Fr James Fegan SMA [RIP] – Funeral homily

Fr James Fegan SMA passed to his eternal reward in the early morning of 9 November 2020 in the Bon Secours Hospital, Cork. Fr Anthony Kelly SMA, who worked with Fr James in Ghana and is a member of the current SMA Provincial Council, was with him when he died.  Fr James was buried after a Funeral Mass celebrated by the SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Malachy Flanagan SMA, at St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork on 11 November 2020, after which Fr James was laid to rest in the SMA community cemetery. Due to Level 5 Coronavirus restrictions, only a small number of his family were able to attend.

To view a recording of the Funeral Mass click here and go to Recordings tab and click on there to get the Mass.

Fr Anthony preached the following homily at that Mass.

Some of you might remember the message of last Sunday’s Gospel to be ready, the last line of which I preached on “Watch, therefore, and be ready; the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”. Even though I preached my homily at 6pm Mass, just a short 12 hours later I witnessed it happening and it is only then that it dawned on me how quickly the Lord comes and calls us as the 2nd reading tells us He comes in the twinkling of an eye. The one great thing about it is that in James’ case he was ready. From the time that James heard the frightening news that he had cancer he took it on the chin and accepted it as God’s Holy will. He was able to speak about it. At first, he was hoping it was not too bad and the Doctors told him they would get the best treatment possible. But after more tests it appeared it had spread and James realised it was not possible to get treatment as he did not have enough energy. For the first few days we spoke on the phone at least 3-4 times daily and as usual when James was in talking mood he could talk! His voice was as strong as usual and he felt God had a plan for this he even quoted St Rose of Lima.

This is the gist of what he told me: without the Cross there can be no road to Heaven. But then he said: after a cross or suffering or setback we get grace and blessing as a gift. So from then on it seemed as if James welcomed the heavy cross of being diagnosed with cancer only a month ago.

As we celebrate his life today I think he would want us to rejoice in the fact that he had no pain since he received the sad news of his diagnosis so that was probably his gift or Grace that he received from his friend Our Lady. As the first reading tells us

“The favours of the Lord are not all past, His kindness are not exhausted, every morning they are renewed: great is His faithfulness.”

One story of James and the cross. The Cross was big in Fr James’ life. Not just in his own spirituality but he wished it to be central to that of us who were closest to him as well. I recall this story: a few years ago a young priest was ordained in Ghana who had been a student while James was ministering there. James heard an OLA Sister was going out to Ghana and James asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a present of a small cross to his friend. She agreed only to find that when James gave it to her it was huge, a very large metal one & a terrible weight so she had to carry it all the way as hand luggage. Sister was not very pleased with her heavy hand luggage and we never heard if she was allowed on to the plane with her overweight. James wanted to share his Love for the Cross of Jesus.

I choose the First reading today because of the hope it offers us and that hope that James had in spite of hearing the news of his sickness. When I would ask him how he was he’d replied, “my body is not good but my soul is as good as it ever has been and I am ready to go.” That is another cause for celebration. James had no pain and his acceptance of God’s Will that were two great gifts he got. As the first reading says, “he had waited in silence for the Lord to save him.” As the Second reading tells us “Let us thank God for giving us victory through our Lord Jesus.”  So today’s celebration is about victory, the victory of Jesus over sin and death, on the Cross. Through his Resurrection we have hope now and we are confident that James is reaping the rewards of that victory and that he too is experiencing the life that Jesus promised when he said “Amen, Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise”.

I had the privilege of working with James in Ghana in the 1980’s. It was a great time despite how things were in the country. We were a young team with a few older SMAs. It was a difficult time in Ghana as there had been coup after coup and the shops were empty, difficult to get spare parts and food but James would come back with his suitcase full of spare parts for his car along with little clothes items for the people who lived near his Parish house in DuaYaw-nKwanta.  They had a hospital run by some volunteer missionaries. James spent many nights there bringing the sacraments and blessing the sick and dying. Michelle, James’s niece, reminded me about the spare parts James brought back. It explains a lot. James was a fast driver in his time, and in Ghana he never took note of any potholes but just went straight through them so you can imagine how his shock absorbers were. But James always kept it on the road. Little did we know that he had a secret cache of spare parts that he brought back from home. One of our SMA leaders was out on a visit and noticed this and as we were taking him around to visit the Mission parishes the priest driving him stopped to avoid a pot hole when he met an oncoming car the visitor remarked, “I wonder what would James have done in that situation”.  Another true story of James’s driving was about his visit to the home of the late Fr Vincent Glennon SMA in Taughmaconnell outside Ballinasloe [who also worked with us in Ghana]. On his way to visit Vincent he came around a very bad bend on a narrow road and being unable to take it he went straight through the wall taking away the complete top leaving stones along his path, but on his way back from Vincent at the same bend he took the wall on the other side of the turn. There are still parts of his motor on that road near Ballinasloe. So we needed lots of spare parts when James was driving.

