Funeral Homily of Fergus Conlan

Fr Fergus Conlan SMA

Funeral Homily – Janurary 23rd, 2006

(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)

Readings: Isaiah 25: 6-9
1 John 4: 7-11
John 11: 19-27

First of all, I want to extend to you from Ireland profound condolence on the very unexpected death of Fr Fergus Conlan SMA. On behalf of the entire membership of the Irish Province of the SMA I extend to Fr Fergus’ family, the church here in Ndola our sincerest sympathy. To Bishop Noel O’Regan SMA, to the priests, sisters, catechists, laity leaders, youth leaders, and the full membership of the church I give an assurance of prayerful remembrance at this sad time. It is always sad to lose a colleague; it is even tougher to lose a leader; to lose both a colleague and leader in such unexpected circumstances is a significant trauma. To those of you who were present last Tuesday morning at Kuomboka to realise that Fergus was no longer with us I offer a special word of comfort and sympathy. When I heard the news in Ireland it was with profound shock. How much more shocking must it have been for you to realise that the one you greeted ‘good night’ to in seeming good health only a few hours before was now dead. My prayer is that this celebration of Fergus’ life and entry into new life will be for you a moment of great consolation and serenity. May you find in this celebration the strength to continue your ministry of service to the church in Zambia and find in the memory of Fergus empowerment for yourself and your people in the days and years ahead.

It is at moments such as this that we value our faith. If it were not for our faith in Jesus’ promise of new life events such as that which took place last Tuesday morning would leave us full of despair. Because of our faith despair is replaced by hope. We believe with sure conviction that the God who called Fergus into earthy life sixty-six years ago in Ireland has now called him home to his own side to enjoy the fullness of life in his very presence.

What is important to realise is that our belief that Fergus has entered new life is not due to the fact that he was a priest. Being a priest does not entitle him to any favours in the sight of God. He has been a servant, and a good servant, but in the words of scripture he has merely done his duty. There is a danger that we may think that a priest, because he deals each day in the things of God, because through a regular prayer life he ought to have a deep relationship with God, he somehow has a shortcut to new life. But this is not the case. The priest, just like any Christian, just like any human on the face of the planet, is redeemed and saved only by Jesus Christ. New life, fullness of life, resurrected life is not something we can earn by dent of hard work. Rather it is a free gift that God bestows on those he loves. Our job in life is to somehow put ourselves in the right frame to receive that new life when it is offered. Whether you are a catechumen setting out on the road to Christian living or the Pope in Rome you will have to receive from our loving Father in heaven this gift of new life. It is not a prize for anything we have done on this earth. Our task today then is to pray for Fergus. To pay him our final respects. To give gratitude to God for the life he gave him and the way he used him to better the lives of countless thousands, both in Africa, Europe and America. And to pray him home into the arms of the God he tried to love and serve all his days.

Fergus has been tremendously influential in the lives of so many people in this church today. The outpouring of grief and the sense of solidarity over these last days is fitting testament to that. He has been influential in the lives of many people thousands of miles from here. It is only natural then that we should over these last days be full of sadness and grief. This is a normal, solid human response. But while we acknowledge our grief and give it sufficient time to be articulated in word and deed, we cannot stay in our grief. Fergus himself would have little patience with us if we were to wallow in grief to such an extent that we were unable to function effectively. Fergus did not live in the past; his focus was always on present and future. So now we must continue the struggle to advance God’s reign in our daily lives.

Our opening reading this morning reminds us that in God’s plan the mourning vale would only be a temporary thing. Our Christian faith assures us that at death life is changed, not ended. We will reaffirm this faith in our Preface prayer of this Mass shortly. But even long before the coming of Jesus, God was assuring his people through the Prophet Isaiah that he was preparing for all peoples a banquet of rich food, that he was going to remove the mourning veil and the shroud of death enwrapping all nations because he would destroy death for ever. We know that he did this completely in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We know that God never reneges on his promises so we can be assured that our present mourning will pass into celebration and rejoicing. I already detect that the church here in Ndola has moved into that stage of celebration. Your faith is your assurance. Long may it live and be strengthened.

