On the shoulders of giants

Every November the Society of African Missions remembers its deceased members and supporters during the month of the Holy Souls. We invite the family members and friends of deceased members to these Masses, which take place in Claregalway, Dromantine, Dublin and Wilton. We also remember the OLA Sisters with whom we have worked for over 100 years. It is also an occasion to renew the bonds of friendship which exist with these families, whose sons have given their lives in the service of the Gospel.

Father Dan McCauley SMA was the Principal celebrant and preacher at the Mass in Dromantine on Sunday, 7 November 2015. The following is an edited version of Fr Dan’s homily.

 

In London this morning, Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Cameron, Government officials and dignitaries gathered to celebrate Remembrance Sunday, to honour all the military people who lost their lives in two World Wars and in other conflicts. They are marking the occasion with the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph, making speeches, Veterans Marchpast etc. And yes, there will be a short religious service of prayers and Bible readings.

In the city of Tacloban in the Philippines people are also gathered today to remember and pray for those who lost their lives in the worst storm to ever hit their country, Typhoon Haiyan. That storm struck exactly two years ago today leaving around 6,500 people dead in its wake.

We gather in Dromantine this afternoon to have our own Remembrance Ceremony for the SMA bishops, priests, brothers and seminarians who have passed from this world. There will be no gun salute or marching past here. Praying for the dead is what we do well in the Catholic tradition. This afternoon we are remembering, honouring and praying for the souls of our departed missionary brothers and sisters.

Take a walk through the trees on the hill behind our house and you will come at the top to a clearing that I will, for today, call our Garden of Remembrance. As you enter this sacred space, on your left you will notice a large cross flanked by two smaller crosses. Moving forward to the top you will see the replica of an empty tomb with the words inscribed ‘he is not here!’  It is obvious to us Christians from these symbols that it is the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus that we are prompted to remember. Moving back again along the third side we come to four ‘standing stones’ or plaques with 87 names inscribed on them. These are 87 SMA missionaries from the northern part of our country, the Ecclesiastical Province of Armagh, (Ulster) who have passed on to eternal glory and whom we are commemorating here in Dromantine this afternoon. The first name on that list is Father Andrew Dornan SMA, who died in 1886. Fr. Dornan was born near Whiteabbey, Co. Antrim in January 1856 and got some preliminary education with the SMA in Cork before proceeding to Lyons, France, for his seminary training. He was ordained there in 1885 and arrived in Lokoja, Nigeria in January 1886. Just seven months after arriving he fell seriously ill and died on 17 August 1886. He is buried in Lokoja. An early grave was the fate of many young missionaries in those days. That is why the West Coast of Africa used to be called ‘The White Man’s Grave’.  The last name on the plaques is that of Fr. Sexton Doran SMA who was buried in Loughinisland just over a year ago. I’m sure some members of his family are here this afternoon. The name of Fr. Patrick McGovern (Swanlinbar, Cavan) will in due course be added as he died earlier this year.  Fr. Paddy’s sister and nieces are here to remember him in this Mass. He spent 20 years as a staff member in Dromantine before joining me in Ilorin Diocese around 1980. Somewhere in the middle of that list is my name – Fr. Dan McCauley SMA! He is my uncle, born in 1915, ordained and sent to Nigeria in 1945. He welcomed me to Nigeria at the port in Lagos on 1 September 1971. And in 1972 he travelled home on leave never to return. Having handed the baton to ‘young Dan’ he ministered in parishes in Derry and Raphoe Dioceses before retiring due to ill health.  He died 25 years ago and is buried in his home parish of Urney near Strabane.

The first line of the reading (Rom. 14:7) in today’s Mass went ‘the life and death of each of us has its influence on others’. This verse speaks loudly to me today because if not for the life and death of Uncle Dan I might not be standing here before you. And if not for the life and death of many of the SMA priests whose names are inscribed on those plaques many of you might not be here in this chapel today. The person whose life and death has had the greatest influence on us all is that of Our Lord Jesus Christ. His life, death and resurrection gives meaning to the life and death of all believers. How much more so for missionaries like our departed SMA brothers and OLA Sisters. Making Jesus Christ and his message of love known to all nations especially in Africa is the main motivating force and focus of the missionary.

