Fr Billy O’Sullivan SMA Funeral homily

Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, SMA Provincial Leader, was the Chief Celebrant at the concelebrated Funeral Mass for Fr Billy O’Sullivan SMA at St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork on Wednesday, 27 March 2013.

The Readings for the Mass were taken from Job 19:1, 23-25; Hebrews 4:1-5, 11 and Matthew 7:21, 24-27

Fr Fachtna preached the following homily at the Mass

All things are born and die in time, but only in the case of human beings is an awareness of temporality constitutive of their identity. Without remembrance, we know not who we are, can make no plans and have no hope. We learn, or fail to learn, to live and speak the truth – and truthfulness takes time. This quotation from the theologian, Nicholas Lash, contains two elements that were central to Billy O’Sullivan’s life: the importance of remembering and the commitment to truthfulness. It is through remembering we know who we are. Billy O’Sullivan had an extraordinary capacity for remembering. He could describe an event that happened decades ago, sometimes an event that might appear to others to be rather inconsequential, in the most precise detail to the last hour and minute of the day. We often smiled at the precision of recall; this was vintage Billy.

I think Billy would enjoy the fact that we present his body back to the dust from which it came, as his spirit continues on in God, during Holy Week, the most sacred week of the year. We are about to embark on the re-enactment of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the central dramatic expression of our whole faith, a faith that Billy lived for eighty years and one to which he dedicated his life as a missionary priest for just short of 56 years. More than once have I shared in Billy’s telling of the precise place he was prostrated in the Dromantine chapel at the precise hour on April 7th, 1957, the day of his ordination to SMA priesthood. It was a proud and happy day for Billy and his entire family. Billy always saw priesthood as a wonderful gift. That day he made a lifetime commitment to this gift, a commitment he was blessed to live with fidelity for the next 56 years.  

We gather here this afternoon to pray Billy home to the God he strove to love. Our faith tells us that today his life is changed, not ended. In the Office of the Church yesterday, the reading of which I would be fairly sure Billy rarely missed, there was a beautiful passage from St Basil that captures our faith very well: “Before beginning this second life, we must bring the first to an end. As in the double course (where the competitors must run to the turning point and back to the start again) a halt, a brief respite separates the outward run and the return, so also for a change of life it seemed necessary that death intervene between the two lives, to make an end of all that went before and a beginning of all that follows.”

Our prayer is that Billy will be resurrected again on the last day and that we too will one day join him in paradise. This is the promise held out to us in our readings today. In the Book of Job we read: “after my awaking, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God”. The figure of Job in the Scriptures may well have been referring to mortal existence but with the development of faith, we believe that promise is held out into eternity.

The Hebrews reading is unequivocal in its testimony of faith. “The promise of reaching the place of rest God [has prepared] still holds good, and none [should] think they have come too late for it…. We who have faith shall find a place of rest”. Billy O’Sullivan believed that with utter conviction. He imbibed such faith from his parents and in the loving home environment around Madden’s Buildings where he grew up as the eldest child of Jeremiah and Catherine. Being born on the feast of SS Peter and Paul, it was perhaps no surprise that Billy pursued a vocation to missionary priesthood.

His vocation developed in a somewhat unconventional way. Schooled at the North Pres and then the North Mon, he then was to spend four years working in the local brewery. Billy and breweries were never bosom pals: a life-long pioneer with a certain proselytising bent, he attributed his choice to having seen too much alcohol in those years at the brewery. When the notion of missionary priesthood came into his mind he was to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to its pursuit. Having followed the traditional formation route through Clough and Dromantine he was first appointed to Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. The greater part of Billy’s time in Nigeria was given to spiritual direction of students preparing for priesthood. He was involved in this first in Jos with diocesan seminarians and later worked in the newly opened SMA Formation house in Ibadan. And he was to spend some years too in this ministry in SMA House, Maynooth. While in Nigeria he also dedicated many tireless hours caring for prisoners. His care and concern extended far beyond the normal chaplaincy service: he was present with and blessed prisoners as they walked towards execution; he organised cleaning parties for prisoner cells; along with the OLA Sisters he did countless other tasks to help prisoners live their lives with some degree of dignity.

