THE Irish Defence Forces has brought me to some of the most unusual and sometimes ‘not so safe’ places in the world.
Being a military chaplain has landed me in some unusual experiences, in which I have often said to myself, ‘You’re a long ways from Croagh now!’ Like our experience of this Covid-19 pandemic, military chaplaincy presents me with the unexpected, the unusual and the unknown.
A conversation around my barracks (McKee Barracks near the Phoenix Park) usually goes: ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Fine Father, and how are you?’ ‘Ah sure, I’m fine…’ ‘Strange times!’ ‘Are ye busy?’ ‘Flat out Padre!’ and so-on. The weather has been great and it’s wonderful to just have the time to be visible in ministry as a priest and available to listen to stories and concerns of those we serve.
I was appointed to the role of Head Chaplain to the Irish Defence Forces in 2015. This followed nine years as a military Chaplain at Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick and three peacekeeping tours of duty, to Kosovo, Chad and Lebanon. As Head Chaplain I am privileged to lead a team of 15 clergy chaplains based in Ireland, Syria and Lebanon. My experience with the Defence Forces has offered me an enormous appreciation of the sacrifices made by the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann, especially during these challenging times.
As a military chaplain, you get to meet some extraordinary people. This time of pandemic is no exception. Members of the Defence Forces are involved in all sorts of responses to this current situation; contact tracing, transporting PPE, running test centres, establishing step down medical facilities, testing in nursing homes.
The challenges with serving overseas on peacekeeping missions are now even greater, with no returning home for a period of ‘leave’ during a six month deployment. Military families are the backbone of the Defence Forces and their support and understanding makes so much possible in this ‘life less ordinary’.
Military life involves ceremonial duty too!
Following the Easter Sunday Commemoration at the GPO Dublin, in memory of those who died in the 1916 Rising, a picture of myself in uniform appeared on some social media platform with a comment which read: “Ireland has unleashed its strongest form of defence in the coronavirus pandemic. The battle priest.” Oh, you have to have a sense of humour at times!
On a more serious note, Easter Sunday 2020 was most unusual. From a deserted O’Connell Street, I was positioned in the inner courtyard of the GPO, where we commemorated the sacrifice of all who died during the 1916 Rising and prayed for our country and our people during these challenging times.
I prayed; “Loving God, we know you did not cause this suffering and that You are with us in it and through it. Help us to recognize Your presence in the many acts of kindness, in the moments of silence, in the shared time with loved ones and in the beauty of the created world. Grant peace and protection to all. Help us to be brave in our beginnings, to listen to the wisdom of those who struggle, and in the end to trust that ‘all will be well’. While this has been a strange time, it has also been a special and sacred time. We continue to trust that ‘all will be well’.
Along with the ceremonies at the GPO, within a few weeks, we also gathered for official commemorations at Arbour Hill and at the Delaney Famine Memorial in Stephen’s Green. I was privileged to be invited to offer prayers at these events and I was very conscious of those not allowed to attend due to social distancing and the limited numbers of people allowed at gatherings.
These have been strange times indeed, but they have also offered us many intimate moments of real and deep encounter, made possible and conveyed though various media platforms. Compassion and extraordinary generosity has been the light in this pandemic darkness! Although apart, we have been aware of our connectedness and interdependence.
The past few months has offered us an opportunity as a nation, to reflect on what is important: family, health, our emotional and mental well-being, security, education, housing, our inner life and our hair! We have gained a greater appreciation of who the real key workers are in our country - health care workers, including catering and cleaning staff, shop workers, truck and bus drivers, farmers, postal workers, priests, guards, those working in our emergency services, and so many other usually ‘unsung heroes’.
At the start of this pandemic I came across a saying which has stayed with me; “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”. I generally lead a busy enough life and over the past three months, many national and international events in my calendar have been cancelled.
Do I miss the cancellations? Some of them yes, but to be honest, not really! I appreciate that I have a little more time to read and some precious unexpected time to connect with those I love. In a sense, this for me has been a time of ‘repair’.
Preparations are now being made for a return to the public celebration of Mass and the Sacrament. Spirits are beginning to lift as we return to a ‘new normal’. From Arbour Hill Church I have tried to keep connected to our faith community with Sunday Masses relayed through ‘Facebook Live’. I have also wrapped some ‘yellow ribbon’ around the trees in the grounds of the Church, as a reference to the 1970s hit song. I do miss the physical interaction with our faith community and the ribbons serve to remind us that we look forward to meeting up again real soon. We helped the vulnerable by staying at home! We saved lives by living less busy lives! We have all been in this together.
Ní neart go cur le chéile.