Martin O'Brien: An oasis of calm in a tumultuous world - what draws the crowds to Clonard Novena
Thousands of pilgrims will converge on Clonard Monastery in west Belfast over the next nine days for the annual Novena. What draws them to it, asks Martin O'Brien
Every one of the many thousands who will pack the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast to overflowing over the next nine days, for the annual novena in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, will have their own reasons for going.
For me, a regular visitor to Clonard, it has to do with the special draw of the place.
It is a place where grace - that gift from God that enables us share and express a glimpse of His love - flows freely.
It is also an oasis of calm and restfulness in a very noisy world.
It draws one - in the company of quietly reinforcing fellow searchers and pilgrims - in a particularly understated, yet very welcoming, way into the Divine Presence and also into a growing relationship with the Mother of God, whom many Christians believe intercedes for us if asked so to do.
It is an opportunity for people to experience the shelter of community, a sense of solidarity, to pause and ponder the deepest aspects of life and reflect on what ultimately matters, as distinct from the ephemera all around us.
Clonard is run by the Redemptorists, a congregation of priests and brothers who live in a community "to preach the Good News of plentiful redemption".
In local terms, their most well-known members are now deceased: Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds, who contributed to the peace process.
Hundreds savour the Clonard experience during most weekdays of the year. Perhaps a couple of thousand do so on Thursdays during the five-weekly novena Masses.
The congregations swell again at Christmas and at Easter, but in terms of numbers there is nothing to beat the yearly novena which began at 6.45am today.
During the novena, between 12,000 and 15,000 will attend up to 10 services per day, making it one of the biggest and most enduring public demonstrations of faith in these islands.
It has been running for more than three-quarters of a century, since 1943.
The theme this year is 'Called to be Saints', about the call to holiness God makes to all people - inspired by a recent teaching document by Pope Francis (right), Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), thus prompting an examination of the Beatitudes at all services.
A particular highlight will be the 'ecumenical day' on Monday, when minsters from other Christian Churches preach at all the sessions.
The word 'novena' comes from the Latin novem (nine) and noveni (nine at a time).
How does one account for this remarkable social, cultural and religious phenomenon and logistical tour de force that captures the imagination of tens of thousands of people, year in and year out?
It is a question that is easily put, but not easily answered. What is not in dispute is that the novena has a place deep in the hearts of countless people.
"The novena means everything to me, everything, I cannot overstate it,", Margaret, a middle-aged woman from Twinbrook, told me. She has been going to the novena for 24 years since her brother took his own life.
"I take pictures of the novena and send them by WhatsApp to relatives and friends who are too old to attend," she added, as she took some pre-novena snaps outside Clonard.
Sherin, a young university student from India, is one of well over 300 volunteers who assist at the novena.
"It is a tremendous spiritual experience that involves the community as one. It is not just one person worshipping on their own. It brings such a sense of unity, of coming together," she told me on her way out of Clonard yesterday, after doing some last-minute preparations.
Andrea, a teacher and young mother from the Falls Road, stressed the critically important trans-generational character of the novena.
She says: "I am bringing along my young child to the novena, just as my parents brought me and just as my grandparents brought them."
Fr Peter Burns, CSsR, who just weeks ago commenced his second stint as rector of Clonard (having previously held the post from 2002-2008), says it is not easy to answer the question about the appeal of the novena.
"We ourselves keep asking that question and people ask us why it is such a great phenomenon," he said.
What he finds particularly striking is the wide range of people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds who attend - and particularly the presence of so many young men and women on their way to work at the first Mass of the day.
He said: "There will be no standing room in the church; the corridors and adjoining rooms will be full at 6.45am."
The many hundreds who cannot find a place in the church will observe Mass on closed-circuit TV, including in a marquee in the monastery gardens.
However, Fr Burns says he has no doubt that "one of the key reasons people are drawn to the novena has to do with the writing of petitions and of thanksgiving messages to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. All human life is there."
Countless thousands of these are written by those attending the novena.
But only a tiny number can be chosen by the preachers to be read out and heard not just by those attending in person, but by tens of thousands watching around the world on the web through live streaming via www.clonard.com.
It is deeply moving to hear stories of illness, addiction, debt, suicide, relationship breakdown and domestic violence.
But there are also uplifting stories of success against all the odds that those affected believe Our Lady is to be thanked for.
Fr Burns stresses his gratitude to his predecessor, Fr Noel Kehoe, CSsR, now in charge of the Redemptorists in Dundalk, for the manner in which he "streamlined the organisation and planning of the novena" in recent years.
Perhaps the real reason why the Clonard Novena continues to be an event of such significance at a time of crisis in the Church is that the Redemptorist community in Clonard genuinely try to adhere to their mission statement.
In it, they promise to "celebrate and proclaim the plentiful redemption of Jesus" and to "create an environment that will attract and reach out to those who feel alienated from belief or from the Church".
Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and award-winning former BBC producer