The Franciscans arrived in Athlone in 1235 and in Clonmel in 1269, but unhappily departed these two towns in January 2023. Aidan McGrath OFM, Minister Provincial, spoke of gratitude and hope at the packed Masses of Thanksgiving celebrated in both towns.
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on Him.’ The words spoken by the Father as Jesus emerged from baptism are also addressed to us. By means of our baptism, we have become united with Jesus, and we have become ‘the Beloved’ of the Father; we have become participants in the great mystery of the revelation of God and God’s kingdom in our world. And this means we are caught up in something we can never fully grasp or understand.
And part of that mystery is where we find ourselves today: for almost 800 years we Franciscans have been part of the life of this faith community in this town and beyond, remaining here through thick and thin.
It is a day of very mixed emotions: some have conveyed their deep sense of loss and their sadness; a few have let me know of their anger; but most have expressed their great affection for the friars down through the generations, mentioning some individuals in particular.
On our part, we Franciscans are here today with a mixture of sadness, regret and deep gratitude. Going on 800 years, the people of this town and its surrounding districts have been generous and kind and courteous to the Franciscans. For that reason, above all, we give thanks to God for you and for all you have helped us to do.
I have explained before that our motive in withdrawing has been the fact that vocations are very few while the friars are rapidly ageing: out of 76 in the Province today, 50 are over the age of 75 and many are in need of specialist care. This is something that I have struggled with and tried to understand. It is part of the greater mystery in which we are involved. Vocations come from God – we cannot manufacture them.
Older men who are unable to do what once they did cannot be expected to continue: they have the right to step back and live their final years without expectation or unnecessary stress. Pope Benedict XVI – may the Lord have mercy on him – gave us a good example of this almost 10 years ago when he stood aside from office.
Living with Hope
We are now being called to step forward in faith into the unknown. The closure of this community of Franciscan friars should not undermine the faith of believers. The Gospel is not about keeping buildings open or maintaining a certain schedule of services.
The Gospel is about hearing the voice of the Father, who has sent his Beloved Son to walk with us through life as a brother and companion on the road; it is about saying with Jesus to the Father, ‘not my will but your will be done’; it is about obeying the commandment that Jesus left us, ‘love one another as I have loved you’; it is about living with the hope of resurrection in the midst of darkness.
Seeds of the Gospel
Later this year, the Franciscans will celebrate 800 years of the formal approval of their Rule. The first chapter describes their way of life as follows: “the rule and life of the friars minor is to observe the holy Gospel…” That is what they have strived to do in Athlone since 1235; that is what you have helped them to do for all those centuries.
The time has now come for us to withdraw but we pray that, in all that time, we have sown some seeds that will help you to continue to live according to the Holy Gospel. This call received at our baptism transcends all human affections and all human loyalties. Our hope is that you can continue to live authentically according to the Holy Gospel, share the joy of that Gospel with others, give thanks to God for what has been received and for what each of you can contribute into the future – that you can continue to be a light in the darkness for others.
One day, in God’s own time, God will manifest his plan to us and help us understand more fully how our withdrawal from Athlone is part of that plan.
Before he left his brothers and sisters to return to the God who made him, St Francis turned to them and said, ‘I have done what was mine to do, may Christ teach you what is yours’. May the Lord guide you all in the years ahead.
We will never forget your kindness, your generosity, and your love.