Homily by Bishop Denis Nulty, Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin to mark the Sesquicentenary Anniversary of the Ordination of Fr. James Aloysius Cullen in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow: 26.10.14

Earlier I gave you the Latin word for the sequence of numbers – “Ordinal”! The greek word “Philo” means to love – if we used the word “philatelist” we would be referring to people who have a love or an interest in postage stamps. I might number myself in this group – every couple of months a magazine called ‘The Collector’ arrives in my bundle of post. It tells of new stamps soon to be issued, reminds us of the Penny Black of bygone days and other stamps worth having in ones collection. In 1999 An Post honoured Fr. James Aloysius Cullen with a 32 pence stamp. It featured the Jesuit Priest, the Pioneer Pin and the façade of St. Francis Xavier Church where he founded the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart on December 28th, 1898.

The shadow of Fr. James Aloysius Cullen left an indellible mark on the Ireland of his day. Born in New Ross in 1841 – born just before the ravages of the famine but born when Daniel O’Connell who was the predominant Catholic voice had just been elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. His family were by all accounts comfortable with a business background, able to stave off any affects of the famine and enough left over to send the young James off to boarding school at Clongowes. That was in 1856, the year curiously when Fr. Matthew of the great Temperance Crusade died. Young James Cullen spent four years in Clongowes where he was seen as studious, intensely earnest and determined to be a priest. Our prayer this morning is that more young men attending Clongowes College today would be open to God’s call in their life.

That determination led him here to Carlow College to study for the priesthood. While he was always attracted to the Jesuit way of life, he feared that he would end up teaching, so as a New Ross native he offered himself to the Diocese of Ferns and was glady accepted. At Carlow College his love for the Blessed Sacrament deepened and indeed for prayer generally. There is a story told – apocraphyl or not – that it was an incident in 1862, while home on holidays from Carlow College that changed his life. Two years before Ordination, he had a chance encounter with a priest who was evidently not a teetotaller, an encounter which set his mind in the direction of temperance and that in time would lead him to found the P.T.A.A.

Ordained here on October 28th, 1864 in the Cathedral by Bishop James Walshe, a former President of Carlow College – Fr. James Cullen, a native of New Ross would be ordained by another native of New Ross, Bishop Walshe. Bishop Walshe’s mother was a first cousin of the infamous JKL, whose remains are interred here in the cathedral and the very fine sculpture by Hogan reminds us daily of his towering presence in these parts. In Ferns, Fr. James Cullen’s first appointment was a curacy in Wexford town, while there he introduced the Christmas Crib. Two years later he helped establish the Ferns House of Missions at Enniscorthy. He had a profound influence in Enniscorthy over the fifteen years he served as Superior of the House of Missions. While there it is said he lived as a religious, establishing sodalities and reaching out to the poor and the homeless.

It wouldn’t be long until his deep yearning to become a Jesuit would surface once again. Fr. Cullen entered the Jesuits in 1881 and after studies in Belgium, he returned to Dublin. In an appointment geared towards spreading devotion to the Sacred Heart, Fr. James Cullen founded the Sacred Heart Messenger in January 1888. The story goes that he approached the Rector of Belvedere College about starting a new publication, and that he was given permission, a small room and a pound note! From such humble beginnings, the Messenger publication remains an integral part of Irish life 126 years later. It has been told that there was a time when the poor women of Dublin used the red cover of the familiar messenger to boost their application of lipstick; we can make no comment about the women of Carlow!

Ten years after he founded the Messenger, Fr. James Cullen, aware of the enormous damage the excesses of alcohol were doing to the Ireland of his day, and the drain it was taking on weekly earnings, he set about with four co-founders, establishing the Pioneer Total Abstinence Society. Mrs. Egan; Mrs. Bury; Mrs Sullivan and a Ms. Power were his four collaborators, all women, something unheard of in his day and time – Cullen saw the movement initially as an all-female organisation. Prayers, sacrifices, pledges and support he felt would be much more the womens’ domain, but after a short time with much pressure from men, he opened the P.T.A.A. to all. In the 1950’s – one in three adults were members; in the Ordination class-pieces of the 1960’s that adorn the walls of Carlow College, it would be hard to find a priest without a Pioneer Pin! Each classpiece with that indellible inscription then: “Euntes docete omnes Gentes” – “Go Teach All Nations”.

What message has Fr. James Aloysius Cullen for the Ireland of 2014? What message has he for the people of Carlow where he attended seminary and was ordained? What message has he for the Pioneer Movement he founded? I think we find something of that answer by looking forensically at the Pioneer Pin. There we find the Heart and the Cross. In biology class we were taught “the heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs 10.5 ounces or about 280 grams”. I always loved the cleched fist bit and also the fact that the heart came up that year in Leaving Cert Biology! The hearts of too many Irish homes have been ruined by alcohol, the heart and the cross are for many too closely intertwinned.

You know that sensation we sometimes get with that burning feeling at the back of our throat – our parents explained it away: “it was heartburn” we were reassured! Heartburn is a powerful description to summarise Matthews gospel message today: the Lord’s heart pulsates for us with a burning love, particularly when we feel we’re unlovable, when we feel left out or we experience being forgotten. Loving God with all our heart, soul and mind must challenge the young people present to seethe acute need for more priests of the calibre of Fr. James Cullen in 2014! We risk letting down James Cullen, the young man immortalised in that An Post Stamp back in 1999 if as Pioneers we don’t seek earnestly to reimagine and revision our association to make it more attractive to young Confirmation Candidates and indeed young people generally today. Thousands receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in our respective dioceses, minisicule numbers take the pledge and become pioneers. I think Fr. James Aloysius Cullen, whose sesquicentenary ordination anniversary we commemorate this Sunday morning would expect no less.