The call from my friend and colleague, Irish Jesuit Kevin O’Rourke, wasn’t one I expected. I confess now to wondering at first if my leg were being pulled, ever so gently and softly, by this genial but persuasive son of Erin. But he was for real: Would I join the team of Jesuits and fellow-workers at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, in the Irish midlands?
That week looked comparatively light in my diary, I knew nothing of rural Ireland, let alone of ploughing or anything agricultural, other than supermarket purchases for my Jesuit community, items that previously had some vague connection with a farm, mud, grass, soil, that kind of thing. I’d read and even taught a few poems of Seamus Heaney. Thus equipped, I agreed.
Were anyone to ask you what was the biggest outdoor event in Europe this year, you might suggest a sporting event: the soccer championships, an independence rally in Catalonia or Scotland, maybe some other political event or protest. You’d be wrong.
This occasion eclipsed them all. It is the largest by far, its scale mind-boggling. Official figures put the attendance at over 110,000 on the first full day, more than would fit into Europe’s largest football stadium. The sheer size and the organization was breathtaking. Not only were there all sorts of agricultural equipment manufacturers showing their contraptions, many of which I didn’t know had even been invented, but many businesses were hosting stalls or field-tents; there were at least 1,500 exhibitors. The area, comprising around 40 farms set aside for the event, stretched over a mile from end to end.
People came from every corner of the four provinces of Ireland. Just listening to the wonderful variety and range of accents was itself astonishing, from the near-impossible vowels of Fermanagh in the north to the Cork and Kerry folk whose diction is more of a lovely lilting song than it is the spoken word.
The logistics must have taken all year to plan and were carried out magnificently. Most roads in those parts are narrow but An Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, had it all sorted out. Our exhibition party breakfasted, rather magnificently, at 5:30 each morning on delicious Irish fare—the unprocessed versions of which we would see running around fields a little later—then joined these vast crowds.
And why were we Jesuits there? It’s said of St. Ignatius that he loved the big cities; here was an temporary city drawn from the countryside. We went because people were there. We had one of the larger pavilions, with space enough for a number of Jesuit apostolates in Ireland, ranging from the popular Manresa spirituality center on the outskirts of Dublin, via the Pioneers and Messenger publications, next to the McVerry Trust and the Jesuit Refugee Service, both advocating for and accompanying displaced and homeless people, to the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network and Jesuit Missions.
Beyond all these manifestations of contemporary Jesuit ministry hid something more fundamental. It was revealed in casual yet profound conversation with fellow spectators at the championships, in some cases engendered by sheer curiosity about this Jesuit presence, in other instances because of memories of Jesuit teachers and pastors or a more fondly remembered sense of belonging to a faith-filled community that people had left or who felt had left them.
The biggest attraction of all was the presence of the crucifix of John Sullivan, S.J., an Irish Jesuit who died in 1933, after quickly gaining a reputation for sanctity and service. Already declared venerable by Rome, there are high hopes for his beatification. His crucifix is normally kept by his tomb, now a shrine at the Jesuit church of St. Francis Xavier in Dublin. It had been given to him by his mother and held in his hands at the moment of death.
People young and old, some drawn to our pavilion by the chance of a selfie with our life-size Pope Francis cut-out, queued to pray and bless themselves with the crucifix. These were moving, profound moments. The encounter with a tangible connection with a holy person was a surprise within the surprise of finding a Jesuit presence in the midst of such an agricultural exhibition. I marvelled at the bravery of Father Kevin and his team for organizing it and wondered how much more could happen if we similarly reached out into an ambient culture by which we’re sometimes spooked.
And the ploughing? I didn’t get to see any at all.
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.