THE WORD solemn is gone – and so are the old connotations of the annual novena in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
It is not, and should not be seen, said the Redemptorists’ rector Fr Seamus Enright, as ‘boring’, ‘serious’ or ‘dead’, because he feels it is anything but. “In fact, it’s very lively,” said the newly appointed rector, who is from Limerick and has had a long association with the church.
Like others before him, such as his predecessor Fr Adrian Egan, Fr Enright wants to reinvigorate the church, reach new audiences and crucially attract the younger generation to ensure the future survival of the church.
Speaking on the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk, Fr Enright spoke of how they are using social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as advertising on Google to promote the novena, which has been running in Limerick since the early 1970s.
Working with the local advertising and marketing company Southern, they have begun phasing out the word solemn, which he said “is not a word that engages young people.” However, he said: “We will certainly keep the word novena because it is so significant to so many generations of Limerick people,” he explained.
And while thousands across the world view the proceedings over the nine days online at novena.ie. Fr Enright said it is always hard to beat the real thing.
“People like a live event, I don’t think anything replaces that. But it allows people who aren’t living in Limerick or are in nursing homes to join in.”
Fr Enright admitted that he is not too well versed in language such as online traffic and streaming, but he’s aware that the church’s online community has grown again this year, by as much as 64% in recent days. On Facebook, a video of their novena shop which operates during this once-a-year celebration has had nearly 2,000 views, while a video of the a blessing of babies and children has had over 8,700 views. On that day it was estimated that their numbers peaked at 13,000.
For some – as residents on O’Connell Avenue and the South Circular Road will testify – the novena is about nine days of unrelenting devotion. Attracting up to 100,000 over nine days, the men, women and children of all nationalities and backgrounds who gather on the pews could fill Thomond Park four times over.
For others it’s a place of peace and tranquillity, and the chance to dip their toes – and their faith – back into a holy well.
“When my mother was alive she always asked me to go to the novena. Now that she’s passed away here I am. I guess I am partly here for her. It helps me feel a bit closer to her, as the novena was something she loved. I don’t go to mass every week of year, but the novena is special, there is something so peaceful about it,” one woman, who would prefer not to be named, told the Limerick Leader.
Those who fall into the former category of offering up unwavering devotion year after year include Joe Collopy, a father of two from Dooradoyle, and a volunteer of 40 years’ service at the Redemptorists at Mount St Alphonsus. He’s up at 4.45am each day, is at the church by 6am and finishes at 11.30 each night over the course of the nine days.
“There’s something special about this church in Limerick, people have an affinity to this church at least once a year. We see people who mightn’t go to mass for 12 months but they come here to the novena. I think they feel the novena is like a petrol station – it fills them up for the year,” he said. On the first day of the novena, the crowds returned in force, and in even greater numbers than previous years. For the 7am mass – the first held each day – the car park and the overflow car park were nearly full, some 350 spaces.
“It’s about trying to get the people in their 20s to 40s, who have gone through the harsh times, with the recession, back to the church. They were crying out for help.
“I think we lost these people and lost a great opportunity. The only time we see them now is at Communions, Confirmations, or if they’re at a wedding. But we hope that the novena gives people the feeling that there’s something special here for them to come back to.”
Aside from the volunteers manning the front of the church and assisting with traffic management, a hoard of others are working quietly behind the scenes, among them a group in the novena gift shop, which opens once a year, in addition to their year-round shop.
It too opens at 7.30am and runs until 10.30pm, and is a treasure trove of ecclesiastical gifts, ranging from Novena mass bouquets to My Little Book of Prayers books for children, baby gifts, fridge magnets and Christmas decorations.
Kevin Nolan, who runs the shop, said traditionally everyone had a religious artefact in their homes but now the items on display have been modernised for a younger generation, such as incorporating messages from the Corinthians into ‘Love’ and ‘Friendship’ themed photo frames.
The congregation come from far and wide, and so too do the preachers. Interspersed over the last few days will be four guest preachers Fr Tadhg Herbert, a native of Limerick now living in Brazil, Fr Tony Bidgood from Newfoundland, Fr Kieran Brady from London, and Fr Denis Luddy, whom it was joked it is from another “foreign mission – Cork”.
Fr Herbert, who hails from a famous Limerick hurling family, said he sees up to 15,000 people a day congregating for their novena in a parish in Teresina.
Brazil, his home for the past 24 years, is, he said a country of contrasts, with a very vibrant church, an emerging economy, huge pockets of poverty sitting side by side with widespread corruption, along with the dual passions of football and samba.
But he always thinks back to the novena in Limerick, and how it led it to this place, more than 7,000km from his native parish of Lisnagry.
“I grew up with the novena, being from Limerick. It was because of the novena that I decided to join the Redemptorists. I was always impressed as a young fella, coming here with my family, seeing the priests out around the yard and meeting the people. I was always struck by the hospitality aspect and the sense of welcome that’s here for welcome. The saying has always been ‘All are welcome - no matter who you are’, and that’s a lovely thing.”
n There are 10 sessions every day until this Saturday, June 20, at: 7am, 8am, 10am, 11.30am, 1.10pm, 4.30pm, 6pm, 7.30pm, 9pm and 10.30pm.