“To whom shall we go, you have the message of Eternal Life”.

Published on 21 Aug 2015
Corn in a field

When I was a child growing up in Ireland, we were the rich part of the family. We lived in the city, both my parents had paying jobs and we owned our own home. And every summer – in August - we went back to my mother’s real home, which was the hill country of Donegal to spend time with the cousins from the poor part of the family. And whenever we went back home, for weeks beforehand, my mother used to go to enormous efforts to go round all the shops and buy all the unusual foods that you could only get in the city and that you couldn’t get up-country in order that she could give them as gifts to the various relatives we were going to see. And I thought that was nice thing to do, but I always felt that my mother really overdid it, because every summer we would set off for Donegal with the car absolutely crammed – rammed full of all this food – from floor to ceiling - so full you could hardly see out of the windows. And I really didn’t see why all this was necessary. And I particularly didn’t see why it always had to be food – why it could never be clothes or jewellery or ornaments, or anything else that might be a bit easier to carry?

It was only many years later in adult life that I understood. And I realised that the reason my mother brought all this food was not just to give a few things that the cousins would find hard to get up country. It was because at that time of the year, in mid-summer just before the harvest, our cousins were at their poorest. That was when they had very little money and very little food and were waiting desperately on the harvest. But they were much too proud to beg. An old parish priest once told me – “Never insult the pride of the poor. Chances are it’s the only thing keeping them standing”. So they couldn’t possibly take money from us nor any kind of charity, but they would take a traveller’s gift. So, to save their feelings my mother always pretended that she was just bringing a few rarities from the city, when in reality she was saving them from real hunger.

Most of our relatives were what were called tenant farmers. Every year they would rent some land from one of the big foreign landowners. And if they worked very hard, and were fortunate with the rains and didn’t get any bad insect damage or crop diseases, they would be able to harvest enough to get money to get by for the year, rent some land for the next year, buy seed and maybe have just a little bit left over to save, quite literally for a ‘rainy day’. But of course, everyone knew it would take just one bad year to wipe out the savings of the whole family. So they lived always on the hope – and the fear - of the next harvest. It is the most precarious existence I have ever known.

And then, all of a sudden, one of our cousins, Donal, won the lottery: four hundred pounds. In that time, and in that place that was a lot of money – it was the equivalent of a year’s income; perhaps in this time and place, it would be like fifteen or twenty thousand pounds. It was the most money he had ever seen in one place. And everyone was delighted for him. He would then have been his early forties, a good man, a holy man and a kind man. Everyone agreed that it couldn’t happen to a better man. At last this was his chance. He would now be able to rent two fields. He would have to work twice as hard to till both fields, but if he had a couple of good years, then he would be able to begin really saving some money, buying some property. In time and with luck, he might even have enough to get married and to support a wife. It was his great chance of financial security for the rest of his life

So it came as a big shock when it became known that Donal had decided to spend the lot on a two week pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes in the south of France. It was obviously madness! He was throwing away his one chance to set himself up for life – for what? For a holiday – ok a pilgrimage, but surely this wasn’t the way to spend your big once-in-a-lifetime chance at being rich! Nobody could understand it. The family tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The parish priest tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. Finally my mother was called for. And she made a special trip all the way from Belfast to Donegal to settle this nonsense once and for all.

Now I have to tell you that in Ireland, it is the women who really run things. And my mother was the eldest woman in the family and she was also a school-teacher. So there was never any doubt in our family as to where the power lay. And so she went to ‘have a word’ with Donal. And, just to add a little extra ecclesiastical weight to her ‘word’, she took along the parish priest. And we all drove up the glen in our little car to Donal’s house.

I was terrified  – I had never seen my mother so angry. And when we arrived she really let him have it. In a voice that carried a good way up the glen she told him just what she thought of him - how irresponsible he was being; how he should think of his future; how he was squandering a precious gift from God; how he should be A-Shamed Of Him Self. And much more of the same. To be honest, I didn’t entirely catch it all because, by this time, both the dog and I were under the table hugging each other and cowering!

Donal listened very politely and heard her out. And then, when she was finished, he said this:

“Look, I have prayed a rosary every night since I was 12. And I have always hoped that one day I would get the chance to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This is my chance ...

And I’m Going.”

And so indeed he went.

About 15 years later Donal died very suddenly of a heart-attack. The family gathered for his funeral. And the same parish priest gave his homily. Now, I have to tell you that I’ve heard quite a few homilies in my time. But of all the homilies I have ever heard in my life, this is one of  maybe four that I remember. He said: “after his pilgrimage to Lourdes, I never once saw Donal sad.”

It is one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard said at a funeral.

So, in memory of Donal, let us pray: that when our chance comes in life, we may store up our treasure in heaven – and make ourselves rich in the things which – on our dying day – will really matter.

Let us pray that we also may find our chance at life and use it well.

Paul O'Reilly SJ