By Anne Walsh
I have been hearing about the Clonard Novena since I became connected with the Redemptorists, and everything I heard made me want to see, be part of, and experience this nine-day festival of faith in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. So, imagine my delight when Fr. Noel Kehoe, CSsR, the rector of Clonard and a good friend, invited me to be part of the preaching team for the 2017 novena. I confess to being quite nervous when I learned that the other three members of the team were Fr. Michael Brehl, CSsR, Fr. Michael Kelleher, CSsR and Fr. Brendan Kelly, CSsR! Pretty good company to be keeping, I figure!
I loved the theme for this year’s Novena, which was ‘Home is not a place, it’s me and you’. This theme was chosen in response to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Letitia (The Joy of Love), and we on the preaching team were invited to explore various aspects of family life and the church of the home, particularly in preparation for the World Meeting of Families which will take place in Dublin in August 2018. Each day had its own sub-theme.
The schedule for the Novena was intense and grueling. But it amazed me how everyone gets into the rhythm and picks up the pace, and we all got carried along. Throughout the Novena, there were ten weekday sessions (usually Masses), which took place at 6.45am, 8.15am, 9.30am, 11am, 12.45pm, 4.30pm, 6pm, 7.30pm, 9pm and 10.30pm. Sessions on Saturdays and Sundays took place at 6.45am, 8.15am, 9.30am, 11am, 12.45pm, 3pm, 4.30pm, 6pm and 7.30pm. Each morning at 11.00 am, a special Mass with sign language was celebrated, and prayers closed with a candlelight session each night at 10.30pm. On Saturday 17 June, Mass was augmented with the Anointing of the Sick, and a Blessing of Babies and Children took place at 3.00pm on Sunday 18 June, followed by a youth Mass at 7.30pm. A special and inspiring feature was that, at all sessions on Monday 19 June, ministers from other Christian Churches preached.
It takes an army of people to offer a Novena such as this experience at Clonard — in this case almost 400! Throughout the nine days of the Novena, I marvelled at the number and quality of the volunteers who offered themselves every day to make the sessions, the ministries, the feeding of staff and volunteers, the sales stalls, the car park, first aid and security run like clock-work. Not only did they show up, but they were pleasant, fun, involved and engaged and unfailingly courteous.
I marvelled at the faith, openness, and prayerfulness of the people who came every day to pray, to celebrate the liturgy together, and to offer their petitions and their thanksgivings to God through Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It was humbling and, at the very same time, mind-boggling to witness the estimated 12,000 people who came every day to encounter God through Mary, or to be encountered and seen by Jesus and His Mother. I heard stories that moved me, shook me and reaffirmed my own faith. The number of participants is even more mind-boggling when I consider that an additional 14,000 people took part online, a participation made possible through the technology of the Clonard web-cam.
Many of the people who come so faithfully are weekly church-goers, and many are not. The Novena speaks to them all. There is something for everybody. In my experience, the Novena was an effective means of evangelization; it brought together elements of effective and energizing proclamation of the Good News, good liturgy, availability of the Sacraments, and healthy devotion. The Clonard Novena spoke to the heart, the soul and the intellect. Everything was oriented towards the mission of making present Christ’s promise of life to the full, and plentiful redemption.
On a very personal note, my experience as “the first resident lay preacher” at the Clonard Novena was fantastic. Noel Kehoe, CSsR, told me that I was invited because it had become clear, from the responses of a survey carried out in 2015, that the voice of women needed to be heard at the novena. If I was a little nervous at the outset, all my fears were allayed in the first morning! I was received with open arms, and people listened to my homilies with open ears and open hearts. Many of them had heard about me long before I arrived; the Redemptorists at Clonard had been tilling the soil through preparatory interviews and media releases. They may have come out of curiosity, but their helpful and insightful comments and reflections convinced me that they kept coming because God spoke to them through the word proclaimed, and through the energy and life that they found at Clonard.
My nine days at Clonard came to a close all too quickly. I will forever remember with gratitude my experience of the faith of the people at Clonard, the welcome of the Redemptorist community, the support of the volunteers and staff, and the collaboration of the preaching team. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!