Our gospel passage today gives us that wonderful encounter between Jesus and Martha. On the human level, I believe, each of us can identify with Martha’s disappointment. She had put her hope in Jesus but his late arrival had now meant that her brother, Lazarus, was already dead. I’m sure any one of us would have been annoyed at Jesus for his delay in answering their summons. Jesus does not take offence at Martha’s reprimand but he says to her in his gentle but reassuring way “it is not too late. In Christ it is never too late because I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. He then goes on to ask a very simple but very crucial question “Do you believe this?” That same question is being asked of each one of us present in this church this morning. Do you believe this? If Fr Fergus’ death does nothing else than force us to address that question, it will have achieved much.

Fr Fergus gave a very clear and unambiguous answer to that question. Yes, he said, I do believe. He proclaimed this faith every time he entered the church to pray. Every time he vested for the celebration of Mass. He proclaimed it in every act of kindness and love he did for his family. Every act of kindness and care for the people of his parish was a statement of belief. He proclaimed it in every selfless deed he did to make this community a living and caring community. He had no doubt that with Jesus he too would rise again. And with Jesus he believed that his spirit would never die. That too is our faith today. Fergus’ spirit lives on through his extended family, his colleagues in the SMA, through the communities he has served, and through all those he blessed in this life through his natural goodness.

Fergus lived as a man who at a very deep level knew he was loved by God. He did not always have to articulate this in flowery language. He simply lived it. In his uncomplicated way he grasped the essence of today’s second reading. Here we are admonished to love one another “since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love. This is the love I mean: not our love for God but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away”. Fergus had a very positive attitude towards people. He believed they could achieve the best if they were given the freedom to exercise their own natural gifts. He did not like to impose but rather sought to draw out from people the goodness that was within them. Sometimes his style was laid back. At other times he could be enormously challenging. But whatever style he adopted at any particular moment his entire attitude was formed by this conviction that we are deeply loved by God. As St John puts it, our concern is God’s love for us, not our love for God. Why does St John focus so much on this? Simply because he knew that to focus on our love for God would eventually leave us profoundly shamed. As the song puts it, “my love for you my Lord is only a shadow of your love for me”. Our love is limited and conditional. God’s love is enduring, it is lavish, it is eternal, it is not even dependant on our response. God is not going to love me less because my response is inadequate. Sure, my inadequate response may mean that I am not in a good space to receive God’s love but that never stops God seeking me out to be the recipient of his love. This is beautifully put by the prophet Isaiah when he says “God is waiting to be gracious to you”. This is a beautiful image: one can picture God waiting with a broad smile for our return to him.

Fergus Conlan was born in Newry, Co Down, Northern Ireland in 1939. He had three brothers and one sister. His brother, Finbarr, has predeceased him. He did his primary studies in his local school and then graduated to the Christian Brothers school in Newry. He joined the Society of African Missions and during the course of his studies took a degree in zoology and bio-chemistry. During his student days he was a noted athlete. He was particularly adept at the game of Gaelic Football and achieved the highest honours with his native county when Co Down won the All-Ireland championship in 1961. After ordination to the priesthood in 1964 he was first appointed to the Diocese of Ondo in Nigeria. After four years he was called home to serve as dean in the SMA juniorate College of Ballinafad. He found the atmosphere in the school too restricting so he sought and was given permission to take further studies in youth guidance. This course was to have a profound influence on his subsequent career. He returned to Nigeria for another ten years. For the rest of his life he was to become the champion of youth everywhere he went. He even earned the title ‘Professor’ in this ‘University for Youth’ here in Francisdale. He had little sympathy with those who found young people indisciplined and untrustworthy. He believed that youth should be challenged but they should also be allowed to take risks because to risk is to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. I know that there are many youths in this church this morning who owe a great deal to Fergus’ insistence on youth being given their rightful place in society. He put many a student through school be seeing to their school fees and sponsored others for different arts and crafts. In fact, something remarkable about Fergus was his ability to relate across the generations. In order to relate to youth he had to consciously get younger each year. When many others who were chronologically younger than Fergus began to tire of the patience youth work required he never lost his passion for this ministry.