Fr. Sexton Doran, my Uncle Dan, Sr. Roisin Cox OLA who died in Cork in the early hours of 2015 (1 January) are representative of those we are remembering and honouring and praying for today. Sisters of the Our Lady of Apostles Congregation (OLA) work closely with the SMA in Africa. I and Sr. Roisin were together in Guffanti Parish in the years before and following the Millenium. She spent her life working tirelessly for the poor and the sick in various parts of Nigeria. Today is a day for us to celebrate the lives of our departed missionaries like Sr. Roisin, their achievements, their sweat and pain endured in the heat of the tropical sun and the challenges they faced in the work of spreading the Gospel. Some of course had to keep the home fires burning by working in administration or in many other kinds of ministry outside Africa.

‘If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’ is a phrase made famous by Isaac Newton in a letter to Robert Hooke written in 1674. Newton, a scientist, is credited with the discovery of gravity. What he was saying is that the knowledge and insights he currently had could only have been possible because of the work done by other scientists who worked generations before him. The brilliant theoretical scientist, Stephen Hawking, used the phrase as a title for a book he published in 2002 called ‘On The Shoulders of Giants’ which was an anthology of the inventions and writings of ‘discoverers’ from the time of Copernicus and Galileo. The SMAs of today together with their families and supporters recognize and appreciate that where we have arrived at present is due to the hard work, sweat and tears of those who have gone before us. The tremendous growth and vibrancy of the church in Africa is due in no small measure to the energy and commitment of those whom we are commemorating today. We stand on the shoulders of giants in the faith and in the task of sharing it. I have witnessed this at first hand. I have been part of the growth of two dioceses in Nigeria: Ilorin Diocese from 1972 – 1996 and Kontagora from 1996 to 2015.

I had the responsibility of running Kontagora as Apostolic Administrator (Acting bishop) for two years 2010-2012. In May 2012 I had the honour and privilege of handing over the diocese to a newly ordained African bishop, Bishop Bulus Yohanna. I was the last white foreign missionary in Nigeria to hand over a diocese to an indigenous bishop. With that handover there are now 52 dioceses in Nigeria all led by Nigerian bishops. A landmark in the story of missionary work in Nigeria had been reached! The story of the evangelisation of that nation had begun a new chapter. To God be the glory! We stand on the shoulders of giants!

We take comfort in the fact that despite the scarcity of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Western world the Church in Africa and Asia is throbbing with life. Much of the credit for this goes to our SMA members who went before us. The seminaries and religious novitiates are full of young people ready to give themselves to the service of God and his people in the Church in Africa. The SMA too is sharing in this youthful enthusiasm. Altogether the total number of SMAs worldwide is about 800 with 298 of these from the young foundations of the SMA in Africa, India, Philippines and Poland. In the seminaries there are more than 300 young men in training for the priesthood with the SMA. This year 25 young men were ordained priests for the SMA and 20 more are Deacons preparing for their ordination to priesthood in 2016.  We stand on the shoulders of giants!

On this day in Dromantine, when nature is ‘calling it a day’ and the leaves are dying and vegetation is turning brown from the cold and lack of sunlight, when in Kontagora nature is also ‘calling it a day’ when leaves are dying and vegetation is turning brown from too much sunlight and lack of rain (it’s the dry season) we have remembered our brothers and sisters who have gone before us on the road of life as missionaries. Their day has been called!

In the words of 2 Tim 4:7 – they have ‘fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith’.  May they find everlasting peace and eternal rest from their labours. Fathers Paddy, Sexton D, Uncle Dan, Sr. Roisin and all the other deceased missionaries I end by praying for you in the spirit of our Celtic ancestors:

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
May the rains fall gently upon your fields
Until we meet again
May the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.