Christmas Message, 2010

At the time of writing this Christmas message bells have begun to ring from the bell tower of St Mel's Cathedral. For the people who live in Longford the sound of bells, silenced by the fire on Christmas Day last year, has been warmly welcomed. When the bells first rang out again last week, people down below on the street broke into applause. Very fittingly at this time shortly before Christmas when minds are drawn back to the horror of last Christmas the bells were like good news announced from the heavens, like the voices of angels in Bethlehem who proclaimed "glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth to men who are God's friends".

In Irish tradition bells have had a great significance. There is one old bell which is greatly venerated in Ireland, known as the 'Bell of St Patrick'. Old tales about St Patrick say that when he founded a Church and put a priest or bishop in charge he gave him a bell, as a kind of symbol of his responsibility. If that be so, then we can well imagine that St Mel got his bell from Patrick when he appointed him to be Bishop here. With that in mind I welcome the return of the sound of the bells coming from the Cathedral which bears the name of Mel. Sadly, old and precious bells were severely fire damaged in our museum which was destroyed on Christmas Day. These bells had an ancient history and had survived troubled times. In a damaged state they will become a reminder in time to come of the trauma we have experienced in the fire of Christmas 2009.

Some of the veneration of bells in Ireland came from the fact that bells could not be rung in Catholic churches during the days of the Penal Laws. When this was no longer an issue, bells returned to their honoured place in them. They were an important part of the furnishing of our cathedral from the beginning. In St Mel's Cathedral they tolled for many great occasions. They have also chimed the passing of the hours of every day. They were rung for Mass on Sundays and weekdays and solemnly tolled for funerals. They called us to prayer three times each day for the Angelus. For the twelve days of Christmas they played the music of the carols.

Is it any wonder that we felt the silence like a cold hand upon us when the bells ceased to ring? Is it surprising that they have been welcomed back so joyfully?

It is to the people who live in Longford that the Cathedral bells mean most. But I hear them also as an invitation to the Diocese to seek new hope this Christmas as we face the future with deep uncertainty about many things. We do have absolute certainty that the Lord who comes in the celebration of Christmas will be with us now and into the future.

It is in the security of our faith that we will most surely find hope for the future. It is in the celebration of Christ's presence in the Mass of Christmas that we will experience the very heart of this Feast. The poet, John Betjeman, spoke of the many symbols of Christmas including bells which are really only pointers to what is most central: "no love that in a family dwells, no carolling in frosty air, nor all your temple-shaking bells can with this single truth compare, that God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine".

Have a blessed and a joyful Christmas. + Bishop Colm O'Reilly