Funeral Homily of Thomas Egan

Fr Tom Egan SMA

Funeral Homily – 5 May 2006

(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork)

Readings: Macc 12: 43-45
2 Peter 3: 8-14
Mt 11: 25-30

In his heyday, Fr Tom Egan was renowned for the eloquence of his after-dinner speeches or his words of gratitude at an SMA Promoters’ meeting. It was a pleasure to be treated to Tom’s choice of complimentary and affirmative phrases that were rarely understated. However, in his latter years, particularly since he joined the community at Blackrock Road, his was a quiet but contented presence. It is perhaps fitting then that he died on the Feast of two of Jesus’ less prominent apostles, Saints Philip and James. Tom died on Wednesday morning last at the South Infirmary Hospital after a relatively short illness. We gather here this afternoon to celebrate this funeral liturgy and pray for the repose of his soul.

This is the fifth occasion already this year that the Irish Province of the SMA is celebrating a funeral liturgy for one of our colleagues. Each funeral has its own individual stamp but all are reminders to us that life is not of our choosing and is outside our control. Our task is to accept the life that is given to us and at the end surrender it back to the God from where it all began. For Tom that life breath was first breathed over 80 years ago. We are truly thankful to God today for the richness of his 80 years. Our sadness at parting is no less real for the fact that Tom enjoyed a long life. His sisters and brother, nieces and nephews and extended family will miss his presence as will the members of the SMA. It was touching, over these last weeks particularly, to see the affection in which he was held by his extended family. But we are blessed that our Christian faith allows us to place his passing in a context that looks beyond this life. Jesus’ promise that we will enjoy life in God into eternity enables us to acknowledge the human loss but to recognise that our brother has now simply moved into a new phase of existence.

In our first reading this afternoon we read about the Maccabbeen clan. If there was one characteristic above all others that marked them out it was their total dedication to Yahweh, total dedication to Yahweh’s people and unswerving perseverance right to the end, in spite of suffering or danger. In the Book of Maccabees we find the first thought-through Old Testament theology of resurrection. Judas Maccabeus, by his collection for the sacrificial sin offering, attested to his belief in the resurrection. This was some years before Jesus came to confirm that those who die in the Lord are indeed raised to life with him. As the reading 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”. Our faith guarantees that it is far from superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. We do so in the sure faith knowledge that as Tom died with Christ in baptism, he will also imitate him in his resurrection.

It seems to me, from knowing a little of the life and character of Tom Egan, that our 2nd reading today, taken from the second letter of St Peter summarises the spirituality on which Tom based his whole life. In the Lord’s time-scale one day is equal to a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. In terms of Tom’s life, one day is equal to 80 years and 80 years is just like one day. Operating out of that perspective, then, it becomes incumbent on us to “live holy and saintly lives while we await the Day of God to come”. As St Peter puts it, “do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace”. There is no doubt that Tom tried to do exactly this throughout his life, sometimes, perhaps, to a fault.

Our gospel passage reminds us that we have no claim on divine revelation. Whatever is revealed of the mystery of God is pure gift. “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children”. Human intelligence – intellectual knowledge – is no gateway to understanding the mystery of the divine. Only the stance of solid faith opens us to the possibility of receiving whatever is gifted to us of the mystery of God. And this mystery reveals the extraordinary promise that when we come to the Lord with our burdens he will give us rest. How often must Tom have come with his worldly burdens before the gentle and humble heart of the Lord and found there that the burden shared had then become light.

Tom Egan was born in 1925 in Cloonacool, Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, under the shadow of the Ox mountains. He was the eldest in a family of two boys and three girls. He did his early secondary school studies at the diocesan minor seminary of St Nathy’s, Ballaghdereen. He completed these studies here in St Joseph’s, Wilton. From 1944 –’47 he completed a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy and education between the universities of Cork and Galway. After four years of theology studies in Dromantine he was ordained priest in June 1951 at the Dominican church in Newry and then assigned to the missionary posting of Monrovia Vicariate, Liberia where he was to spend the next 13 years.

Tom did not always enjoy robust health so he must have found the harsh tropical climate of West Africa severe on his constitution. Nevertheless he persevered at the task and became a well established member of the team. The greater part of the thirteen years was spent as a teacher in St Patrick’s High School in the city of Monrovia. His good organisational and secretarial skills were also put to good use. Bishop Collins was glad to avail of these skills and he also recognised Tom’s gift for diplomacy. He sent him for some basic training to sharpen his diplomatic skills and Tom was to put such skills to excellent use not only in Liberia but very much so later in the promotion of SMA mission among our supporters here in Ireland.

It is this aspect of his career as a missionary that is best known. From 1964 to 1998, apart from a short stint at the Spiritual Year programme at Kilcolgan in Galway, Tom dedicated his life totally to the promotion of the Society among our benefactors. He spent three years of this programme attached to the house in Blackrock Road, where among his duties was preaching in churches throughout the West, a precursor to the Mission Awareness ministry of today. But it was his attachment and relationship to the SMA house in Wellington Road, Dublin that was to leave the major mark on his life. Here he gave almost thirty years establishing and cementing the Family Vocations Movement in the Leinster region. In fact, he became so identified with this house that one can scarcely think of the building without connecting it to Tom’s presence therein. It is a mark of how he was regarded in Dublin that a special memorial Mass will be celebrated in Rathmines church next week to enable his many friends to gather to pray for the repose of his soul. No doubt there will be great stories told and memories shared after that Mass.

The address ‘Wellington Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin’ conjures up images of opulence. But Tom’s living quarters in the SMA house were spartan in the extreme. Certainly no one could lay a charge against him of ostentatious living and expect that it would stick. His bedroom could barely fit a bed and table and from here Tom carried out much of his secretarial work. A colleague from those years recalled for me yesterday how even in times of sickness Tom would lie on the bed with his portable typewriter on his chest and type letters of esteem, condolence or comfort to whomsoever had a need at that time.

The key to his ability to generate so much support for SMA and esteem for its work includes the following salad of ingredients: sheer repetitive hard work; meticulous attention to detail; regular and sustained contact with benefactors; unashamed use of his wonderful innate gift of charm; interest shown in all happenings within the wider family, especially around exam times; attendance at hospitals and funerals; judicious and lengthy use of the technology invented by Mr Alexander Graham Bell. Holding all these ingredients together was an unfailing courtesy and respect shown at all times. We often speak of our benefactors being part of the extended family of SMA. There is no doubt that the members of the Family Vocations Movement in Leinster became a real extended family to Tom. Alexander Graham Bell is quoted as saying “the most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion”. Fr Tom Egan was certainly a living proof of the truth of that statement.

For many years Tom was the dean of the promotion team within the Province. He was respected and admired by his colleagues. This is where his eloquence and diplomacy were shown to good effect also. He had a quaint mannerism of beginning every statement with the preface ‘the point about it is’. Nothing seemed to give him more pleasure than to construct an ode of praise to a colleague or benefactor. A small word would never be employed where a big one could supply. They say that good ideas need landing gear as well as wings. It is probably true to say that Tom’s ‘landing gear’ was not quite as highly developed as his ‘wings’.

Tom has now landed very firmly in closer union with the Father. Many of those to whom he ministered here on earth will surely have been there to welcome him. Our prayer is that whatever purification may still be necessary will be quickly attended to. His life’s work has been accomplished and he can now rest in peace.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.