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Homily of Bishop Denis at Mass to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Fr Seán Conlon, Ballinakill

Third Sunday of Lent – Year A: 12.03.23
11am Mass: St. Brigid’s Church, Ballinakill


It’s the Sunday of the Woman at the Well – the third Sunday in our Lenten journey. The woman had simply come to draw water in the midday sun, when she knew no one would meet her. And yet she trusts this stranger with her story, the deeper she lowers her bucket, the greater the mercy and compassion offered by Jesus.

It’s an absolute joy to join with you in Ballinakill this Sunday morning, honouring the diamond ordination jubilee for Fr. Seán Conlon, much loved in these parts and indeed in every appointment he has held across our diocese. I welcome his family who join us today, I welcome his friends, I welcome his priest colleagues, I welcome all of you who have come to honour not just a priest, but one completely and entirely dedicated to his priesthood.

As we gather in prayer, at a time of reflection, conscious that we are moving from a maintenance model of Church to one of mission, a Church where all our voices are heard and respected around the well, a Church where the nature and meaning of priesthood and service is being reflected upon, let us together acknowledge our past, recognise our present and anticipate our future …


Krista Besselman in her poem ‘Women at the Well’ writes:

‘When our past has cast a shadow
even sunshine can’t dispel.
There is One who knows and loves us
who will meet us at the well. ’

We know our own well, our own church, our own parish, the place we call home. We know the seat we sit on. We even have a fair idea who’ll sit behind us or in front of us. Familiarity is great. Fr. Seán you have served in Daingean from 1963-1972, in Graiguenamanagh from 1972-1977, on the Curragh, and while there on a number of overseas peacekeeping missions from 1977-1990 and of course here in Ballinakill since 1990.

Ballinakill has been your well for the past thirty-three years. I think John’s text where Jesus sits by the well speaks so beautifully to you this day; the image I have for you is, like Jesus sideling up to many a table, a pitch, a classroom, a staffroom, a shop and conversing so easily. No judgement just listening and being keenly interested in everyone’s story. Seán, the well at Sychar for you has been the homes, families and teams you have ministered to so faithfully and continue to do so, despite my best protestations and those of others that you need to and should take it easier!

‘When our first love’s far behind us
And we’re shocked how far we fell.
Look how far He’s come to save us,
look! He’s waiting at the well.’

Every day Jesus is with us always by our side. Like the Samaritan Woman, we may be slow at recognising His presence. The season of Lent reminds us Jesus is the source of our life and today is the first of three Sundays which will help to unpack this for all of us. Next week we will meet the blind man at the Pool of Siloam and the following Sunday we will be there to witness the raising of Lazarus.

Seán, family is critical for you. You were born on the 10th of June, 1938. Yesterday while visiting Mountmellick for Confirmation, and always associating Mountmellick with you, I scanned the baptismal register pages for 1938 but to no avail. Of course I’d find nothing, you were born in Athlone and baptised there. Born in Athlone, grew up in Mountmellick but ordained in Rome. The Parish Newsletter this morning in Mountmellick very much recognises your Diamond jubilee and that of Fr. Ger O’Byrne.

‘When we’re shackled with a secret,
like a captive in a cell.
There is One who knows completely
and will free us at the well.’

Joseph O’Connor’s most recent book ‘My Father’s House’ is a splendid read if we want to get some appreciation of the Rome that the young eighteen/nineteen year old Seán Conlon travelled to study for the priesthood. My own former Bishop Michael Smith, a classmate of Seán’s, speaks of the journey to Rome in those early days of October 1957. A flight first to Paris, having to stay a few days there to catch the train to Rome, stopping at both Geneva and Pisa on route. Ryanair wasn’t heard of those days!

Seán’s other Kildare & Leighlin classmates who travelled with him that October 1957 were Ger O’Byrne, Dick Hogan PB McDonald and the late Pat Ramsbottom. The subject of Joseph O’Connor’s book is of course the scarlet pimpernel Mgr. Hugh O’Flaherty from Kerry who saved many Jews from the Nazi’s and helped allied personnel leave Italy. He would still have been a familiar figure still around the Vatican when Seán and his eleven classmates from around the country reached Rome that October 1957. Meeting them on the steps of St. Peter’s their first Sunday in Rome he brought the twelve Irish seminarians for a tour of St. Peter’s using a guidebook in English he had written for the Holy Year in 1950.

‘When we’re hurt by long rejection
bitter looks and angry yells.
We find pardon and acceptance
offered freely at the well.’

The most wounded woman in the whole gospel meets Jesus this day and when she meets Him, she encounters mercy. And at the well she faces every last bit of her past, buried deeply. Pope Francis often uses a beautiful image of Church as ‘a field hospital’. As we unpack the story of Jesus at the well at Sychar, it was more about conversation as it was about drawing water. Reading the tributes on Facebook and speaking to people in recent days, it is I think your conversational style Seán that endears you to people. Conversations with teams mates you togged out with in Daingean; conversations with couples you married or baptised in Graiguenamanagh; conversations with young men who served with you on peacekeeping duties and missed home so much and conversations here in Ballinakill for the past thirty-three years.

‘When we’ve drunk the living water
but we feel like empty shells.
We are overdue a visit
to the Healer at the well.’

Our diocese, through its fifty-six parishes, is going through a deep period of reflective conversations as we plan together the next steps of our shared mission together. And it will be very much shared, where lay people, women and men, will have a leadership voice around their table. In April and into May I look forward to meetings with priests and people together to map out this future. Kildare & Leighlin is blessed with men like Seán who have literally given everything and left nothing on the pitch. Their commitment, their resilience, their stamina has been nothing short of heroic. And for that I thank you Seán, this diamond jubilee celebration.

‘When we’re busy and exhausted,
sit beside Him for a spell.
There’s an open invitation
come and join Him at the well.’

Bishop translates as “episcopus” which loosely means ‘one who should see further’. I want to work with our priests and people to ensure our younger priests are also minded and cared for, that the burden of responsibility is shared and all feel co-responsible for the mission. There is a very active Parish Pastoral Council here and it was with that Council, Seán looked at Mass times a few years ago and came up with a schedule that was then manageable and doable. We may have to revisit schedules, because a parish will no longer be just concerned with itself, it will look outward beyond its bridges and streams that in the past defined boundaries to its neighbours. In your case that is with Fr. Paddy and Fr. Peter in the Abbeyleix, Ballyroan, Raheen and Shanahoe cluster within the wider Portlaoise Pastoral Area.

I’m very conscious that while we speak of 56 parishes, in effect there are 117 faith communities. Knock has as strong an identity and loyalty as Ballinakill. Stand up those here from Knock today! Together we will have to come up with principles, with markers to guide our onward journey. Who could have mapped the journey Sean’s life would have taken from the moment he left his home in Mountmellick for Rome in October 1957, and the sixty years that would follow his ordination in the Basilica of St. John Lateran on March 9th?

Our future is in God’s hands as you Seán very clearly have always left yours in His hands. And in the words of a Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “For those who walk there is no road, the road is made by walking”. Let us walk together and always know there is a well nearby, where we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is waiting for us there.