On Sunday last the 49th International Eucharistic Congress concluded in Quebec, Canada. Just before the final blessing, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, President of the Congress, announced that the responsibility for organising the next Congress was, there and then, being handed over to Ireland and to Dublin. The Papal Legate, Cardinal Joseph Tomko, prayed God’s blessing on all who would help in the organising of the Dublin Congress. It was a solemn and serious moment. The flame was being passed on, the baton was changing hands.

Here today in Belfast we are living another such solemn and dignified moment as Bishop Patrick Walsh hands over responsibility for the pastoral care of this great diocese of Down and Connor to his successor, Bishop-Elect, Noel Treanor.

It is indeed a weighty responsibility that is being entrusted to the new Bishop by the Holy Spirit. It is a task of being a teacher of doctrine, a priest of sacred worship and a minister of governance for a diocese of some 300,000 people. As Bishop Walsh retires from office I want today to thank God for his 52 years of outstanding priestly service and especially for the past twenty-five years – when, as bishop, he served the people of this diocese superbly, with extraordinary love and dedication. Bishop Paddy, I wish you many years of health and happiness as you begin this more contemplative chapter of your life. With St. Paul in today’s Second Reading, you too can say: ‘I have fought the good fight. I have run the race to the finish’.
A recent document from the Congregation of Bishops in Rome notes that there are about 1,150 retired bishops in the Church whom it describes as important members of the College of Bishops, each one with his own valuable personal spiritual patrimony. That document expresses the wish – which I gladly make my own for you, Bishop Paddy – that you live this new season of your ministry as a Bishop of the Church of Christ with faith and joy.

Despite the heading in yesterday’s Irish News, I can easily imagine that as an incoming Bishop, crossing the border, returning to Ireland you, Noel, are at this moment, just a little anxious and somewhat overawed. I know that I certainly was in such a state thirteen years ago when I made a similar sort of journey in circumstances that were not very different. I can assure you straightaway that you have no need to worry. “Do not be afraid”. For a start you can count on the advice and support of two very wise predecessors in Cardinal Daly and Bishop Walsh living within the confines of this diocese. You can rely too on the co-operation of two excellent auxiliaries, Bishop Tony Farquhar and Bishop Donal McKeown. I reckon that between all of them they have a total of 98 years experience of working as bishops. I think that if you put your heads together you will find the answer to most problems.

That is not all. I can assure you that you will have the fervent prayers and loyal assistance of a wonderful group of priests and religious as well as the enthusiastic support of thousands of good and generous and faith-filled laity.

Noel, I wonder did the figure of Columbanus cross your mind in recent times at all. He was born in Leinster where you studied philosophy and theology for a number of years in Maynooth. Columbanus then moved north to Lough Erne, a district well known to you from your days in parish work in Enniskillen. Then both of you emigrated to the continent of Europe to work in various countries such as Italy, France and Belgium but, of course, Columbanus first spent some time in Bangor in this diocese. He was a wise man.

I imagine that you would have derived a lot of encouragement from the praise lavished on St. Columbanus by Pope Benedict XVI in the General Audience of Wednesday, 11 June last. On that occasion, Pope Benedict described St Columbanus as one of the true fathers of Europe through his work of nourishing the Christian roots of the continent. St Columbanus was aware of the cultural unity of Europe. With his spiritual energy, the Pope continues, with his faith, with his love for God and for his neighbour, Columbanus truly became one of the Fathers of Europe. Columbanus shows us, even today, the roots from which our Europe can be reborn.

Noel, as you well know, there are Christian roots on this island that are in constant need of nourishing. I am confident that your own vast experience of living and working in Europe will have an important contribution to make to that nourishing. Your work on the international scene, in defence of life, in support of family, in promoting ecumenical relations, will prove invaluable to you in the years that lie ahead.

In that respect I would like to include also St. Malachy, former bishop of this diocese and also Archbishop of Armagh. Malachy is credited with getting the Pallia for the Archbishops of Ireland for the first time. But he also introduced the Cistercians and Augustinian monks, as agents of monastic reform, into the Irish Church which was an important development for the life of the Church at that time. It showed that Ireland, as well as sending missionaries to Europe, also in return, received help from Europe in times of need, in the form of new initiatives and new ideas. In these post-Lisbon Treaty Referendum days it could be salutary for all of us to reflect on that European help and to consider what help we might accept today.

In his Encyclical on hope – Spe Salvi – Pope Benedict tells us that: “Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for stars that indicate the route”. The life of a bishop is no different. At times his life can be dark and stormy.

But, as the Pope continues, the true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives in the past, such as the saints – Peter and Paul, Columbanus, Macartan, Malachy. There are also the stars of the present – the people in every parish who overcome many and huge difficulties to continue to live good, faithful, often heroic lives. They are the real lights of hope in the life of a bishop. Yes, of course, Jesus Christ is the true light – the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history – and we must remain close to him at all times. If we do so we will find, as with St Paul, that ‘The Lord stood by me and gave me power’. But, to reach Him, we also need lights close by – people who shine with His life and so guide us along our way. Thanks be to God those lights are to be found and can be found in abundance.

Every bishop has to take up the task of preaching, sanctifying and governing. The work of preaching of the faith is to lead new disciples to Christ. This may be primarily missionary work but increasingly it concerns those who are nominally Christian. All of this involves a call to our own personal holiness. Before we can think of leading anyone to Christ we ourselves must know the way. The Second Vatican Council put it well when it stated: ‘By the example of the manner of their life, bishops must be an influence for good on those over whom they preside. The goal of everything that we do as bishop is that all may walk in goodness, justice and truth’ (Ephesians 5:9).

Throughout many of these documents there is an emphasis on the need for clarity, humility and simplicity of life style. The role of bishop as father and pastor is underlined. He is to be one who serves particularly but not exclusively, in his relations to priests and religious. He is someone who gets to know people. Relations with our separated brethren and with civic authorities are particularly important for him. All who know the new bishop of Down and Connor and of his work with bodies like KEK and COMECE, will realise his great giftedness in all of these areas.

In his first letter to Timothy, St Paul made this powerful appeal: I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for all men….for there is one God and there is one mediator between God and man – the man Christ Jesus.

I make that appeal to all of you and through all of you, to the people in this diocese. I urge the supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for Bishop Elect, Noel Treanor and I am confident that this appeal will be heeded.