Fr Tony Butler SMA – obituary

Fr Anthony J Butler died peacefully at 5.50pm on Thursday, 16 October 2014, at the Cork University Hospital. His brother Don, other relatives and Fr Chris Brennan SMA were with him when he died.

Tony was one of four sons born to James and Anne Butler [née McCabe]. His brothers Colm and Jimmy predeceased him. He was born in the parish of St Agatha’s, North William Street, Dublin on 24 June 1941. He was baptised and confirmed in St Agatha’s. He attended St Canice’s Primary School and his secondary schooling was in O’Connell Schools [1955-1959]. Wanting to become a missionary he began his studies with the Society of African Missions [SMA] at their Novitiate in Cloughballymore, Co Galway in September 1959, becoming an SMA member on 25 June 1960. He studied Philosophy and Theology at the African Missions Major seminary in Dromantine, Newry and, along with 16 classmates, was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman, Newry on 20 December 1965.

His first mission appointment was to the diocese of Ibadan, Nigeria. Fragile health, such as high blood pressure [which was diagnosed during his student days], was to be Fr Tony’s constant companion and in April 1968 he was forced to leave the tropics and take up a pastoral appointment in the diocese of Salford [Manchester], England. Still a missionary at heart he asked to return to the missions when his health improved and in August 1973 he was appointed to the Vicariate of Monrovia, Liberia where he served until December 1974. When again forced to return home it was decided to ask Tony to use his methodical and organizational skills in the Main Office at Blackrock Road, Cork where the different mission promotion projects [Novenas, November Dead List, African Missionary magazine…] were based. He was Main Office Manager from February 1975 to August 1980.

Fr Tony was always committed to the pastoral ministry and though this found some outlet in the letters he wrote to supporters who contacted him asking prayers for particular needs, he still yearned for ‘normal’ parish life. The next twelve years were spent as Curate in the SMA parishes in Luton [England] and Wilton [Cork]. During his years at the Sacred Heart parish in Stopsley, Luton, Fr Tony was Chaplain to people living with HIV/Aids and represented the Bishop at national meetings dealing with their care. When Fr Tony was withdrawn for a home appointment, Bishop Francis Thomas wrote: “we are sorry to see Tony Butler leave us; he has given great service to the people here.”

In 1993 Fr Tony came to live in Blackrock Road and this was to be his home for the rest of his life. Among the tasks assigned to him, at various times in this period, were Treasurer, Assistant to the Superior and Guestmaster. During this period [1996-‘97] Fr Tony studied for a Diploma in Psychotherapy at UCC. From January 2008 to July 2013 Fr Tony was Assistant Priest in the SMA Parish at Blackrock Road. Having decided to retire he found the pull of parish life too strong and he returned to minister in the parish at the beginning of September this year.

Tony was appreciated by different Provincial leadership teams for his particular gifts and they appointed him to several Society commissions – on Retirement [1990 – 1993] and a second Commission on same [1996], organising the visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux to the National Shrine of the Saint at the SMA parish church on Blackrock Road [2002]. But it was not just the Provincial leadership who recognized his talents. He was also esteemed by his confreres who elected him to represent them as a Delegate to the 1978 and 1995 Provincial Assemblies and the 1998 Extraordinary Provincial Council. At the time of his death he was one of the four elected members of the Blackrock community Council where his wit often lightened the serious nature of some discussions.

Tony was much in demand as a Preacher for special celebrations and also as a Retreat master. He travelled the length of the country and beyond giving retreats to various groups as well as to his own confreres in the SMA. He visited both Liberia and Zambia, giving retreats to SMA’s and other groups who appreciated his meticulous preparation of homilies and talks. His Sunday homilies were the fruit of hours of preparation each week. He saw it, along with a proper celebration of the Liturgy, as one of the most important tasks a priest in parish ministry could do – most of your parishioners you saw once a week and so you needed to make the best possible use of that time to share the Word of God with them and feed them with the Body of Christ. Fr Tony was unfailing in this regard. The preparation of couples for marriage was another area where Fr Tony was noted. It was his practice to take the couple for a meal, to get a sense of them and their relationship with God and Church. In some cases, where a couple might not want the traditional Wedding Mass, he was willing to offer them the alternative wedding celebration provided for which did not include a celebration of the Mass. This is more familiar to couples in England where many marriages are celebrated without the Mass.

Tony was a man deeply in touch with himself. His health issues, particularly depression, gave him an empathy with others who were suffering. He wrote about this, and other issues, in different religious and secular magazines, including Human Development, The Furrow, Spirituality, Irish Press… He was also an occasional contributor to Liveline on RTE1. He was Chaplain to many groups, including L’Arche in Bishopstown, Cork and, having the benefit of Clinical Pastoral Education [CPE] in 2002, was on the Chaplaincy team in the Mercy Hospital. He was also invited to speak to groups of Nurses and University students on different issues.

But it was his personal one to one relationship with people in need that will be his lasting legacy. He was an instrument of God’s love and mercy to countless women and men. Tony’s pastoral style and commitment [indeed everything about him] came from his fundamental conviction to be a Christ-like presence to others where they are at. One of his favourite quotations, from As Bread that is broken, written by Jesuit priest, Peter vanBreemen, reflects this:

I am accepted by God as I am – as I am, and not as I should be. To proclaim the latter is an empty message because I never am as I should be. I know that in reality I do not walk a straight path. There are many curves, many wrong decisions which in the course of life have brought me to where I am now and Scripture tells me that “the place on which you stand is holy ground” [Exodus 3:5].

A description of him, during his student days as ‘quiet, pleasant and sincere’, was certainly true right up to the day he returned to the house of his Father whom he so faithfully served all his life and for 49 years as a priest.

Fr Tony’s death will be greatly mourned by all whose lives he touched and particularly by his brother, Don, his sister-in-law Marie, nieces Ruth and Barbara and his nephew David, their spouses Neil, Maik and Susana, other relatives, friends and confreres in the Society of African Missions.

May he now enjoy his eternal rest.

Read homily of SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Michael McCabe, at the Mass to celebrate the life of Fr Tony.