Fr Peter Devine SMA
Funeral Homily – March 26th 2007 at Tullyallen Parish Church
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Readings: Macc 12: 43-45
Hebrews 4: 12-16
Matt 25: 31-46
When the renowned scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, was once asked if he intended following the writing of The Death of the Messiah by a similar work on the Resurrection he replied, â€˜I would prefer to research that topic face to face’. Fr Peter â€˜Doc’ Devine SMA is now face to face with the topic of resurrection and it is the belief of the Christian community gathered here this afternoon that the Lord has invited him home to begin the process of full sharing in the very being of God.
One could say that Peter’s health has been in decline since the early 80s when developing cancer necessitated the loss of one kidney. But he battled bravely, honestly and fearlessly for many years to enjoy a very fine quality of life. If it is true that success is measured by how high you rise again after reaching rock bottom, then Peter was very successful indeed. Never was that battle more bravely fought that in the last four to five years when the renewed onset of cancer demanded radical steps to keep it at bay, from the best of alternative medicine to dialysis to whatever would give a glimpse or a window of opportunity. Peter treasured life and he was not going to let go easily. Even the last month was marked by enormous courage until eventually his tired and frail body could fight no more. Then on Friday night last he surrendered gracefully and very gently and calmly passed over from this life to the next.
It is at a time such as this that the quality of our faith is tested. For Peter’s family, confreres in the SMA, parishioners and very special and dear friends it is a time of great loss. â€˜Doc’ was a genuine character, in ways a larger than life figure. He will be missed and it is important that his passing is mourned and grieved. He had a good life but was not an old man by present day reckoning. However, we do have the consolation that our grieving and mourning is done in the context of a religious faith that solidly holds that Peter’s life has only changed, not ended. We are people of the resurrection.
Our opening reading from the Old Testament takes the example of Judas Maccabeus taking full account of the resurrection. As the text puts it: “for if he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead”. We know that it is far from foolish to pray for the dead. And that is why we gather here this afternoon – just as Peter himself gathered and celebrated so many funeral liturgies in his 46 plus years of priesthood – to pray Peter home into the God he tried to serve faithfully and well.
Peter was born here in Molleek, Tullyallen in September 1933. He attended the local primary school, a short period in the CBS Drogheda and then the SMA secondary school at Ballinfad, Co Mayo. It was here he earned the nickname â€˜Doc’, a name that was to stick to him through his missionary career in Africa and subsequent years in Cork and Dromantine. I’m told it may have originated in the fact that he was the first in the class to wear glasses and so was referred to as â€˜doctor’. In any case, whatever the genesis of the name it stuck like glue so much so that all SMAs knew â€˜Doc’ Devine but I bet many would not have known that his Christian name was Peter. After Ballinafad Peter moved into the full SMA formation system through Clough Ballymore, Wilton – where he took an Arts degree in University College Cork – and Dromantine, from where he was ordained in the largest class ever ordained in the Irish Province on 21st December 1960. During his student days â€˜Doc’ was a character. A keen interest in motor mechanics, carpentry etc set him apart as a man of action. He was never too academically inclined yet achieved the required standard to serve much of his missionary career in the teaching profession. During his student days he was also known as a keen sportsman, being a particularly tigerish opponent on the football field.
His family circumstances were not easy during his student days. His dad died rather prematurely from some type of blood poisoning and then his senior brother was tragically electrocuted. Enormous credit is due to his mother for the way she reared the family in such circumstances. Undoubtedly her faith strengthened her and Peter as the second in the family was as supportive as he could possibly be.
Peter was assigned after ordination to the diocese of Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. He was to commit the next 23 years of his life to the teaching profession. He served many years as principal. He worked in such schools as St Mary’s Secondary School, Fadan Kaje and Father in charge of Kankada – the first station opened in southern Zaria in 1937 by Fr Malachy Gately; St Patrick’s Secondary School, Zaria; Government Secondary School, Birnin Gwari; Government Secondary School, Kachia and finally in administration at the Zonal Office, Zaria.
I think it would be true to say that while â€˜Doc’ left an imprint in the field of education he left an even broader imprint through his extracurricular activities. His interest in cars was legendary, whether as to the mechanics of the engine or pursuing the hobby of rally driving. Many indeed associated the name â€˜Doc’ with doctor of mechanics. He used to tell wonderful stories of his different exploits in the rallying world. They were always colourful and one suspected that a little licence with the truth was employed towards embellishment.
Peter began to be troubled by various health issues from 1974 onwards but he bravely staved off the need to return to Ireland until it was absolutely necessary. He had to have an operation to repair damage to his vocal cords – an operation that was undoubtedly successful – but kidney failure forced the issue beyond discussion. When he returned to Ireland he was to spend some short time as a chaplain to the Vincent de Paul summer hostel at Mornington where he earned the respect and huge gratitude of the participants.
He was then to spend three years as Bursar of the SMA community house in Wilton, Cork. He continued to enjoy his interest in mechanics and flowers and plants etc but it was here that he especially developed and matured his interest and love affair with dogs, especially greyhounds. He became known far and wide the whole country, from coursing meetings at Clounnanna or Clonmel or track meetings at any corner of the country. His dog Tomahawk was his pride and joy for so many years. But this interest in dogs also had a pastoral dimension to it. He was a boisterous, flamboyant, transparent character who was easily liked and for many was non-threatening. He did much good in a very unpretentious and certainly not in any pious way.
And he exercised a similar type of ministry here in his home parish of Tullyallen. He was always a man of the soil and nothing gave him greater pride than his neighbours in the wee county. He would visit the sick in their homes or in hospital, bring communion to the house bound and generally be available wherever the need was greatest. Our gospel reading this afternoon would certainly have been an inspiration for Peter. â€˜Doc’ was not into using words if they could not be backed up by action. “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me”. These were not mere words for Peter; they were commands that had to be concretely fulfilled. For this reason it is fitting that he be buried here in his home church yard graveyard, alongside the other priests who have served this people well.
Peter was to spend the last 20 years of his life in this part of the country, attached to the community of Dromantine. Here he continued his interest in dogs, developed also an interest in Shetland Ponies and was general groundsman and maintenance coordinator for the plant at Dromantine. He became a much loved figure in the locality and continued to cement his relationship to his people at home.
Having said all of the above about Peter it would be a most incomplete picture not to acknowledge that Peter, just like the rest of humanity, had a shadow side as well. And because of his flamboyant and transparent personality his shadow too left its imprint. Peter was known to be quick tempered and impetuous. He was not a man for dialogue or for accessing the grey areas of argument or issue. As the saying goes he tended to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. This naturally got him into some spots of bother from time to time and required of his superiors some deft negotiating to get things back on track. He would not always have enjoyed a smooth and harmonious relationship with superiors. Confrontations were not infrequent and a prolonged period of stony silence could often ensue. However, thank God he was willing to accept the hand held out in reconciliation. Peter’s life was a good example of how the Christian life is a journey to godliness, not godliness attained.
And whatever can be said about the shadow side, undoubtedly it was well outshone by the side that drew forth from others love, esteem and affection. He wore his heart on his sleeve and indeed it was a heart of gold. He formed deep and abiding friendships, none more so than with his loving, caring and devoted friend, Kathleen Byrne. Kathleen took wonderful care of Peter especially as his health deteriorated. She attended to his every need and made what could have been a most painful journey over these past months a journey into peace and tranquillity.
As Peter passes on we pray that he enjoys the fullness of peace.
Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dilis.