Wednesday 28 September 2016

Divine inspiration for one shepherd

Claire McCormack

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Farmer Tom Coffey from Waterford meets with Fr Piaras Jackson with a cut out of Pope Francis at the 2015 National ploughing championships in County Laois
Farmer Tom Coffey from Waterford meets with Fr Piaras Jackson with a cut out of Pope Francis at the 2015 National ploughing championships in County Laois

When Pope Francis called on the world's priests to live like true shepherds who know their sheep, Ireland's religious communities knew there was only one place to be - the National Ploughing Championships.

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From row one to 47, church groups and charities spread the word of their mission, activities and fundraisers across the meadows of Ratheniska, Co Laois.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Order of Friars Minor, Church of Ireland, The Methodist Church of Ireland and many more pitched up at the ploughing.

The Jesuits in Ireland set up their first ever marquee next door to the massively popular GAA sports tent.

School children even took selfies with a life-sized cutout of Pope Francis while queuing to get into the GAA store.

The cross of Venerable John O'Sullivan - likely to be the first Irish Jesuit saint - was also on display. However, the main goal of religious groups at the ploughing was to show their connection to rural life.

Pat Coyle, Director of Irish Jesuit Communications, said it's vital for the order to be present among the people.

"It's important to show that real religion is not something divorced from everyday life and made for a chapel only or a religious festival," she said.

"We've got a lot of batterings, and deservedly so, but there is a lot of really good work being done and it's good to recognise that," she said.

Fr Piaras Jackson - Director of Manresa Jesuit - said being present also helps people affirm their faith.

"I think it encourages people to recognise that it's okay to be religious and to express and explore their faith - even this stand in some way does something like that," he said. Seven other Jesuit organisations were situated in the marquee, including the Jesuits Refugee Centre and the Peter McVerry Trust.

The Jesuit group also revealed they are searching for two farmers - an arable farmer and a dairy farmer - to send to Zambia and the The Philippines as part of new projects to help locals learn farming skills.

"It's for up to a year and they will work with 300 young people who farm with buffalo. All expenses are paid," said Ms Coyle.

Rows away in a big retail tent, the Franciscan friars were handing out information on vocations.

Brother Pat Lynch has represented Vocations Ireland at the Ploughing Championships for the last seven years.

However, it's the first year the Franciscans have set up a stand.

"It's important to be in the market place, among the people, so this year we took out a stand in the retail section next to the whiskey stall," said Brother Lynch.

"They're promoting the spirit of alcohol and we're promoting a different spirit here," he laughed.

Over the years, Brother Lynch said a small number of festival-goers have expressed interest in entering religious life. "It's almost an anonymous place. It's non-threatening, not like formally sitting down and writing to an order, or making that phone call. People can come get the information and make up their mind afterwards," he said.

Sr Helen Fennell, from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, said people have reacted very positively to their stall.

"Pope Francis wants the world's religious to be so close to their communities that they are like shepherds living with the smell of the sheep, so we are definitely in the right place," she said.

Sunday Independent

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