FROM West Africa to West Limerick is a long journey in terms of miles. But for Holy Ghost priest, Fr Michael Gomez, it is simply another stage on his journey of faith.
Fr Gomez arrived to serve as curate in Askeaton at the start of this month and will remain until the end of August.
And so far, he finds himself settling in well. “People are very welcoming, very generous and very friendly,” he told the Limerick Leader this week.
There has been no negative reaction to him, although he chuckles when he recalls that he was offered a shop-job by some man while on a visit to the local swimming pool and leisure centre.
But he accepts that his arrival as curate could be seen by many as a reversal of the trend which saw Irish missionaries spread throughout the African continent.
However, he says, he is not alone and that there are many African missionaries in Ireland. “It is inevitable that some day there will be exchanges,” he says, pointing out that the essence of the church is to be a missionary one.
The Catholic church in Africa is very much part of society, Fr Gomez continues and people feel called to the religious life. But he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that, due to the fall in religious vocations in Ireland, the future will mean a lot of parishes here will have African or South American priests.
Last week, at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Rev Dr Eugene Duffy told pilgrims 50% of Irish Catholic priests were now aged over 65 and soon, “many existing local church communities will not have access to the Eucharist on a weekly basis.” This would pose challenges, he argued.
Fr Gomez, who grew up in Gambia and was educated by Holy Ghost missionaries there, worked as a priest in Kenya and Ghana before arriving in Ireland last October to study in Dublin. His order was approached for help in Askeaton arising from the death, earlier this year, of Fr Synan Murray and it is understood he is here under the summer supply scheme. But nobody was available from the diocesan office to comment.
“I am not replacing anybody. I am here to help,” Fr Gomez says simply.
He acknowledges however that there are some differences between his native Gambia and Ireland. “In Africa, we celebrate with our whole being,” he says.”If we go to church, we sing, we dance, we are happy. That is how we celebrate.”
But the culture and context are different in Ireland, he explains and it is not for him to foist his culture on people here, he explains. But he very much wants people to participate.