06 September 2011

50 years with the Columbans

Fr Aedan McGrath

On the first Tuesday of September 1961 - the date was the 5th - I and more than 40 other young men entered St Columban's College, Dalgan Park, Navan, about 40 kms north-west of my native Dublin, hoping to be Columban priests one day and heading off to Chile, Fiji, Japan, Korea, Peru or the Philippines about seven years later. As it happened, some were to find their way to Pakistan, which became a Columban mission in 1978 along with Taiwan.

I was then 18 but since I was 14 had wanted to be a missionary priest. I decided on the Columbans when I was 16 but had to wait to do my Leaving Certificate. I went to Dalgan Park in Easter Week 1961 to be interviewed and have a medical examination. I was very happy when accepted. Then I had to get a black suit, some white shirts and a black tie, not to mention a black hat, required in those days.

One thing was niggling me: what would my parents think if I ever decided to leave? The term 'spoiled priest', someone who left the seminary, was still used occasionally, though never in my family. There were nor relatives who were priests or religious and I was the first in our generation of cousins, all on my mother's side, to do the Leaving Certificate. As if he had read my mind, my father took me aside just before he and my mother drove me down to Dalgan Park and said, 'If you ever decide to leave, as long as you're happy your mother and I will be happy'. It was a great load off my mind. As it turned out, I never seriously thought of leaving.

During my secondary school years I read a number of books by Columbans who had suffered after the Communist takeover in China in 1949 and during the Korean War. I knew that some had been killed because they had stayed with the people.

One priest whom I particularly admired was Fr Aedan McGrath, who had spent nearly three years in solitary confinement in China between 1950 and 1953. I remember the headlines when he arrived hom to be greeted at Dublin Airport by thousands of people, including President Seán T. O’Kelly, a dapper figure like Father Aedan and known to everyone as 'Seán T', and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon De Valera, 'Dev'. I had no idea then that Father Aedan would become a good friend. He told me that when he saw the crowds from the plane he said to himself, 'There must be someone important on board', not realising it was himself.

Father Aedan was the second of three brothers who became Columbans. The eldest, Father Ronan, was our director during our first year in Dalgan, our Probation Year, similar to a novitiate in religious orders and congregations. One of the reasons I joined the Columbans was that we are a society of apostolic life, secular priests bound by an oath of obedience but with no religious vows. I had no desire to take an oath of poverty, though I didn't expect to become wealthy - nor have I in the financial sense! The third McGrath (pronounced 'muGRA', the 'a' as in 'grass') was Father Ivor.

Father Ronan was then 60 and seemed very old to me. He was to be the first Columban, as Father Aedan put it, 'to enter heaven on a bicycle'. He was hit outside Dalgan while cycling at the age of 90.

Fr John Blowick, one of the two co-founders of the Columbans, was still teaching moral theology when I entered Dalgan, though had retired by the time our class studied theology. However, he was very much in evidence and gave us talks from time to time and stopped for a chat when we met him in the corridors.

Father Aedan died suddenly on Christmas Day at the age of 94 at a family gathering in his native Dublin.

The video below was put together by my editorial staff at Misyon, which I edit for the Columbans here in the Philippines. It incorporates the video at the top.

Please thank God with me for the last 50 years and remember all Columbans, living and dead, in your prayers.


Anonymous said...

Many congratulations on your anniversary. Thank you for your witness!

Anonymous said...

Father, many congratulations on your 50th anniversary!

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Thanks to both of you. We don't have any celebration for this but it is right and proper to thank god for his goodness.