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Bishop Denis’ Homily at the installation of the relic of St Willibrord

The Walk with Willibrord event took place on Saturday 24th June beginning at St Laserians Cathedral in Old Leighlin and ending in Mass in Carlow Cathedral.

The relic of St Willibrord was accompanied by a large group of walkers led by Bishop Nulty from Old Leighlin to Carlow via the Barrow Track.


In his introduction Bishop Denis welcomed “… all our guests very warmly to the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow. Bishop Michael Burrows and members of his clergy; special guests – our Willibrord friends from Luxembourg; members of Carlow County Council and local dignatories, visiting priests and friends – this is a very special evening. Willibrord who left these shores in the year 690AD has been gifted back to us in the form of a very special relic enshrined in a splendid reliquary which will find a permanent home here in this Cathedral”.

He continued “Many of us have taken part in the ‘Walk with Willibrord’ from the enchanting St. Laserians Cathedral at Old Leighlin to the Cathedral of the Assumption here in Carlow. It has been an ecumenical journey, spanning two traditions, from the very outset this has been a journey of faith. This evening as we arrive the Lord whispers to all of us ‘do not be afraid’ – it’s a message of comfort.

Willibrord and his companions heard the same words as he left the River Barrow in Carlow for the River Rhine in Utrecht and the River Sure in Echternach. He brought with him into the heartland of Europe a message of knowing that God is always with us, he knows our every thought, word and deed”.



Just over two weeks ago the Carlow pilgrims returned from our three days celebrating Willibrord in Echternach. Well over two years ago Dermot Mulligan through the work of Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín introduced us to one Clemens Willibrord. All this time we thought the only saint to emerge from Leighlin was Laserian or Molaise. Now we realise that the monastic settlement out at Rath Melsigi was huge and many saints, Willibrord was just one of them, he was schooled and formed there.

Another one of note is St. Werenfrid. We are told Werenfrid fortified his mind through study and his heart through prayer and penance at the monastery also in Rath Melsigi. And two days ago 29 members of the Willibrordus-Bauverein, Willibrord Foundation arrived in Carlow to trace the footsteps of this native Yorkshireman who spent his most formative years in education here in Rath Melsigi, known as Clonmelsh today. One who was ordained to the priesthood in the great ecclesiastical centre at Old Leighlin.

The prophet Jeremiah would have been familiar to Willibrord. He too might have those words from our first reading as he set out with his companions: “But the Lord is at my side, a mighty hero … for I have committed my cause to you”. Those who put their hand to the plough shall not turn back, it’s very much a similar vein. Tomorrow as I ordain David Vard the youngest priest on these islands something of the courage and conviction of Willibrord will be very much in the ether. Mind you as a farmers son, who has seen many a field plough, every ploughman or woman I watch at the Ploughing Championships seems to be eternally looking back. Is it straight, is the soil turning up well, are the discs in line?

I suggest its important to note where the Relic of Willibrord will be permanently positioned for veneration here in the Cathedral. It is exactly opposite one of the greatest champions of education in this Diocese and in the wider church – JKL – James of Kildare and Leighlin, Bishop James Doyle. He was one of the greatest Irish Bishops of the nineteenth century. An author of numerous works on politics, religion and education – an advocate for people of faith. The minute I saw the plinth on which the reliquary will rest, immediately the work of the sculptor John Hogan came to mind. Hogan’s signature portrait of JKL and also his very detailed one of the Holy Family. JKL lived from 1786 – 1834. He very much fought for the Irish poor that they would receive a good education.

Willibrord came to these parts to be educated. He was attracted by the pentitential monastic curriculum offered by Ecbert and his friends. Willibrord knew that education within a solid faith setting mattered. In the current debate around Faith Schools, it has to be said that faith schools matter hugely, because today they offer an educational space that is a living expression of a long and varied tradition inspired by the life of Christ. Such schools emphasise the dignity of the human person as a child of God called to work with other persons in creating an inclusive community in service of the common good, where knowledge is sought and respected while faith is nurtured and challenged. Faith schools have been at the heart of teaching and learning since the time of Willibrord and before him. They have as championed by leaders like JKL a proud tradition of serving the needs of disadvantaged communities, educating children whose parents could not afford to provide for their education, and in recent years, in the midst of radical demographic changes, welcoming children of all faiths and ethnicities. Constant unfair criticism with phrases suich as ‘baptism barrier’ and ‘exclusion’ only serve to ensure that faith schools and those who inhabit them feel threatened and sometimes unsupported by a silent majority.

It is believed that the earliest record of a signature in writing is that of Willibrords, and today it is on view in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, a copy of same will be in the forthcoming exhibition on Willibrord in our museum. Bishop James Doyle, the gifted and prolific writer, signed off his pastorals and letters in his inemitable  style ‘JKL’. The two will face one another in this Cathedral, which itself is a legacy of JKL. Construction began in 1828 and the building was completed by the end of November 1833. The following year, the bishop became ill with a tuberculosis infection and died on the 15th June 1834, he is buried here in front of the sanctuary. There is just over a thousand years between the death of Willibrord at the age of 81 and birth of JKL; they will in many respects bridge that 1,000 gap as they face each other in this magnificent Cathedral. As we reflect on Willibrord and his legacy we realise there is so much that unites both of them and hopefully all of us in their value and appreciation of a faith education.