Yesterday afternoon President Mary McAleese held a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin, her official residence in Dublin, for Columban Father Michael Sinnott, who recently returned to Ireland on a visit after having been kidnapped for just over a month in Mindanao, southern Philippines. President McAleese has been close to the Columbans since her schooldays when she used to sell our magazine, Far East. She and her family were also very close to the late Fr John Joe McGreevy who taught many of us in the seminary for many years before going to Peru.
During the reception Mrs McAleese paid tribute to Fr Jeremiah (Jerry) Roche of St Patrick's Missionary Society (Kiltegan Fathers) who was brutally murdered in Kenya last week. The Columban Fathers and the Kiltegan Fathers were both founded in Ireland in the last century and are societies of secular priests - not religious. I know that many, including myself, narrowed our choice down to these two societies of apostolic life - our official designation - before entering the seminary. Fr Roche was ordained in 1968 and I was reflecting that if I had opted for Kiltegan instead of the Columbans, I would have been his classmate. Columbans used to be ordained just before Christmas in the middle of the Irish academic year and my class will celebrate our 42nd ordination anniversary on 20 December.
Fr Michael Sinnott with his sisters, Mrs Aine Kenny (left) and Mrs Kathleen O'Neill on his arrival at Dublin Airport
The ordeals of Father Sinnott and Father Roche highlight what is truly best in the life of the priest who is called to be 'configured to Christ' as Pope John Paul II so emphasised in Pastores Dabo Vobis. The image of the priest in Ireland has been deeply tarnished by the revelations of the abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin in the recent Dublin (Murphy) Report.
Father Roche's niece, Anne Cunningham, was quoted as saying 'Everyone looked up to him and when you think of what’s going on in the Church at the moment, he was a real role model figure.'
May Father Jerry's soul rest in peace.
President Mary McAleese praised the "quiet and modest work" of Irish religious missionaries at a reception to honour Columban priest Fr Michael Sinnott, this afternoon.
Speaking at the reception for Fr Sinnott - who spent one month in capitivity in the Philippines - in Áras an Uachtaráin Mrs McAleese said some of the stories of 2009 had brought triumph in the face of adversity, Fr Sinnott's was a glowing example of that.
The President told Fr Sinnott the story of his captivity "started out very badly; It did not start out a good story".
"It was a very bad story, the kidnapping of a priest of almost 80 who was not in the full of his health. It had the potential to be a real tragedy, with at times it seemed, small chance of a happy ending."
Yet, she said, he had come home fresh and well and was with his family in the Áras just days before the celebration of his 80th birthday. "It really is a privilege for this house to welcome a man of such courage, faith and grace under fire" she remarked.
The President also used the occasion to pay tribute to Fr Jeremiah Roche, the Irish Kiltegan priest murdered during a violent robbery in Kenya, last week.
Even as Fr Sinnott and his family were celebrating, Mrs McAleese said she knew they would wish her to send to Fr Roche's family and his Kiltegan colleagues "our deepest condolences. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis (may his faithful soul be at the right hand of God) ".
The President said it was ironic that Fr Sinnott's kidnapping provided a chance to learn about the work which Irish priests "do so quietly and modestly".
It was, she said, "wonderful work which brings huge benefit to the people you help and it also, brings rightly high regard for the Columbans".
"But it also brings, importantly, very high regard for Ireland. You are the hands of very important work and you are the heart of that work".
The President said she particularly wanted to recognise Ireland's "indefatigable ambassador Dick O'Brien" and everyone from the Irish, European and Philippine governments who she said had worked so hard to secure Fr Sinnott's release.
"They have had more experience than they would have wished in bringing the kidnapped Irish safely home . . . as you know [charity worker] Sharon Cummins came home safely after a very very long ordeal."
President McAleese wished Fr Sinnott "the happiest of birthdays" when he turns 80-years old on Thursday.