The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Memories Unsought

In early 2004, when the Bishop of Orlando assigned me to St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Wildwood, Florida, this church was just a small mission of St. Lawrence Parish in nearby Bushnell, Florida. But with the growth of The Villages we quickly outgrew our mother parish and the bishop made us a separate parish. 

Because of our earlier association with Bushnell and because Central Florida's National Cemetery is located in that city and barely a half-hour drive away, we deacons of St. Vincent de Paul Parish are often asked to conduct committal ceremonies at the cemetery. Of all the liturgies I am asked to conduct, few have more meaning for me than these services honoring our deceased veterans and their spouses. As a veteran and retired naval officer, I consider myself particularly honored to take part in them and to help bring a sense of consolation to the deceased's grieving family and friends.

Yesterday I was again asked to conduct a committal ceremony at the National Cemetery. The deceased was the 84-year-old spouse of a Navy veteran. Although she had been ill for some time, her death was still unexpected and her husband of 61 years was grieving deeply. Because I try to ensure my homily relates to the deceased's life and situation as well as her relationship with her family, a few days before the service I spoke at length on the phone with her husband and one of her sons. The family is of Irish heritage and at one point the husband joked with me about our common Irish roots. As we ended our conversation, he said, "Slán go fóill," a traditional Irish good-bye, and a phrase my paternal grandmother occasionally used.

Now this is where the oddness of memory comes into play. After our phone call, as I sat down and began to write my homily for the committal service, my mind wandered back to my grandmother and the songs she sang at my bedside. I was just a little tyke, maybe four or five years old, and as she tucked me into bed she would most often sing the well-known Irish Lullaby, better recognized by its refrain, "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral". But sometimes she sang another song of which I understood not a word. She sang it completely in Gaelic. I don't believe my grandmother understood or spoke Gaelic -- at least with any fluency -- since she came to the United States as an infant. I suspect she knew a few common phrases and had probably memorized the song.

Anyhow, here I was, trying to write my homily, while this song I couldn't understand nagged at my memory. And so I did what any 21st-century person would do: I set aside the homily and Googled the song.

Grangi (c. 1950s)
This wasn't so easy because I could recall only a few of the song's Gaelic phrases, and that language is by no means phonetic. My only other clue was that Grangi (that's what we called her) once told me it was about God's harvest -- not a lot to go on.

Eventually, though, I had my Eureka! moment and discovered that the lyrics were written as a poem 100 years ago in 1916. Written by a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Sheehan, the poem is called, "Ag Críost an Síol," which means "The seed is Christ's."  But by the time it was written my grandmother was almost 40. Where she came across it, and how she learned it...well, this remains a mystery. But I know they're the words she sang to a much younger me.

Even better, though, I found an English translation. After hearing my dear grandmother sing this song probably 100 times, now many decades later, I finally know its meaning. Here's the translation:
The seed is Christ's,
The harvest is Christ's:
Into God's barn
May we be gathered.
The sea is Christ's,
The fish is Christ's:
In God's nets
May we be caught.
From birth to adulthood
And from adulthood to death,
May your two hands, O Christ,
Be drawn over us.
From birth to the end
Not an end but rebirth.
In the paradise of grace
may we be.
As I read these words, I couldn't help but realize that Grangi was sending me a message. "In the paradise of grace may we be." What perfect words for a committal service. And so the words of this song -- well, the English translation, anyway -- became a part of my homily to this grieving family. It was very well-received.

But in the midst of all this online sleuthing, I uncovered a second baffling mystery. After listening to several different artists sing the song, I realized dear Grangi sang it to a completely different tune. That's when I discovered that the music to the version sung today was written in 1968 as an Offertory Hymn of a Gaelic Mass. This was a good 20 years after Grangi sang her version to me. And so I'm left with the unanswered question: Did Grangi make up her own melody or had someone else put this poem to music before the 1968 version? I suppose it's just another of those wonderful family mysteries that we'll never solve.

After all this, though, I thought it might be nice to share the song with you. The below version, sung by three tenor priests, is of course not the melody I heard as a child, but it's still quite beautiful.

Slán agus beannacht leat.

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