heart the Cathedral’s Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, said: “It gives joy to my heart that the heart has been returned to the city.”

Christ Church Cathedral was once a major pilgrimage site, and besides the heart of St Laurence O’Toole, would have housed an important collection of relics ranging from a miraculous speaking cross to a piece from the crib of Jesus. In medieval times the western world was full of relics from the bones, skin, and fingernails through to the heads of saints. Down the years many of these relics have been discredited, but some, like the heart of St Laurence O’Toole are still cherished and revered as holy objects of awe.

As many of you enjoy holidays, day trips, pilgrimages and adventures of your own over these summer months I’d love to hear of your discoveries and special places and how they have challenged or changed you. I’d also be interested to hear what you think and feel about the whole realm of human spiritual experience connected to relics and holy sites.

God bless you in this holiday season,


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