Sunday, March 2, 2014

Maurice and God's Refinement by Fire

Maurice and a grandchild.
David was born in 1790 on a small farm in Macroney, about thirty miles northeast of Cork City.  He married Johanna, a girl three years younger than himself and named their first child Maurice.  Like more than a third of Irish families at the time they lived off the potatoes they grew and at twenty-two Maurice began to take over the farm from his father.  

It was just then that something really strange started to happen.  When he first dug up the potatoes they looked fine, but within a day or two they would start to get slimy, decaying into a black stinky mass.

Within a week the family farm had turned to rot and by the end of the month panic had turned into despair.  By the next year the children and the old people were starting to die of famine, including David, leaving Johanna widowed with Maurice and his brother and sister who left the rotting fields of Macroney and moved in with Johanna’s family in Glenville.

Maurice wasn’t alone in his sorrow.  In a parish not far from his devastated farm fourteen died one Sunday, only three of them were buried in coffins, the others covered only with the rags in which they perished.  For, the popular saying went, ‘tis better to give a shilling to a starving man than spend four shillings on his coffin.  

By the time it would all end over a million would die with another million fleeing on coffin ships to America and other foreign lands.  More than a quarter of the population would die or leave in sheer desperation.

The misery was not unlike the refiner’s fire in James’ letter today.  It’s a fire of purification and refinement by which God tempers and strengthens those he loves.  

Saint Theresa of Calcutta used to remind the guests in her house for the dying that suffering is really nothing but a reminder that God was holding them close to his cross.  “Do you think,” one woman once replied to the saint, “you could ask him not to not hold me quite so close?”

“The one prayer God always seems to answer right away,” Archbishop Sheen used to say, “is for a greater share in his cross.”  And maybe that’s why the faith in Ireland is so deep and rich and true, even in days of famine or persecution or scandal.  

That’s why I have no doubt that the faith will perdure in Ireland and the Church will once again thrive on this emerald isle; and it has little to do with snakes or shamrocks.  The faith will endure because of a people who rebuilt the Abbey each time they burned it down, a people who continue to love the priest no matter how many times one may disappoint or scandalize them and a people who keep praying and trusting and hoping in Christ no matter how many crosses he asks them to bear.

For you can never really celebrate Easter Sunday until you’ve stood in the shadow of Friday’s cross and sometimes stood really really close.

So what happened to Maurice, our poor blighted potato farmer?  He joined the one million Irishmen who emigrated on a coffin ship to Boston with his widowed mother and brother and sister.  Seven years later he married Mary Sweeney in Lawrence and it was his son David, who moved to Hopkinton and had a son George who started a farm in Upton and had a son James Eugene who, as a carpenter, built a house for his bride Marguerite O’Leary in Millbury who had a son James Patrick Moroney who preaches to you today in Dingle Cathedral.

For God forms us with a refiner’s fire and ever writes straight with painfully crooked lines.å