Gougane Barra pilgrimage hears call to ‘look for God in those outside the circle’

The annual pilgrimage to Gougane Sunday saw people attend in person again this year on Sunday 26th September 2021. Bishop Fintan Gavin was the principal celebrant at the open air Mass.

Fr. John Heinhold, a member of the St. Patrick’s Missionary Society (or Kiltegan Fathers) who is curate in Bantry parish, preached the homily. This is his text:-

Fr John Heinhold preaching at the annual pilgrimage to St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra. (Photos: Connie Cronin).

It is wonderful to be here today. Following the last 18 months and having last year’s Gougane Sunday online, it is truly wonderful to be here together. Standing in this most sacred space in our Diocese, standing in this most beautiful spot.

Personally, I have some great memories of Gougane Barra. It was always a port of call for my family when one of us celebrated First Holy Communion or Confirmation. A car would be hired for the day, the sandwiches would be packed and the flask filled. Following the church service, we would all pile into the car and hit the road. We would be led into the oratory here to light candles, brought around and shown the cells of St. Finbarr and his companions, wondering how anyone could be led to such an isolated place and survive such a harsh life. More often than not it was raining so the umbrellas would come out and we would stand around eating soggy sandwiches and drinking cold tea. They were happy times.

Bishop Fintan Gavin was the principal celebrant at the annual pilgrimage to St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra.

They were important times because much later in life, reflecting on days like those, I realise how much Gougane Barra laid the foundations of my own faith journey and the wonderful influence it continues to have on me as I so often pop over from Bantry to ramble around the many walks in the forest park just down the road. It’s easy to see how Finbarr settled in this most picturesque place, being influenced in faith finding God in the beautiful nature and isolation of this place. Hearing the gentle voice of God calling him to first come here to where the river Lee rises, to be open and welcome others to join him forming a community of faith. As the community grew that gentle voice of God was heard again, Finbarr and his companions were to move on, following the river to where it meets the sea – now the city of Cork.

Deacon Ronan Sheehan reads the Gospel during Mass at the annual pilgrimage to St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra.

As well as celebrating St. Finbarr today, we also celebrate today the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In the past years there has been an explosion in our world of migrants, refugees, displaced peoples, and victims of trafficking, either for reasons of insecurity or economic hardships. I have had some personal experience of this, firstly, back in the nineties when I worked in northern Kenya, where there was a camp of Sudanese refugees numbering over 35,000, mostly young boys fleeing from, and being forced to fight for the rebel forces, in the 20 year long civil war. Again, in Kenya itself in 2007-2008 when I lived on a compound with almost 3,000 displaced people from the Turkana tribe who were forced to flee their homes because of tribal clashes following a contested presidential election.

In his message to mark this World Day of Migrants and Refugees Pope Francis challenges us by saying, that the ‘Lord wants his love to be manifested and his salvation preached’ to all. But it seems to me that what happens in society nowadays, because we so often see ourselves being part of a specific institution, group, or community, we see others as either an insider or an outsider. A person is seen as an insider or a person is seen as an outsider, not one of us. Such distinctions often bring division, and within a group often prompts us to question: Whose voice or opinion really matters? Or, in the case of today’s first reading and Gospel: who can or cannot prophesy; who can or cannot heal?

In the first reading, Eldad and Medad prophesied, but seen as not part of the group of prophets Moses was asked to stop them. But Moses answered, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them All!’ In the Gospel, John goes to Jesus and tells him that they found someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name. They tried to stop him because “he was not one of us”.

As Jesus so often does, he uses the experience of the disciples to teach them, to expand their thinking and open their hearts. “You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name is likely to speak evil of me.” Jesus was giving the disciples a lesson in tolerance; inclusion and he was also telling them to be careful not to limit God’s spirit. The Spirit and mission of God were not to be claimed exclusively by the Twelve but should be shared with many. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Part of the congregation at the annual pilgrimage to St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra.

So, as we are gather here today to remember St. Finbarr, as we celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, I think the readings today are a statement about the importance of being open and welcoming others, about being tolerant of others and always thinking inclusively. Not to exclude others because we see them as not being one of us or being part of our group. For too long we have been putting people into their boxes.

Why not try and be more aware of the presence of God all around you! Be open to those who can teach you and challenge you to look at things differently. Look for God in those you might consider to be “outside your circle.” Look for God in unexpected relationships and events.

At the annual pilgrimage to St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra, Fr. John Heinhold CC Bantry, Bishop Fintan Gavin, Fr. Anthony O’Mahony, PP UIbh Laoire and Rev Ronan Sheehan, deacon.

Today’s readings invite you and me to consider; whom do I sometimes label as insiders or outsiders when I think of family members, relationships at work or at school, fellow parishioners, and neighbours? The big question for us today is, in what situations and with whom might I be attempting to stifle God’s spirit? Where am I being called to be more inclusive in how I relate to others and how I view the world? And who knows, what would happen if we were to take this with us from Gougane Barra today? In the spirit of St. Finbarr can we be open to welcome others, as he did here in Gaugane Barra, and to hear the gentle voice of God in this place telling us, as Pope Francis does, that Jesus wants his love to be manifested and his salvation preached by us all and to all.