Fr Eugene Connolly SMA
Homily preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, SMA Provincial Leader at the concelebrated Funeral Mass on Monday, 2 May 2011 at 12 noon in St Joseph’s SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork. After the Mass, Fr Connolly was buried in the adjoining SMA Community cemetery.
Ecclesiasticus 2: 1-8, 11 Acts 4:8-12
John 21: 1-14
There is something very nice and consoling about the death of a brother during the Easter Octave. During this week our every thought is focussed on the risen Christ. We rejoice in his victory over death and the inauguration of the new kingdom he came to establish. And as we rejoice in Christ’s victory, we take consolation that all those who believe in his name are called, at the end of time, to share in the fullness of his kingdom. We believe that Eugene Connolly has begun that journey: our prayer for him today is that he be granted a speedy passage on that journey.
Our readings today might not usually come to mind for funeral liturgies. Yet I chose them particularly, as I feel they represent very well what this Easter mystery signifies. Indeed, two of these were the readings of the Mass of Friday morning, just a few hours after Eugene’s death. The reading from Acts reminds us that in Jesus’ name those who believe in him are able to perform miracles. Peter is very emphatic that it is the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the one whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by this name and by no other, can this healing be done. This is what Jesus kingdom is about: doing things in a radically new way. For of all the names in the world given to people, this is the only one by which we can be saved.
Eugene Connolly believed this and dedicated more than sixty years of his life as a missionary priest in the SMA to share that belief with others. He died two months short of reaching 88 years. By any standards this is a rich life. Our opening reading, then, seems fitting in the circumstances. There is a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. When we interpret a life’s journey in the light of the resurrection it means that all of life’s events are not just significant in themselves but are significant in terms of the whole. Ultimately, then, our time is only a particular participation in God’s time. Eugene’s passing came very quickly last Thursday night. In a sense he died as he had generally lived, without too much fuss or fanfare. As the reading puts it: God has made everything suitable for its time…. and we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does.
Our gospel story this afternoon is another of those post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus where the despondency and disillusionment of the disciples is transformed into faith. They were fishing all night. It is good to note that they returned to fishing because they had given up on Jesus. Their hope, of having a new life as followers of him, was completely shattered by his crucifixion. What else was there for them to do but return to the trade they knew best. Even when he came among them they did not at first recognise him. His invitation to them to come and have breakfast shows that though he must have being physically changed, as they could not recognise him, nevertheless he was fully physically present among them. Their struggling faith was strengthened by the huge catch of fish. It was then they recognised him as the Lord.
For us, too, death can lead to disillusionment and despondency. The one we love has died and we will not see their physical being again in this life. No matter that they die in advanced age, it is still a time of sadness for family and friends. But at such times we welcome Jesus to come among us once more, the one who has himself overcome death, the one through whose name the cripple is healed and the fishing nets are filled, we welcome him as the one who assures us that death is not the end. At death life is changed, not ended and the sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.
Eugene was born in 1923, the only boy in a family of four children, in Aclare, Co Sligo. He schooled in the local National school from where he went on to St Muredach’s College, Ballina and from there to complete his secondary education in Wilton, Cork. During his student days he was a decent footballer and so was given the nickname ‘Cha’, after a noted county footballer of his day. This name became so attached that he regularly signed his letters ‘Cha’ and many people did not know that Charles was not his proper name. He did his BA degree from UCC and UCG and, after theology in Dromantine, was ordained on June 12th, 1949. Due to a foot injury he was actually ordained two days ahead of his classmates. Immediately after ordination he came back to UCC where he completed his H.Dip in Education.
His African missionary assignment was to the diocese of Ondo, Nigeria. His first two years were spent in pastoral assignments but from then, for the next sixteen years, he was involved at different levels in the education apostolate. He worked in Aquinas College, Akure, St Peter’s, Akure, was Catholic Education Secretary of the diocese for many years and was Principal of both St Joseph’s Technical College, Ado-Ekiti and Annunciation College, Ikere-Ekiti. It was fitting that Cha should be in charge of a technical college because, though his hands were enormous, he had very dexterous fingers and was renowned for his ability to fix watches and many other small gadgets.
The respect in which he was held by his confreres is revealed in the fact that he was elected as a delegate to the Provincial Assembly of 1968. At that Assembly he was elected Provincial Councillor to the late Fr Larry Carr, a man whom Cha respected greatly and to whom he gave unstinting support. His areas of responsibility were Promotion and Communications. His time on the Council inaugurated some new developments. Along with the late Fr Bartholomew McCarthy he visited Ghana and Zambia with a view to setting up SMA Irish Province missions in these countries. These were indeed established in 1973. He also visited the families of each of the 26 Irish SMA confreres working in Africa, from the North of Ireland, during the Troubles of 1971.
In 1974 Eugene was assigned to head up a new venture for the Irish Province, in England. He went to Northampton diocese; first he studied the diocesan style from St John the Apostle, Luton, before taking over, as an SMA parish, Sacred Heart, Stopsley, Luton. Here Eugene served for many years with his county colleague, the late Fr John Brehony SMA. In all, Cha spent 24 years as parish priest of Sacred Heart. In that time he distinguished himself as a very capable administrator. But as a pastoral man he also excelled. Though he did not suffer fools gladly and his countenance could sometimes be gruff and a little off-putting, this was somewhat of a facade because he was in truth a deeply sensitive soul and a very caring pastor. Of course, his sheer physical presence could in itself be off-putting; I don’t think too many people would have been ready to engage him in a bout of fisticuffs.
Stopsley was a training ground for SMA deacons for many years and quite a few honed their pastoral skills under Eugene’s supervision. His attention to building and administration would not surprise too many but his easy rapport with the aged, children [as Dan described for us so beautifully and accurately last night] and especially the sick might come as a wee surprise to some. It is inspiring to read, in his file, letters from parishioners extolling his gentleness, compassion and overall giftedness. He lived simply and somewhat frugally and expected others to toe the same line.
Cha was a man who was also able to celebrate life. He had a very warm relationship with his siblings and nieces. He enjoyed music and especially enjoyed playing the organ, though he could be shy with this talent. And, eventhough he eventually had to have his two hips replaced, he enjoyed golf until a few years ago. Indeed, he represented Northampton diocese in the annual clergy competition in Britain. And he was a regular in the SMA competition, especially in the early years.
Cha has now gone from this life. Perhaps he is now testing out the mechanism of some heavenly watch or clock apparatus. Whatever it might be, we believe his soul is at peace.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.