Because of his interest in youth it was only natural that the SMA would ask him to take up the ministry of vocations recruitment. This he did for three years in Northern Ireland. He followed this up with two years of a Masters in Psychology programme in Boston, USA. The skills he was to pick up here were to stand to him in his next assignment which was here in Zambia. He came to Zambia in 1986 and for the last twenty years he has been a stalwart champion of the church of the laity. He was obviously impressed by the church he found here and did all he could to continue in that tradition. At every international meeting he would talk with pride of the laity-led church of Zambia. He never espoused the clerical model of church. I read recently of the rather humorous happening at the time of his Silver Jubilee of priesthood. If there was to be a celebration, Fergus insisted that the laity should also be celebrated. Organising the jubilee of wedding ceremonies turned out to be a bit more complicated than was first envisaged. Fergus served in Cimwemwe, Francisdale and in Kuomboka. All of you here will knows these towns and parishes far better than I do so I will not attempt to describe the quality of his ministry there. However, I do know that it was mainly characterised by his love and care for those on the margins of society; the poor, women, widows, youth. He lived in a very practical way the vision of the founder of the SMA, Bishop Melchior deBresillac, who dedicated himself and called on all his followers to serve the most abandoned. I am told that Cimwemwe means ‘joy’. Very fitting because I know Fergus brought much joy to many during his earthly ministry.

Fergus was a very gifted singer and guitar player. Yet, he was rarely the life of the party in that he was a shy man in many ways. Quietly spoken, sometimes almost taciturn, and yet a good mixer. A good listener, he always gave space to people to find their own strength and if they faced problems he did not simply solve them but rather empowered people to be the agents of their own problem solving. He was generous, innovative and creative and always keen to push the boat out beyond the safe harbours of the status-quo. He was his own man and never gave in to playing the party line just for his own comfort. The German poet and philosopher, Goethe, once said, The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of them. Fergus never allowed himself to fall into that danger.
He was passionate and forceful, and had a huge hunger for justice. Nowhere was this more obvious than in church issues. This sometimes made him a difficult interlocutor. Those in authority positions could always be assured of a vigorous challenge if Fergus perceived them being too afraid to move in the direction that he felt the Spirit was moving the church. He could even sometimes be sharp but one always knew that his purpose was not to offend or to cause personal hurt but rather to shift the model to a more innovative and liberating style of leadership.

Because of his competence it was only natural that he was frequently voted by his confreres in the SMA to positions of leadership. He did not seek such positions but when they were thrust upon him he did not shirk for the task. At the last General Assembly of the Society in 2001 he constantly challenged the leadership and the other delegates to move beyond the zones of comfort, to seek to move the global church to recognise new forms of ministry and priesthood. Not everyone agreed with him and not all his ideas carried the day, but his enthusiasm was enough to effect change that has continued to challenge in the intervening years.

Obviously Fergus’ health was not as strong as it appeared. In fact, going back many years he has had a catalogue of surgical procedures on his body. Almost twelve years ago he underwent by-pass surgery of the heart. Two years ago in Ireland he took a turn and was actually clinically dead for a few moments. Thank God he then recovered and was able to continue his ministry here. But all together must undoubtedly have taken their toll on his physical wellbeing.

Fergus’ death creates a huge loss for his family and for the church here in Zambia. For the Diocese of Ndola, and particularly for the SMA here in Zambia. As Superior of this Region he was responsible for the continuation of our mission here and the growth of the Society. He carried these responsibilities lightly but he will be difficult to replace. Our prayers must now be with Fr Anthony Kelly and the team as they take over the mantle of leadership. I have no doubt that they will do so with great effectiveness, but I do ask all of you here to support them through your prayers and every kind of assistance.

Fergus has now begun the procession down the road to eternity. He will be hugely missed: his strength, his handshake, his smile, his devilment, his music, his determination, his tenacity, his honesty, his courage, his conviction, his faith, his charity, his companionship.

Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.