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Irish priest goes ‘home’ for Eucharistic Congress

Posted By August 16, 2012 | 10:32 am | Lead Story #2
Father Jack Kelley at International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012
Father Jack Kelley at International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 2012

By Tanya Connor


Father John E. Kelley didn’t make it to Saturday Mass at the International Eucharistic Congress in Ireland.

But the retired priest of the Worcester Diocese had a good excuse. He tells the story this way.

He was headed to Mass in Dublin June 16 when a stranger stopped him.

“Are you a Catholic priest?”

Father Kelley, in Roman collar, replied in the affirmative.

“Would you please pray I have the courage to go to confession?”

The stranger said it had been 35 years since he’d been to confession, and for 34 of them he didn’t attend Mass. In the last year he’d returned to Mass, but was not receiving Communion.

“So I said, ‘I believe in striking while the iron’s hot,’” Father Kelley recalled. “Why don’t you go to confession right now to me?”

When he gave the man absolution, tears rolled down the man’s cheeks, Father Kelley said, and a lump formed in his own throat.

“Are you truly a Catholic priest?” the man asked.

“Of course.”

“I wondered if you were an angel from heaven.”

“It was a graced moment for him, but it was for me as well,” Father Kelley says now.

Worshippers were just getting out of Mass as he got there. But, hearing his story, people told him he was where he needed to be.

Father Kelley said he had four reasons for attending the Congress: “to celebrate our global solidarity concerning the magnificent gift of the Eucharist … to deepen my own appreciation for my priestly ministry, especially the Eucharistic ministry … to give support to the Catholic Church in Ireland, which has been undergoing a serious crisis of faith, and … to celebrate in gratitude to God the 16th anniversary of my diagnosis of multiple myeloma.” (He was diagnosed with this cancer on June 18, 1996, and given about three years to live, he said, and now his doctor says he is in complete remission.)

Father Kelley said he wore his College of the Holy Cross cap hoping to meet others from the Worcester Diocese in Dublin, but didn’t.

Paul Horrigan, of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Westborough, said he and his wife, Patricia, and a few others from the diocese joined a pilgrimage led by Father Edward Murphy, of the Fall River Diocese. Coordinated by a couple from their Divine Mercy prayer group that meets in homes, it included part of the Congress.

Father Kelley too attended only part of the June 10-17 Congress. Before going, he celebrated and preached at Mass for his Holy Cross Class of 1957 reunion, and concelebrated the 25th anniversary Mass of Father Steven M. LaBaire, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Uxbridge, where he served.

Father LaBaire was the Worcester Diocese’s liaison with the planning committee in Quebec for the previous International Eucharistic Congress, in 2008.

“There was a jubilant air through the whole congress” this year, Father Kelley said. The theme was “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another.”

“We overuse the adjective ‘awesome,’ but this was awesome,” he said. “There were more than 100,000 pilgrims and there were 120 countries represented. The Masses and prayers were offered in 19 different languages.”

“It reminded me of Medjugorje,” where visionaries have reported Marian apparitions for years, said Mr. Horrigan. “There were so many pilgrims that it was very spiritual.”

Father Kelley said participants heard Pope Benedict XVI, who wasn’t present, speak via a large screen at the last Mass, at which his delegate, Cardinal Marc Ouellette, celebrated and preached.

“I think the big thing for me and for Pat” was going to Mass and adoration, and praying the rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet each day, while at the Congress and on the rest of the pilgrimage, Mr. Horrigan said.

Both men spoke of the adoration chapel, and Father Kelley said thousands participated in a three-mile eucharistic procession through the streets.

“We are truly eucharistic people when, fortified by the Eucharist, we work together to renew the world in Christ, to build up God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace,” Father Kelley said, summarizing a common Congress message.

He said there were many informative workshops. He tried twice, unsuccessfully, to get into a filled workshop by Sister Anne Codd, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Ireland. Her congregation taught him at St. Bernard Elementary and High schools in Fitchburg.

Mr. Horrigan watched a film of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Ireland.

“At that time … Ireland was entirely Catholic,” he said. “The entire City of Dublin was inundated with people from around the world.”

Father Kelley spoke of today’s situation in Northern Ireland, which he visited.

“The peace process has really taken hold,” he said. “No British soldiers protecting Catholics and Protestants from each other.”

He also visited friends and relatives.

An Irish couple whose wedding he celebrated at St. Bernard Parish in Worcester, and whose children he baptized in the 1980s, took him on a tour.

He visited four generations of cousins aged 4 to 92, he said. (His mother’s parents had come from Ireland to Rhode Island.)

“A big, big highlight, spiritually and emotionally, was that on Sunday, June 24, the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, in their parish church of St. John the Baptist, I celebrated Mass in the same parish where my grandmother was baptized in 1867,” Father Kelley said. “And I preached, and a lot of the people kidded me about my Yankee accent.”

Back in Yankee country, the Irish priest muses, “All four of my goals were reached – and more.”