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Homily of Bishop Denis at a Benemerenti Presentation in St Clare’s Church, Graiguecullen

Mass with Benemerenti Medal Presentation – St. Clare’s Church, Graiguecullen, 03.09.22 6.30pm


The Benemerenti Award is an ancient Papal Award that goes back to 1832. It was originally an award for soldiers in the Papal army. Now it is open to all who have given long and exceptional service to the Church. The Pope of the day honours the recipient, this evening Pope Francis is delighted to honour Ann Nolan. I warmly welcome Ann and her family here this evening. Her daughter Mary Clare and her husband Paul and children Patrick, Jack and Jamie. I welcome her son John who joins through the webcam from Greece where he lives with his wife Ioanna and their children Kosti and Sean.

Recently I looked through the files of applications over the years from Kildare & Leighlin for Benemerenti Medals, there have been many awarded; in the last nine years I have applied for hundreds of awards and presented many to recipients in several parishes, including here in Graiguecullen/Killeshin.

The Pope who awarded the least number of Benemerenti medals ever was Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul 1. I wonder if there was one recipient in the diocese in the short month or so he was Pope? Who remembers this remarkable Pope? 1978 was the year of the three Popes. Tomorrow he is being beatified. He was Pope for just 33 days.

Luke’s gospel focuses once again on the call to follow Jesus but reminds us it’s not enough just to follow we must take up our Cross on the way. And taking it up is not some half-hearted idea; it’s taking it up and making the Cross our own.

For our moments of grumbling; for dumping our Cross on others; for not making the Cross our own, we pray for forgiveness …


Where did I see the last Cross? On our television screens telling us of the heartbreaking drownings during the week in Derry of Joseph Sebastian and Rueven Joe Simon, two Syro Malabar students of St. Columbs College, Derry. We pray for the entire Syro Malabar family of faith this evening. I saw a Cross earlier on Brandon Hill, the highest peak in Kilkenny, a Cross erected in 1983 after an Oblate Mission in Graignamanagh. It replaced a previous one there from the 1950’s. On the Barrow track I walk regularly, there are always a few fresh flowers left at a particular spot, marking the memory of someone, somewhere, somtime. Embracing our Cross is a key part of following Christ. Leaving the nets, leaving the fishing boats was the easy bit, taking up the Cross is reading that tiny print. Tomorrow Pope John Paul I will be beatified. In the last thousand years 8 Popes were canonised, most recently St. John Paul II, St. John XXIII in 2014 and St. Paul VI in 2018.

So who was Pope John Paul I?
Albino Luciani was born on October 17, 1912 (110 years ago) in the province of Belluno. In a letter written to Luciani granting him permission to enter the seminary, his father wrote: “I hope that when you become a priest, you will be on the side of the poor, because Christ was on their side” – words that Luciani would never forget. Albino was ordained priest in 1935 and in 1958 was appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto. Pope Paul VI, appointed him the Patriarch of Venice in 1969 and later made him a cardinal in March 1973.

He chose the word “humilitas” [humility] for his episcopal coat of arms, remaining always close to the poor and the workers. He particularly insisted on the theme of mercy. He abandoned the use of the royal plural, “we”, and in the early days refused the use of the portable throne, succumbing to the request of his collaborators only when he realized that by proceeding on foot those in the back rows had difficulty seeing him.

Albino Luciani was Pope for only 33 days, dying on September 28 1978, one of the shortest pontificates in history. It was probably the swiftness of his death that brought me and many to appreciate his life and example. At his funeral Mass Cardinal Confalonieri observed: “He passed as a meteor which unexpectedly lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished”.

What attracts me?
At the age of 15, I completed a project on him. In just a few weeks of his pontificate, he had entered the hearts of millions of people and mine for his simplicity, his humility, his words in defence of the least and his evangelical smile. I often wonder was he the catalyst that led me to priesthood? Known by many as ‘The Smiling Pope’. He saw himself as “a poor man accustomed to small things and silence”. I read where he opened the door of his residence in Venice to everyone. His greeting to those who met him at the Vatican was “How can I serve you?” I see Pope John Paul I as a Pope Francis, 35 years earlier!

Message for today?
A great communicator, he wrote an acclaimed book entitled “Illustrissimi” (To the Illustrious Ones), which contains 40 letters he wrote to the great personalities of the past (St. Therese of Lisieux / Pinocchio / Charles Dickens / Mark Twain / St. Luke) with judgments on the present. It was in many ways a dialogue with culture. For him, catechesis was of particular importance. Today our National Synod Synthesis tells us the same need is there for catechesis.

The Wednesday general audiences during his very brief pontificate were very clearly catechetical in tone. In his very first General Audience on September 13th 1978, he used the image of soap to describe the Church – the gospel, sacraments and prayer. Soap that is in his own words “capable of making us saints”. And tomorrow he is one step further on that journey himself!

Why we need Saints?
The declaration of saints in the church is a reminder to us that every Christian is called to be a saint, is called to holiness! We need saints to remind us of the universal call to holiness of which was put before us in Vatican II; and people who live that life remind us that it is possible for us all. They remind us of the limitless potential in us all to be good, to do good and to become that saint.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints are tasked with the process. The pace at which this process is taking place comes from the miracle of the healing of an eleven year old Brazilian girl with an acute epileptic illness and septic shock. Her situation was very serious, characterized by numerous daily seizures and a septic state of bronchopneumonia. The initiative to invoke the Pope had been taken by the parish priest of the parish in Brazil under whose jurisdiction the hospital was located. Large numbers of the faithful supported by the bishops of Brazil asked for the opening of his cause!

Ann, I am delighted on behalf of Pope Francis to honour you this evening, bestowing on you the Benemerenti Medal. Your late husband Christy and yourself have always been active members of this parish community. Your volunterring was that of cleaning this church, one of the cleanest and tidiest in our diocese. A great credit to you and all who volunteer here. I also know you volunteer with the Poor Clare’s next door, answering their door bell, taking in messages and carrying out chores for the Sisters. Your work is generally hidden, unseen, maybe like Martha in the scriptures. This evening we publicly honour your voluntary contribution and indeed all who volunteer in all our churches.
Our Mass reminds us we are all called to be Saints, to be followers of Christ, to take up our Cross as Blessed John Paul I di