Tens of thousands of visitors expected at this year's Clonard Novena
THOUSANDS of worshippers are expected to descend on west Belfast this week for the annual Clonard Novena.
Due to begin on Wednesday, the popular nine-day event, which runs until Thursday, June 27, is held each year in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The large scale event attracts visitors from across Ireland and beyond, with many worshippers around the world tuning in on the Clonard webcam.
The theme of this year's event is `Called To Be Saints, Living The Beatitudes'.
The Novena also welcomes new Clonard Rector Fr Peter Burns, who recently took on the role.
As a former Rector of Clonard and member of the community, Fr Burns is already well known in the area.
Born in Inishowen in Co Donegal, Fr Burns moved to north Belfast at the age of 10.
After attending Holy Family Primary School and St Malachy's College, he went on to undertake his Redemptorist training and was ordained in 1968.
He first arrived at Clonard in 1972, spending a number of years living there as a member of the community, alongside his uncle, Fr Frank Burns, who was also a Redemptorist.
He then moved to St Clement's on the Antrim Road for three years before he moved to Dundalk where he was Director of Formation for eight years.
He then moved back to Clonard in 1990 for six years before moving again to Dundalk.
He was appointed Rector of Clonard in 2002 for six years before again moving, to become Rector of the Redemptorist house in Dublin.
In 2011, he was on the move again, this time to Dundalk before moving back to Clonard last month.
Looking towards the 2019 Novena, Fr Burns said this year's event was "interesting" because of its finish date.
"One of the interesting things about this year's Novena is, I think, is that it's later than usual, so it ends on 27th June, which it very, very rarely does, and the 27th June is actually the Feast of the Mother of Perpetual Help," he said.
"It helps us to remember the meaning of the word Novena. The Solemn Novena is meant to be a nine-day preparation for a feast and it always ends before the feast but ideally, it should end on the feast. It's very rare".
Fr Burns said: "The theme this year is going to be the `Beatitudes'.
"It is based on Pope Francis's letter on holiness called `Called to be Saints, Living the Beatitudes'.
"I think one of the things the Beatitudes does is it just shows what an upside down world Jesus preached in the gospel," he said.
"So, that's what the preachers will have to try and tackle. They'll be having to explain how could it possibly be true that it is happy to be poor when the world around you is screaming that the only thing is to be rich.
"It is an interesting and challenging theme".
Fr Burns said there would be four religious preachers this year however for the first time in many years, no lay preachers will take part.
"That's slightly unusual," he said.
"We have no women, which is a shame. The pool of potential preachers is shrinking all the time and I would have liked, not just to have a lay person, but a woman".
The religious preachers taking part include Fr Gerry Maloney, who spent more than 20 years as the editor of the Redemptorist magazine, Reality and director of Redemptorist communications, and Fr Brendan Keane, whose ministries have included parish missions and retreats as well as ministries to prisoners and people in recovery from addiction.
The other two preachers are Fr Kieran Brady, who is a co-ordinator of parish missions in the UK and Fr Denis Luddy, a Cork native, who is a renowed preacher and parish missioner.
Fr Burns said a lot of hard work goes into organising the Novena every year.
"There is a small team who oversee planning and 300 volunteers," he said.
"Some of them you see in the church. There are a lot of people behind the scenes you don't see."
The Redemptorist described the Clonard Novena as "very inclusive" and the number of of petitions and thanksgivings handed over during the nine-day event have been described as "phenomenal".
"People know when they listen to them that all human life is here. They identify with them," he said.
"Clonard is always welcoming.
"We are always waiting for it to go into a decline. We always feel there is an inevitability.
"The Clonard Novena has continued to thrive which is great but it's hard work".
Looking to the future, Fr Burns said his primary role would be looking after Clonard and its ageing community and "continue what we have been doing in terms of ministry".
"The Peace and Reconciliation ministry is incredibly important," he said.
"The Youth ministry, and service of the church, all of these have to be kept going. We have to reflect on what the future is going to be. There's lots of challenges".