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Bishop Denis’ Homily from the Prayer Service for the Feast of St Willibrord

Tuesday the 7th November is the Feast of St Willibrord. A saint with Carlow connections whose relic is now permanently displayed in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow.

To mark the Feast of St Willibrord Bishop Denis led an evening prayer service at which he remarked “I warmly welcome all of you tonight to the Cathedral of the Assumption here in Carlow for our celebration to mark the feastday of St. Willibrord. A special welcome to our friends from Echternach who join us through the facility of the Cathedral parish web-cam this feastday evening. A special welcome to those who travelled with us on pilgrimage last June out to Echternach and to the many more who accompanied the relic on our walk from St. Laserians Cathedral in Old Leighlin to the Cathedral of the Assumption here on College Street, including our guests who travelled from the Willibrord Foundation. We simply called that walk ‘Walk with Willibrord’; tonight we have come to simply Pray with Willibrord!…


Calendars are intended to mark feast-days. Particularly religious or church calendars. I know that todays’ feast-day, St. Willibrord, November 7th, would have in other years, passed by all of us as a saint pretty much unpronounceable with a link to the low countries and Patron Saint of Luxembourg. Even the Liturgical Calendar’s note on Willibrord, published by Veritas in Dublin, fails to make any mention of the Saints’ Carlow connection! Year’s back we knew no more and most of us here in Carlow and its surrounds would simply have celebrated on this day the ordinary of church time. In this respect, I very much empathise with the author of the email I got a few months ago who asked me where did this devotion to Willibrord suddenly spring out of? He told me every church he goes to in the area – the Cathedral, Askea, Graiguecullen, Leighlinbridge – all have added Willibrord to their usual calendar of saints: Brigid, Laserian (Molaise), Fiacc, Conleth and Willibrord. Yesterday, the feastday of the Saints of Ireland I also imagine most celebrations would have made some mention of people like Patrick, Brigid, Columbanus, Oliver Plunkett, Laserian – I suspect very few except in this local area would have mentioned or even thought of Willibrord.

So, who is this man whose relic has been gifted to our Cathedral and installed here in the splendid shrine, looking straight across the Cathedral phalanx at JKL? He was born in Northumbria in 658AD. Educated at a monastery in Ripon, although I am reliably told there is scarcely any remembrance of Willibrord there either this day! We have a huge piece of work in hand to fill in the many deficits and gaps in his narrative! Possibly a poignant reminder to all of us, in this Month of All Soul’s, November, that we pass like ships in the night, and who knows what if anything will be remembered of us, generations after our passing? After his education in a monastery at Ripon he was sent to Ireland and arrived at Rathmelsh. During the visit of the Willibrord Foundation we were honoured, with the kind permission of the Deacon family at Rathmelsh, to offer some prayers on the reputed site of that Rathmelsh foundation. At Rathmelsh, he trained under St. Egbert as a Benedictine monk and was ordained a priest at the age of 30. Rathmelsh was a very important place of learning and formation at that time. He left Ireland, he left Rathmelsh and Leighlin in 690AD with eleven companions, never to return again. That is until last June when we were graced by being presented by our friends in Echternach with a first-class relic of the saint who had left these parts 1,327 years earlier.

Formation is more than education. Formation is allowing yourself to be tutored and accompanied on a journey. Formation is giving shape to something. We send our seminarians to seminary to be formed, to be shaped, to be accompanied. It was in these very parts that Willibrord was formed, was shaped, was accompanied. My mother used to have a great phrase “that so and so would knock the edges off someone”. Formation is knocking the rough edges. We might today call it decorum, etiquette, deportment, proper behaviour. It was here, in these very parts that Willibrord had his rough edges smoothed, so that he became a Bishop who in time would be the most revered saint of the Benelux countries. We need formation as much as we need education. Formation would help us to create for instance an etiquette around the proper use of a mobile phone or a tablet device.

The people of Utrecht have taken Willibrord to their hearts, it was there he was appointed Bishop, five years after leaving Rathmelsh. The people of Echternach (modern day Luxembourg) have taken Willibrord to their hearts in his establishment there of a huge monastery of academia and intellectual pursuits, through its library and scriptorium. The tradition of how the monks painstakingly copied manuscripts, was a gift Willibrord and his companions brought with them from Rathmelsh, similar to the writing earlier monks would have done in creating the Book of Kells or the Book of Durrow. Today he is fondly remembered there just after the Feast of Pentecost each year with the UNESCO Heritage recognised ‘Hopping Procession’, where up to forty bands take part, playing a special dance tune as pilgrims in rows of five or six dance to the beat of the band. We were privileged to have the Presentation Band with us at last June’s pilgrimage to Echternach, the first band from Ireland ever to play in that procession. The hop is a bit akin to how we might negotiate the rhythm of doing the station beds at Lough Derg or indeed climbing the reek at Croagh Patrick, the hop is essentially a movement with our heart and with our feet.

Just to note: Monica Hayes KCLR96FM has confirmed that the radio documentary: “Carlow Hops to Luxembourg’ will be broadcast next Sunday morning (November 12th) at 10am! The documentary can be picked up anywhere in the world by clicking onto

May Willibrord, the saint of the Benelux countries intercede for us, particularly in the area of formation, as we all learn a little etiquette, some deportment, good manners and behaviour in honour of one who left these parts 1,327 years ago. Amen”.