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Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory

Bishop’s December Letter




Dear Friends,

As I write in what is still early November, I of course have no idea yet of what church worship may look like (or not look like) at Christmas. When what is permissible becomes clearer we certainly will have very little time to plan. It is a tedious truism to say at this stage that it will not be like any other Christmas we have known…no packed carol services, no thronging of midnight liturgies, no enthusiastic singing of familiar melodies, many loved ones probably sadly far away. The idea that the coming of a vaccine is not so distant and that this Christmas will therefore be unique somehow sustains us to make the best of it. We can but hope that this assumption proves correct.

It strikes me that in two ways our experience this year will have the capacity to make Christmas just a little more authentic for us. Year by year, in the midst of our partying, revelling and carolling we have heard sermons and reflections about how in contrast to ourselves the Holy Family were shut out of the warmth and the conviviality of the place of hospitality. The door of the inn was firmly closed to them.
This year we will find ourselves somehow shut out by circumstances from many of those places which in our minds symbolise the warmth and cheer of the season. We are shut out of the possibility of traditional partying, we are shut out of the places where seasonal works such as Messiah might have been performed, we are shut out of cosy settings where old friends might have hugged and the more romantic might even have kissed beneath the mistletoe. everywhere we look the traditional and familiar doorways of cheerfulness and jollity seem closed in our faces. We seem to have to make our way in spirit to the lonely shed at the back, where there is no sign of party goers or revellers…and there we find the Holy Family strangely ahead of us.
And so, in that imaginary shed at the back we contemplate the crib. Last year when contemplating the crib in these pages and elsewhere I got into a measure of a public spat over my contention that the crib figures should arrive gradually as the narrative of Christmas unfolds, and that the wise men in particular should not turn up before Epiphany is reached! Be that as it may, and however we assemble our cribs, at some stage we will want to contemplate the beauty of the finished tableau. It never hit me before that the manner in which we traditionally arrange the crib figures involves what we have come to call social distancing … a term that was really unknown as recently as last December. Joseph and Mary never seem to sit embracing…they are often placed overlooking the manger from opposite corners. The shepherds are carefully and individually placed where each can get a good view of the baby. The wise men approach, often on bended knee, but certainly never on top of each other. The manner of the traditional careful placing of the individual crib figures is a model of social distancing. One might almost think Covid infection threatened the stable…
And in this strangely prophetic placing of the figures lies also a truth. The first witnesses of the Incarnation come in groups, but they also come as individuals. They must work out what this scene means for them… They cannot lean on someone else’s shoulder and expect him or her to do it for them. The Incarnation demands an individual response, and in a curious way this particular socially distanced Christmas emphasises that such remains the case in our time. We cannot passively allow the choir to do the singing for us – we have to hum our own melodies as best we can and particularly, we have to do our own thinking. It may be a bit painful, but perhaps it is no harm to have a year when we cannot defend ourselves from the real challenge of Christmas by resorting to camaraderie, a year when we really have to ask ourselves why this ancient story retains the capacity to make ME view the world in a transformed way and offers ME a mid-winter gleam of glory that is authentically divine. And in many ways each of us can only do that for ourselves. I (like you) can walk alone along the frosty road singing however indifferently to myself the words of part of hymn 150 which are a modern testimony to the triumph of the light –

Clear shining light,
Mary’s child,
Your face lights up our way;
Light of the world,
Mary’s child,
Dawn on our darkened day.

May you all in your own individual ways be enabled thus to sing this year and, even when we feel shut out from what is familiar, may we find blessedness and peace especially in the company of at least some of those whom we love the most.

Before I conclude, I want to wish Dean Tom Gordon well in what is something of a new chapter of ministry. He is moving from full time to part time stipendiary ministry while remaining dean of Leighlin and priest-in-charge of Leighlin Union. However, he has decided to step down from that considerable section of his work which for many years has involved adult education and continuing learning in the diocese, not least for the clergy themselves. To this role he has brought unique skill, enthusiasm and a great capacity to communicate the deepest of ideas and truths. Very many have been enriched in faith and insight by all that he has conveyed. Fortunately, he remains in our midst in the cathedral and parochial contexts, and he has kindly agreed to keep a watching brief for our academic relationship with Maynooth College, which provides accreditation not least for our Reader training and where Tom is highly regarded within the academic community. We wish him every blessing in this new chapter.
FINALLY, there has already been considerable and deserved coverage in these pages concerning the retirement of Denise Hughes as Diocesan Secretary in December. I find it hard to find any adequate words to sum up all that we owe to Denise, with whom of course I myself have worked so constantly and happily for nearly fifteen years now. By the time these words appear in print due tribute will have been paid to her at the online meeting of the diocesan synod, and perhaps the most appropriate thing I can do is to share with the wider diocese the words I used at the synod in an attempt to sum up all that Denise means to us and to wish her well

“It would be simply impossible in a few words to express all that the Council, six successive bishops, and the wider diocese have owed to Denise Hughes as her retirement approaches. Her knowledge of the dioceses has become encyclopaedic, her loyalty and discretion are legendary, her readiness to go the extra mile is renowned. For decades in Kilkenny, ‘Denise’ and ‘The Office’ have been synonymous. She has cheerfully adapted to expanding new demands, new methods of working, new personalities coming and going. Bishop after bishop have been largely trained in by her for the many issues and situations they will face. Behind all this has been a sustained and deep commitment to Christian discipleship in the context of the Church of Ireland. Like any good diocesan secretary, she has displayed firmness at times and even appeared exacting, but underneath it all lie die deep humanity and empathy. No matter what problems or frustrations were being faced, conversation over her excellent coffee in the office has always been a tonic, and the office itself – especially since its move to the palace coach house – has been a place of hospitality and warmth. We salute Denise, congratulate her on length and depth of service that will probably never be surpassed, and wish her and Ivan many years to enjoy with their wider family and also (hopefully) on their travels.  It is excellent that Denise will in the coming months help to train in her successor, and that she will continue for some time yet to see to the welfare of the bishop and his family through service on the See House committee.”

As we say a (partial!) farewell to Denise we also greet Elizabeth Keyes who takes over her role and who will be based in the office alongside Rita Cammaer, who continues to look after many financial aspects of the work there. Elizabeth is well versed in the affairs and personalities of the diocese, particularly through her service as Administrator in St Canice’s Cathedral, and she will bring enthusiasm, ideas and personal warmth to her new position – which is so much about dealing with people as well as seeing to the good governance of the diocese. We wish her very many happy years in our midst.

Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory