Homily for Bishop John Moore SMA

Homily delivered by Rev Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Leader of the Irish Province
23 January 2010

Readings:    
Isaiah 52: 7-10, read by Mrs Joan Moore, sister-in-law of Bishop Moore
Romans 14: 7-12, read by Mr Michael Mahony, brother-in-law of Bishop Moore
John 11: 19-27, proclaimed by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA

 

The Christian life is a journey to godliness, not godliness attained.

Bishop John Moore SMA epitomised this saying. As a bishop of the church he never gave the impression that he had attained godliness. He was basically a humble, modest and self-effacing man. By the end of these days of remembering and the various funeral liturgies many fine things will have been said about the character of this special man. But John himself would be horrified if we were already to canonise him. The idea of sainthood would not sit comfortably on his shoulders. Perhaps, like Dorothy Day, he would retort “don’t ever call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so lightly”.

Dismissing John would not be an easy task. Through his humanity John witnessed to the fact that the journey to godliness was worth making. He also showed that this journey could be an enjoyable one, that it was full of fun, and through his deep faith he invited and encouraged others to make this journey to godliness too. John touched the lives of so many people; in Nigeria he touched the lives of the wealthy and the powerful but also the lives of the poor and those on the very margins of society. In Ireland he touched the lives of his family and friends and his colleagues in the SMA in very deep ways. In the short few weeks of receiving medical care at Blackrock Road he made a deep impression on all members of staff. A ‘lovely man’ was the refrain of all. He touched the lives of everyone who had the good fortune to come into his presence whether for business, for a social gathering or for prayer. He inspired the young priests of his own diocese and the young SMA priests who worked in his region to become better missionaries. Through a wholesome generosity of spirit he left a deep positive impression wherever he went.

Perhaps it was because of this that we were all stunned when the news came through on Wednesday morning that John had died. Whatever he knew himself, whatever the doctors had told him, he had not communicated that his condition was quite as critical as it turned out to be. The announcement of his death was a real shock to the system, like a kick into the guts. It’s true that we had been warned for some days that the sickness was very severe and that death could indeed be close. But this warning itself was a shock. How could this big man who gushed with life be now on the verge of leaving us? It seemed and was unbelievable. He was only 68 years of age, seemingly the picture of good health.

Only time allowed us to move from the suspension of belief to accept the reality of what is. John Moore has died and we gather today to pray him home to the God he tried to serve faithfully all his life. We gather too to remember and give thanks for this good man, as we have been doing these past few days. I’m sure everybody here will have a special memory. Many of these were shared through tears but also through much laughter over these past days. But our gathering today is special. This is no ordinary remembering. We remember John today at Mass which is the very special act of remembering. At Mass we gather around the table of the Lord to remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we believe that this action is not simply the mental recollection of a past event. We come hoping to be forgiven, to be nourished, to be challenged and sent forth; and we believe that our act of remembering is a means through which God enters into and transfigures our lives. How often did John participate in this great act of remembering? How often did he break the word of God and break the body of Christ for others to share in this great act of remembering? For over 44 years as an SMA missionary he did so on a daily basis as he celebrated Eucharist. It is fitting, then, that it is by this same Eucharistic celebration that we say our last farewells.

The opening lines of the first reading this afternoon are very appropriate for this man. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation, and tells Zion, ‘Your God is king!’”.  These are almost word pictures of John the missionary. One can almost see him bounding over land in his typical exuberant style to preach the gospel in season and out of season.

John brought good news wherever he went. Sometimes it was the formal good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. More often perhaps it was in the simple and informal settings of daily life where his booming voice and booming laughter brought tears of joy and laughter and happiness to others. John was blessed with a voice that could be projected great distances. He really did not need amplification to proclaim salvation, as his towering presence seemed to provide that extra dimension to the vocal sound. Again, we can picture John inserted into the words of Isaiah as he proclaims “your watchmen raise their voices, they shout for joy together, for they see the Lord face to face, as he returns to Zion”.

Bishop John Moore was a big man in so many ways. He was large in stature and larger still in personality. He was blessed with a great sense of humour and jovial personality. He always seemed to be in good form and could see the humour in any situation. In the toughest of situations he could see the bright side of things. He was a man of very deep compassion. He was thus from his earliest days. Coming from Harold’s Cross parish in Dublin he did his primary and secondary schooling in the famous Synge Street CBS. From there he moved on to the SMA at Cloughballymore and then Dromantine. Here he excelled in dramatic acting – by all accounts was a wonderful mimic too – and I’m told he was no mean philosopher, gifted with the ability to explain difficult concepts in very simple language.

After ordination John was appointed to the diocese of Jos in Nigeria and in that area he has laboured for the past 44 years. It is not insignificant, then, surely that he died on the feast of Blessed Tansi, the famous Nigerian monk. Blessed Tansi once wrote home to friends from his monastery in Leicester, England, “I have seen the gospels lived here”. I have no doubt that John will have echoed those same sentiments many times during his 44 years ministry in Nigeria.  He had appointments in some of the most historic mission stations in all of Northern Nigeria such as Akwanga, Kwa, Shendam, Kafanchan, Kwande, Pankshin and Jos itself. John was well appreciated by his confreres in the SMA who voted him to represent them as their delegate to Provincial Assemblies and twice voted him to be their Society superior. Indeed, as has been remarked to me more than once over these days, John always remained a true and loyal SMA.

In all of his mission stations John was a real ‘man of the people’. I know it is something of a cliché to say this, but cliché or not, it is still true. He had a great grasp of the Hausa language and could engage in sustained banter with people in Fulani and  other languages of the lowlands. Nelson Mandela once said “if you speak to a man in a language he understands you get through to his head; but if you speak to him in his own language you get through to his heart”. John understood this instinctively because he had such a big heart himself and it is because of this heart connection that the people among whom he lived and worked in Nigeria are devastated at his untimely death. The people of Bauchi would dearly love to be here to pray with their much loved bishop. In a phone call with Archbishop Kiagama on Wednesday night, the metropolitan bishop of the Bauchi area, he spoke of the pain of the Bauchi people and their desire to share in the funeral liturgy for John. No doubt there will be a fitting celebration back in Bauchi at a later stage. Fr Fergus Tuohy will share a word with us on behalf of the Bauchi diocese after communion.  

Today we come as a people who trust that God will raise John on the last day. The drama unfolded in our gospel story of Martha and Jesus is a powerful one. “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day” says Martha of her brother to Jesus. And Jesus’ reply is ingrained into our minds and hearts: “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. Do you believe this?”. Martha proclaimed her belief. We are challenged today to proclaim our belief that John will rise from the dead and that we in our own turn will rise with Jesus. So it is with great Christian hope that we pray for the repose of John’s soul.  

We are told in our second reading that the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. I know that John’s life and the courage with which he approached death will have influenced his family and friends and all his colleagues in SMA. But it is the people of Nigeria that will have been influenced the most. He has left many a wonderful legacy and I have no doubt that the Christian community of Bauchi will long treasure this legacy. A sister phoned me on Wednesday afternoon to share her sympathy. Her description of John will echo in the heart of so many here today “he has left a wonderful legacy of kindness”. She went on to relate a story of how that kindness was manifested in her life on more than one occasion. But each person will have their own story to relate. By modern standards John did not live a very long life. But again he epitomised the saying of Abraham Lincoln that it is not the days in your life that matter so much as the life in your days. John packed a catalogue of sustained effort and achievement into the length of days that were given him.

John showed great courage and faith in taking on leadership for the Vicariate of Bauchi in 1996. He was taking on an area of 64,000 sq km. He has worked since the beginning with great perseverance, courage and no little faith to make it a fruitful and exuberant church, somehow reflecting his very own personality. Whatever failings he may have had they were certainly not due to timidity. There are now twelve developing parishes served by 23 priests, 6 sisters and over 50 catechists. Establishing the church in Bauchi has not always been an easy task. There have been difficult times – especially of religious tension – and we acknowledge that those tensions and difficulties remain and are current as we speak. So we pray and ask John now to intercede for a restoration of calm and peace among the peoples and religious traditions of that part of Nigeria.

Those who worked alongside John in that area have many wonderful stories to tell. To recount them here would take all day. But the one guarantee is that they would invariably be full of fun. Such stories revolve around activities connected to the building of Christian community, small and larger buildings for worship, clinics to help the poor and sick, schools to aid the educational advancement of the entire community, not just the Christian community, catechetical centres to outreach to the remotest parts. John was particularly keen to make the church as self-sustaining as possible in both personnel and finance. To that end he used his grants wisely to support priests, religious, seminarians and catechists. When I met with him late last summer to discuss his situation he was very hopeful that things were falling nicely into place so that in a few years the diocese could be fully indigenised. Little did we think then that the Lord had his own plans!

At the national level of the Episcopal conference in Nigeria John was once Chaplain to Youth; later Chaplain to the Marian Movement and later Chaplain to the Laity Council of Nigeria.      

Having said all this, perhaps I should make the point that I frequently make in funeral homilies and I believe it bears repeating, perhaps especially so at the funeral of a bishop, that is, that we don’t earn salvation. All the goodness of John’s life, some of which we have spoken of here, did not earn him salvation. Salvation is a free gift from God which cannot be earned. John’s goodness, his uprightness is a response to being loved by God. All of us are challenged to live upright and holy lives in response to the unconditional love we’ve received from God. In a sense it is a statement of belief that we will indeed be saved in the blood of Christ. Christians act uprightly because that is how Christians ought to behave. This is not to downplay the importance of Christian response; it is simply to place it in its proper Christian context.

We are ready now to bury the body of this good man, this good bishop. Many funny stories will yet be told. John is and will be sorely missed by those who knew and loved him and those who were loved by him. I’m conscious of his loyal staff, people such as Emmanuel, Albert and his drivers, who befriended him since his early days in Nigeria. The whole of the church in Bauchi will need time to recover from this wound. But recover they will because that is ultimately what the gospel is all about: after death comes resurrection. It would be a denial of all that John stood for and achieved in Bauchi if the church there were to crumble in his absence. I have no doubt that after taking the time to grieve the church there will flourish like nothing seen before. And that will be John’s truly abiding legacy.

Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.