Fr Dan O’Brien SMA [RIP] – Funeral Homily

Fr Malachy Flanagan, SMA Provincial Leader, celebrated the Funeral Mass for the late Fr Dan O’Brien in St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork, on 8 April 2020.

See his Introductory remarks here.

The following is the homily delivered by Fr Malachy at Fr Dan’s funeral.

“We are gathered here today to formally return a dear friend, a family member, an SMA confrere to his creator. We present Fr Dan back to God with gratitude, for his presence among us has been a blessing not just to his family here in Cork, to his SMA confreres but especially to the people he ministered to in Nigeria. We bring Dan back to this house of God, we place his coffin before the Pascal candle which speaks to us of resurrection and new life with God. We celebrate a Requiem Mass and ask God’s forgiveness for his human shortcomings and commend him to God as a person suitable for entry into the Divine presence.

There’s something about Holy Week that catches our attention each year. It’s because we are asked to walk with Jesus, to be with him every day this week in what was to be the last week of his life. For Fr Dan, there is something special about dying in Holy Week – he not only followed Jesus – but he went the whole way – he surrendered his whole life and Jesus came and took him home yesterday.

To Mary & Pauline and the O’Brien family, I would ask that you also thank God, for your brother Dan was a great human being, a man you have every reason to be proud of, a man who brings honour and distinction to your family. Despite illnesses that would have grounded a lesser man, Dan gave himself unstintingly in service to the people in Nigeria where he worked. He was quiet, he was unassuming but for his parishioners he was truly a gift from God.

In the First Reading we heard that: “The Lord is good to those who trust in him, to the soul that searches for him. It is good to wait in silence for the Lord to save”. We can easily apply these words to Fr Dan. He was a searcher – a searcher for God in everyday things. He loved reading and he got much of his spiritual inspiration from his wide reading and his viewing of the EWTN TV programmes. Over the past few years when his health deteriorated, you would see him sitting at the door of St Theresa’s Nursing Unit or in the garden – just sitting there – in a sense waiting in silence – searching for God.

As people of Christian faith, we believe that all life is from God; we come from God, we go back to God. God endows each with particular talents, which if used positively gives joy to the bearer and great blessings to society. Fr Dan was a man who brought many of these blessings to his people but he was also totally at peace with himself in doing it. Dan found joy and happiness in service. He was a man who in joining the SMA set out to do what he could for the peoples of Africa. Now after more than 40 years of service in a missionary setting, Fr Dan could rightly say with St Paul: “I had fought the good fight to the end, I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith…”  (2 Tim 4: 7-8)

Fr Dan O’Brien was born on the 2nd December 1945 in Ballintemple, Cork. He was one of three children born to his parents Matthew and Mary (née O’Sullivan). For his primary and secondary education he attended the North Monastery CBS in Cork. In 1963 he entered the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore in Co. Galway. Then in 1964 he moved to the SMA College in Wilton, Cork and followed a degree course in University College Cork. By 1967 he proceeded to the SMA Seminary in Dromantine for his studies in Theology and was ordained a priest on the 16th December 1970 at Newry Cathedral – being one of sixteen ordained in that class.

In 1971, his first appointment was to Northern Nigeria, to the Archdiocese of Kaduna. Fr Dan always wanted to be in parish work and he was lucky in that regard. Had he arrived in Nigeria a few years earlier he would inevitably, as a science graduate, have been appointed to a teaching post. However, during his first months in Nigeria all church-run schools were taken over by the government. Consequently, parish work took precedence over education in those early years of Dan’s mission life. His first assignment was to work with one of the great missionaries of Kaduna archdiocese, Fr Michael Toner SMA. Mick as he was known, was a selfless priest who loved the people and worked hard for their religious and material progress. But more than that, he was a man of great faith who believed strongly in personal and community prayer. He had settled in the small town of Kubacha and for next number of years under the guidance of Fr Toner, Dan was to learn the pastoral skills that he himself was to use so successfully over the next 40 years in Kaduna and later in Kano. Dan was to work in several rural parishes of Kaduna archdiocese; parishes such as Kurmin Mazuga, Sabon Seriki, Idon and Zaria where his church was burnt down due to a Muslim riot – before transferring to Kano where in 1994 he worked firstly in St Louis Parish, Kano City, and then took on the arduous task of building up the parish of St Charles from scratch. With generous support from the SMA Irish Province, St Charles’ has become a major parish in the new diocese of Kano with a new church holding 2,000+ people which Fr Dan planned, engaged builders for, organised funds and saw to completion. Today St Charles’ Parish is a major contributor to the developing SMA in Nigeria.