Billy had a varied missionary career between Nigeria, Ireland and a short stint with the British Province, but there is no doubt that Billy will always be mostly identified with his eighteen years in Vocations ministry for the Province. In this work Billy – or Liam, as he was perhaps better known in the early years – is legendary. Billy could regale you with stories of those he succeeding in persuading to become SMAs and those who slipped the net. Other vocation directors were of the view that once Billy was in touch with a young man he either joined the SMA or no one at all. I think his dedication and tenacity is well captured by something his sister Kathleen said to me last week: if a young man told Billy he’d meet him at the top of Croagh Patrick at 6.30 in the morning, Billy would be there before him at six o’clock. His method was simple and straight forward – “do you want to be a missionary? If so, contact Fr Liam O’Sullivan at SMA, Blackrock Road.” He believed in sowing the seed and it was up to the Holy Spirit after that. His sowing was fruitful; a sizeable proportion of today’s concelebrants, owe our presence in SMA to Billy’s power’s of persuasion. More than one third of the membership of the Province were recruited by Billy.

Jesus says in the gospel passage of today: “It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord”, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven”. For Billy O’Sullivan doing the will of God was intimately bound up with doing the will of his superiors, i.e. true obedience best understood as deep listening. Some of the tasks given to Billy were ones he would not have chosen for himself. His call home to Maynooth in 1992 was not what he would have chosen for himself. Having stated his own preference to remain in the Nigerian assignment he graciously undertook the role offered. Such was to be his way in subsequent appointments also.

Such a dedication was born out of a huge spirit of generosity. Colum spoke about it last night at the Rosary. Billy was a kind of unique mix: a team player who played with a very individual style. He was an SMA first and last. He nourished his priesthood in daily prayer and especially his devotion to Our Lady and in latter years to Divine Mercy. It was significant that he died half ways through Mercy hour, at 3.30pm on Monday afternoon. His last public ministry was spent at the Divine Mercy conference in Dublin; how he would have wished to celebrate again Divine Mercy Sunday in two weeks time. He will celebrate it now in the presence of Sr Faustina. He will be missed by companions and friends on the pilgrimages to Paray Le Monial and other Marian shrines.

Billy was a holy priest but he was not a ‘holy joe’. There was a spirit of wit and fun about him and a great affability. He found it easy to relate to people. He had a tendency to use wise sayings, a habit that could either irritate or amuse you depending on one’s own disposition at the time. Some of the most memorable are “wonders never cease for those who never cease to wonder” and “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” When Billy is recalled, as he is being recalled these days in Nigeria and elsewhere, many of these saying will be recalled with joy and laughter.

His generosity of spirit was lived out too in the Boy Scout movement. It is so good to see so many of his Scout colleagues here today, and they will commemorate him with a small ceremony at the grave side. I suspect there were very few scouts that escaped the invitation to join the SMA; that fact that some did is probably a testimony to the grace of God.

This lifestyle that I have described did not happen by sheer accident. It was built on a very obvious devotion to a life of prayer. Prayer was the rock on which this sensible man built his house. Over the years rains came, floods rose and gales blew, but his house was never in fear of collapsing. It was too firmly founded on the rock of prayer.

There is one danger in all of this, of course, that one might get the impression that it was his goodness than won him salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Billy, like all people, will be saved by the free gift of God. He has not earned it; he has simply responded to it. Today we celebrate in thanksgiving that his response was faithful.

His joyous outgoing and affable presence will be sorely missed. By his blood family for whom he was always present at the key moments and was always ‘The Boss’, by his confreres in the SMA and by his wide circle of friends. The Hebrews text today told us: “God’s work was undoubtedly all finished at the beginning of the world”. Billy’s participation in God’s work in this life is now finished. It may be finished but its effects will be long-lasting. He has fought the good fight, he has run the race. May he now enjoy the rewards of his labours.

Ar dheis lamh De to raibh a anam dilis.

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