Fr Donal M O’Connor SMA – funeral homily

Fr John Dunne, SMA Provincial Leader, led the concelebrated Requiem Mass for Fr Donal Michael O’Connor on Monday, 3 June 2013 at St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton.
The readings for the Mass were taken from Ecclesiastes 3, 1-7,11; Romans 14: 7-12 and Matthew 5: 1-12.

DOC Concelebrants

Pictured before the Requiem Mass were the Principal Concelebrants: Fathers Kevin Mulhern, Patrick N McGuire, John Dunne (Provincial Leader), Bishop Kieran O’Reilly and John Brown.

The following is Fr John’s homily on that occasion.

Thanksgiving is sweeter than bounty itself.
One who cherishes gratitude does not cling to the gift!
Thanksgiving is the true meat of God’s bounty; the bounty is its shell,
For thanksgiving carries you to the heart of the Beloved.
Abundance alone brings heedlessness,
Thanksgiving gives birth to alertness…  
The bounty of thanksgiving will satisfy and elevate you,
And you will bestow a hundred bounties in return.
Eat your fill of God’s delicacies,
And you will be freed from hunger and begging.  [Rumi]

We gather today to celebrate the life and work of Fr Donal O’Connor or Donie as many of us knew him. Over the last month or more we have been blessed to spend time with him as his life slowly drew to a close. That was not an easy time for him or for family and friends due to the nature of his illness. But now it is time to remember and celebrate his life of 80 years full of living and giving.

Fr Donal O’Connor will be remembered by many in different ways today and hereafter. One of the things I’m conscious of is that he did not use two words where one would suffice; he could sit in silence in your presence. I think he would not like me or anyone else using too many words about him on this occasion. However, I have no doubt he would like to be remembered quietly. The Scripture passage chosen for the first reading today speaks eloquently about life and its hidden mystery; and it also reminds us about the life of Donal. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Too often perhaps we rush to fix the time and to manage it in our way and this in turn prevents us from grasping and appreciating the grace of the present moment:

“… Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,

nor hankering after an imagined past.

It is the turning aside like Moses

to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”
[The Bright Field, RS Thomas]

If we do not see the beauty of the truth that for everything there is a time and a season, then at a time of mourning or loss we may want to rush ahead or to hold back. But there is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to hold on and a time to let go.

Looking now at how Donal lived the years of his long life we can see that there were many different seasons or invitations to do different things right from the beginning in Tralee where he was born on 28 April 1933. Then there were the years of family life with his parents, the late Catherine and Michael, RIP, his sisters, Kate and Honor. Good, happy years I believe! Then there followed his school years at CBS and his interest and involvement in local activities and sport. With his decision to enter the SMA – he became a member on 2 July 1952 – and the subsequent years of formation in preparation for ordination on 13 June 1956, a whole new range of seasons opened up for him bringing new challenges, opportunities and graces. Throughout these years and seasons he gradually learned that there was a time for every purpose under heaven. He was a man who was conscious of the need to live in the present while also acknowledging the stories of the past in order to better live in each new phase in preparation for the next season. He knew there was a time to seek, a time to let go and a time to find.

DOC Concelebrants 1

Some of the concelebrating priests and congregation during the distribution of Holy Communion

We all search for something important, a pearl in our lives. The poet RS Thomas reminds us of an important truth for living and dying:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it
.”

The treasure for Donie was his call to missionary priesthood. Once he found it he gave it all he had through his commitment to different ministries. His early assignments were for relatively short 4-year periods in Cambridge, Egypt and Ibadan, Nigeria. The range and scope of the challenges provided by each of these different ministries were invitations to Donie to respond to the challenge of embracing and letting go, of planting and uprooting, of weeping and laughing.

Our second reading reminds us of how our lives are connected to others and how what we do and say has an influence far beyond what is merely visible. Like Christ we are each invited to give our lives in love for the service of the other. Donie did this in many ways, but particularly during the eighteen years of ministry in formation work with young men who wished to join the SMA and many of who became SMA missionaries. There are over eighty of our priests, many of whom are here present today, who met him and knew Donie in this ministry either in Ireland or England. He endeavoured to challenge people to see what was the priority or the treasure in their lives and to choose that way of life and then take responsibility for their choice. He did not answer questions they could, and should, respond to themselves. He had a great respect for the person and he knew and understood the human capacity both to escape and to respond to what was central. He sought to help people to discover the dream of God for them through their vocational choices.

Yet another new season presented itself through his ministry in parish and pastoral settings over 16 years. He was dedicated and committed to helping people find shared faith answers to questions that were important. In the SMA parish in Walthamstow, Donie was central to creating a faith community that was inclusive and open to all people irrespective of class or origin. His dream and that of the SMA for Walthamstow was not just to run a typical parish of the time, but rather to attempt to build community by acknowledging the gifts and the differences of people and from this to grow something new and life-giving. Again a season emerged for doing a new thing and this offered a treasure to be sought after in collaboration with others.

The Gospel chosen for his funeral Mass is the familiar passage of the Beatitudes. These were the same Gospel principles or virtues that guided his ministry in the pastoral commitments he was assigned to and especially in Walthamstow. He was conscious that in life, “things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” [Goethe]

The journey continued for Fr Donal and he arrived at the season of retirement. Whatever his dream might have been we know that retirement was a short season as illness came as a new and unexpected guest. Aware that even the unexpected guest in life is sent for a purpose as a guide from beyond; sent to clear us out for some new delight, Donie accepted his illness and eventually welcomed death.

In all the seasons of his life Donal learned about change and grew towards an awareness of the mystery of God and the presence of person of Jesus in his life and work. Ever conscious of the truth:

“With the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling

we shall not cease from your exploration

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive at where we started

and know that place for the first time.”                         [T S Elliot]

When life’s journey draws to a close there is the harvest time, a time of reaping and blessings. For the fullness of time, which encompasses all seasons, we depend ultimately on the mercy of God from whom our salvation comes.

Rising from the dead, Christ became the light that illuminates all peoples, that lightens and saves the path of humanity and allows us to catch a glimpse of the face of God beyond the tunnel of death. Christians, who have been marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit, are the enlightened ones. Dying with Christ they rise again with Him in the dazzling light of the Lord’s Day and the new creation. They are new creatures, they are like the stars and they have a mission to illuminate the dark and sometimes tragic path of history.

Fr Donal has now joined them and he shared in that new mission so we pray:

May the road rise to meet you, Donie.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.   [Celtic blessing]

DOC Clergy procession

The procession of priests and people to the grave was led by the MC for the celebration, Fr Kevin Conway SMA.

Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Account of the funeral ceremonies