We heard from the Gospel today the passage which said: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For 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 words challenge each of us. They call us to look and look again that God lives in our neighbour, the sick, the poor, the lonely, those isolated, those living on the margins, the homeless, the refugees, migrants and so on.

St John of the Cross once said that: “in the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone”. When we find ourselves face to face with God, He won’t ask us how much wealth have we accumulated, or how many professional titles have we obtained, or how many properties have we bought? He will simply ask: “But have you loved”?

In 2002, Fr Dan returned to Ireland for surgery on his back which was successful although it did reduce his mobility. By 2003 he was well on the mend and helped out with some promotion work in Manchester and then in Dromantine. But all this time he was longing to return to Nigeria. By the following year in 2004, his wish was granted and he was appointed back to Kaduna archdiocese to the parish of St Peter’s, Sabon Tasha. During his time there, he had a well organised SVP (St Vincent De Paul) Society functioning helping the needy and the poor while privately Dan gave abundantly of his own personal resources to those who approached him. He cared little about his own needs and struggled to keep the bright side out even when his own health issues severely handicapped his movement. In the mid 1980’s, he was diagnosed with diabetes – and while it was increasingly debilitating as the years passed, Dan was never one to complain. His great faith is obvious in that he accepted his ill health as a challenge and he would say that because of his ill health he was drawn closer to God. Dan is known to have said that his illness was one of God’s blessings on his life. A remarkable statement when you consider this illness led to him losing part of his leg in 2018.

Fr Dan was a fighter. He wasn’t going to be sitting in a wheelchair forever, but he told his doctors he wanted to be fitted for a prosthesis leg. This happened and he was making such great progress that it was just amazing to see him walking again in recent months.

Dan was blessed with a wonderful infectious faith; God was for him a friend close and immediate, in whose service he willingly worked and about whom he could speak to his parishioners with a conviction that loudly spoke of his faith and love. Travelling was one of Dan’s interests. It would never be to go and sit by the sea or park in an hotel with a good view, no all his holidays were on the move, travelling from one end of a country to another.

The second reading today spoke about how “Happy are those who die in the Lord, now they can rest from their work, since their good deeds go with them”. Again, it’s a reminder to us all that any good we do in this world does not go unnoticed. God sees the good we do, the times we reach out to help others, the times we put others before ourselves.

For Fr Dan, God had called him to do this work and he trusted that God would give him the strength and adequate health to see the work done. And carry on he did.  For many Nigerians who knew Dan down the years the memory that they have of him in his final years is of him sitting on the back veranda in Sabon Tasha parish house in Kaduna for many hours each day hearing confessions and listening to the many worries the poor of Kaduna brought to him.

In 2012, Fr Dan had to return to Ireland for heart surgery and again he made quite a good recovery. However, the recovery was not good enough as would allow him to return to Nigeria. Although disappointed, Dan accepted this reality and for a number of years worked in the Treasury and Promotion Office in Blackrock Road, Cork. In 2017 his health deteriorated more and he was transferred to St Theresa’s Nursing Unit so that he could get the care he needed.

Fr Dan was very perceptive of human behaviour and unflinchingly faithful to his priesthood. He was held in high esteem by both Archbishop Jatau, emeritus Archbishop of Kaduna and by the present Archbishop of Kaduna, Archbishop Ndagaso, who confided that Fr Dan was one of their most trusted and reliable parish priests.

May Fr Dan be happy in the Lord as his good deeds go with him and may he enjoy the fullness of eternal life and receive the reward that awaits this good and faithful servant of the Lord.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.”

Fr Dan O’Brien SMA was laid to rest in the SMA community cemetery, Wilton, Cork on 8 April 2020

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