At that time in Ghana we had no mobile phones and communication was very poor but James kept very much in touch with his family and often like all of us received the local paper and the many letters from his mum and sisters which he cherished. He loved his family and loved to come home to stay with them on his holidays. At that time he often spoke of the fun he would have with his nieces and nephews and as there was no such thing as a Burger King Bar in Ghana or any restaurants. He enjoyed going for burgers with his nieces and nephews while at home on holidays. He looked forward to his visits home and came back with a shine and his big broad shoulders had filled out again that kept him going for another long tour in Sunyani.

One of his great interests at that time was Gaelic football. Down were doing reasonably well but Burren were tops and he was really proud of his brother’s achievement at winning 3 All Ireland medals. On one of their victories the headline on the local paper read Burren dug out Historic win. And you know that was a trait of James’s ministry, he dug it out. During his time in Ghana with us he threw himself into the work seldom taking a day off for which we would scold him. He got totally absorbed in the work from the time he arrived until holidays, seldom taking a break. He built up the parish he was in, visiting outstations on ‘Trek’, meaning he went out to the surrounding villages saying Mass hearing confessions and visiting the sick with the Sacraments as well as helping to build new schools and churches where there were none.

Patience was not always his strong point but he made up for it with the kindness he had for the people. But just to tell you a final story of his from Ghana. Very often petrol would get very scarce and sometimes during a coup it would be impossible to get because it was rationed and there were lots of regulations including one that we were not allowed to carry containers with petrol but the ‘bould’ James was not put off by that. He got this drum of petrol from a friend at the petrol station to whom he probably given him some of his old clothes. Going along smoothly until he came at speed to a police road block. The policeman waved down James and they got into a long hot discussion. The policeman was more concerned about the speed that James was doing, than about the petrol. So he gave him a strong Caution saying, “Sir, when driving you must exercise the keenest of patience.” For a long time afterwards we would joke James and advise him to exercise the keenest of patience.

That parish now where James ministered have benefited greatly from his great work there in the 1980’s. Today, the people are proud that their parish has produced 11 priests though one or two were ordained before James arrived. “Well done good and faithful servant you have been faithful over small things, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

James’s work in Africa was cut short due to ill health and necessitated him staying home to do promotion work in Ireland.  He spent over 10 years on promotion work mostly collecting funds in our SMA Mission boxes. If you follow football there is an award called the Golden Boot award for the player who scores the most goals in a season. Well for those on Mission Boxes collection we jokingly had a similar phantom award which we called the Golden Mission Box award for the person who raised the most income in a season. James won that hands down three or four years in a row. He was the Ronaldo of Mission box collectors. Seriously though, whether he was on the missions or at home he was totally committed to his ministry as a priest. 

As I said earlier in the quotation from St Rose of Lima the Lord sends grace to us after he sends a cross and James experienced that again in 2010 when he was given the cross of having to retire from mission promotion due to ill health. But he was given a new grace then to cope with that, namely in ministry of Spiritual direction, and offering Holy Mass and the sacraments to those he met. This, was perhaps the most fulfilling part of his priestly ministry for James. Although we often didn’t realise it he helped people cope with their everyday lives and was a conduit for God’ Grace for them. As well as James’s love for Our Lady he had a great Faith in the Eucharist and saw it as a great privilege to be able to sit and eat at the Lords table. “Look I stand at the door and knock, If anyone hears my call and opens the door, I will come in to him and have my supper with him.” We pray that now James is enjoying that same relationship with Jesus in the Banquet of Heaven.

So as we gather here today for the Funeral Mass and celebration of James’s life as a priest with the Society of African Missions, I ask the question: what would James like us to take with us.

  1. I think that he would want us to remain faithful to whatever we are called to do by God, that we would live it out faithfully in spite of any setbacks.
  2. Secondly in the words of St Rose of Lima that whenever we do meet crosses in our lives that we remember “After a cross or suffering or setback we get grace and blessings as a gift ot help us through.
  3. And to remember the words of Jesus who said “I am the resurrection and the Life, He who believes in me though he die yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Although he was a strong man and had a great relationship with God the news of his sickness must have been a very lonely experience but he really appreciated the care he received from the staff in Ennis, in Limerick, in the Bon Secours here in Cork and in our own St Theresa’s Nursing Unit. I felt for him as he looked at the ceiling of his ward from his bed every day. We all felt sorry for him but I tried to comfort him with this short poem, the Weaving which helped him accept it.

My Life is but a weaving, between my God and me,

I may not choose the colours, He knows what they should be;

For he can view the pattern upon the upper side,

While I can see it only on this the underside.

Sometimes he weaveth Sorrow,

Which seems so strange to me;

But I will trust his judgement,

And work on faithfully;

Tis He who fills the shuttle,

He knows what is best;

So I shall weave in earnest

And leave with Him the rest.

At last when life is ended, With Him I shall abide,

Then I may view the pattern, upon the upper side.

Then I shall know the reason why pain and Joy entwined,

Was woven in the fabric Of Life that God designed. Amen.