Fr Liam Burke SMA – funeral homily

Fr Michael McCabe, SMA Provincial Leader, led the Concelebrated Funeral Mass for Fr Liam Burke at St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork on Thursday, 1 November 2013 at 12 noon. Fr Burke died on 30 October at the St Theresa’s Nursing Unit in the African Missions, Blackrock Road, Cork.

Joining Fr Michael as Principal Concelerants were Canon Seamus McEvoy (former Parish Priest of Fr Liam’s home parish of Inistogue, The Rower, Co Kilkenny), Fr Leo Silke SMA (a classmate of Fr Liam) and Fr Maurice Henry (Provincial Councillor and who worked in northern Nigeria with Fr Liam for many years). More than 50 other priests joined in celebrating the Mass. They included diocesan clergy as well as members of St Patrick’s Missionary Society (SPS), Augustinian Order (OSA) who had worked with Fr Liam in Nigeria.

Readings for the Mass: Isaiah 25:6-9; Romans 14:7-12 and John 17:24-26

After the Gospel, Fr McCabe preached the following homily

Fr Liam Burke joined the SMA on the 14th September 1946 and was ordained a priest in 1952. That same year he was appointed to serve the then Prefecture of Kaduna, Northern Nigeria. Apart from one year, on a special assignment in Ghana (1958-59), Kaduna would be his mission field for 47 years, until his retirement to Blackrock Road in 1999. Liam served in several parishes including Minna, Kantagora, Zuru, Gawu, Guni, Zonkwa and different parishes in Kaduna City. He also held key administrative posts in the Archdiocese of Kaduna under Archbishops John McCarthy and Peter Jatau. A glorious highlight of his time in Kaduna was his co-ordination of the arrangements and preparations for the vist of Pope John Paul II to Kaduna in 1982. His delight on that occasion is captured in a quite unique photo of him being embraced by the Pope (you can find this photo in the obituary notice on our website).

On the occasion of his Golden Jubilee in 2002, Fr Liam wrote that “what gave him the greatest joy was to share in establishing the indigenous Church in Northern Nigeria.” He was indeed privileged to witness, and to play a major part in, the dramatic growth of the Church in Northern Nigeria during the almost 50 years he worked there. A few words from a report he wrote while in retirement underline the extent of that growth.

The SMA had come to Northern Nigeria in 1907 and had lost many missionaries in pushing forward the frontiers proclaiming the Good News. I lived through a blessed time as we tried to cope with an extraordinary time of grace. When I took my departure (from Kaduna) in 1999, I was leaving behind a dynamic young Church which I could quantify: 3 Ecclesiastical Provinces (Archbishops), 17 Jurisdictions and over 300 indigenous priests.

However, it is not just the number of years Fr Liam spent in Kaduna or the numerical growth of the Church during that time which made him the remarkable missionary that he was. It was rather the special qualities that he brought to his missionary engagement that are, for me, truly significant. Liam was a well read man of broad vision and sharp critical intelligence, who reflected deeply on what it meant to be a missionary in the changing Church and Africa of his time. Missionaries have often been seen as doers rather than thinkers, but Liam was a thinking missionary who kept himself constantly updated what was happening in the Church and the world of his time. His reading and reflection shaped his missionary strategy and goals.

He was among the very first western missionaries to become involved in what was called “social development.” A seminal experience for him was his participation, from 1958-59, in a social development project in Ghana, inspired and organised by a Mgr John O’Grady (head of Caritas Internationalis). This project was, as Fr Liam put it, “a Catholic effort to prepare missionaries for a new era of evangelisation” on the cusp of Independence. When he returned to Kaduna from Ghana, he put his considerable administrative skills and enthusism into the deveolopment of self-help projects and other forms of community development. As head and coordinator of the social development committee in Kaduna Province, I was told that he always began meetings with a lecture elaborating the Catholic theology of social development. For him the Church’s involvement in social development is the social expression of the Church’s witness to Love; it is motivated not simply by humantiarian concern but by the Gospel; it must respond to the felt needs of the local Church, and involve the local Church in policy making and planing; its primary concern is with people not buildings; and its ultimate goal is promote independence not dependency. His balanced and well thought-out approach to social development earned him the trust and respect of Misereror and other Aid Agencies and he was a valuable contact person between them and the Church in Kaduna.

Fr Liam’s thoughful contribution to missionary work can be seen in other areas as well. In 1961, while he was still a young man, the Provincial Superior at the time, Fr Creavan, asked him to suggest a tyrocinium programme (with a reading list) for newly fledged missionariees arriving in Africa for the first time. In response he outlined a well-balanced up-to-date programme with emphasis on Bible study, Liturgy, theology, local Languages, African history and Geography, missiology, knowledge of civil law and goverment institutions as well as of ecclesiasticical law. All his life Liam kept himself up-dated, not only on what was happening in the Church and the world, especially events relevant to Africa, but also on current trends in theology and missiology. In retirement he developed a keen interest in African migrants, and the impact on them of the globalisation of capital and the communications’ explosion. In 2001 he wrote “we see the birth of a unique African who straddles continents and cultures” He felt that the SMA should do more to promote a positive image of Africa and its peoples in the context of growing intolerance and racism and of the negative image of Africa often portrayed in the media. In his submission to the 2001 Assemblies he proposed, among other things, that the SMA elaborate a policy on African Asylum seekeres to counteract racism and a professional SMA Journal on African Affairs.  

Fr Liam’s close friendhips with many influential Muslim leaders in Northern Nigeria gave him a valuable insight into how to deal the many tensions that were, during his time in Kaduna, and even more so today, besetting the relationship between Christians and Muslims in North Nigeria. He was an active promoter of inter-religious dialogue long before such dialogue became fashionable. He was also involved in ecumenical dialogue. In retirement he became a member of the Cork Bible Society. His notes and letters during this time offer an insightful reading of the reason for the growing popularity of the Pentecostal Churches in Africa.

The remarkable contribution of Fr Liam Burke to the mission of SMA and the Church (both in practice and theory) could not have been made without a profound spirituality. The spirituality that underpinned his missionary commitment and nurtured him throughout his life is captured in a prayer he penned, while in retirement, in Easter 2001:

Grant, O Lord that we may never shrink from the task of proclaiming your Gospel to the people of Africa, to all people, to whom you sent us as missionaries. Grant us the courage to trust your word fully and commend your people to the Lord. We give you thanks for all you have achieved through your humble servants. Grant us disinterest, Lord Jesus, so that we may not want to interfere in the young Church we have now commended to you. Grant us detachment and to realise always that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. Let us pray for one another that through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, we may continue being members of a living Church in our lives. Our Lady of Fouvier, where our Society was founded, pray for us to be missionaries in spirit and in truth.

Fr Liam’s life of missionary commitemnt incarnated the four qualities mentioned in that prayer: trust in God’s Word; courageous witness to the liberating power of the Gospel; humility in the service of others; and detachment in letting go and allowing others to take over when we have made our contribution. And now we let our brother, Liam, return to the home of the Master whom he served so well on earth. We let him go confident in the Lord’s promise that those the Father has given him will be raised up on the last day. In this Eucharist, as in every Eucharist, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting” – the ultimate horizon of our faith beyond the portals of death.