Remembrance Mass for Fr John Hannon SMA RIP
at Newmarket-on Fergus, Co Clare, December 10th, 2004.
Homily preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior
Isaiah 61: 1-3.6.8-9
Romans 14: 7-12
Luke 12: 35-40
Robert Pinsky, American poet laureate from 1997-2000 observed that “a people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory. Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.” The blood of family kinship and solidarity runs strong and deep in the Hannon family. This was perhaps never more evident than when they buried their beloved Fr John at St Barnabas’ Church, Matasia, in the diocese of Ngong, Kenya just one week ago today. They are left, as we all are, with the sadness of human loss. But they are blessed too with many fine memories. Memories not only of John himself but of the poignant and powerful funeral liturgy conducted in his honour. What memories they keep of John and of his final resting place will in a very real sense define who they are.
But there is a much bigger memory that we are all partaking of here tonight. This is the memory of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each time we celebrate Mass we participate in this memory. Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me”. Every Mass recalls Calvary. But it is far more than a mere recalling. “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body” [CCC, 1362] In other words, Christ’s one saving sacrifice of himself on Calvary is made present for us each time we celebrate Mass. This, in fact, is what gives meaning to all our remembering.
Our Christian faith sustains us in the belief that in death life is changed, not ended. Our readings this evening confirm us in that faith. St Paul reminds us in very graphic terms in our passage chosen from Romans that “if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead we belong to the Lord”. Our gospel reminds us that we never know the day or the hour that the Master may call us home. We do, however, need to be ready at all times. “You must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”. One of the lovely things we learned during the short trip to Kenya for John’s funeral was that during the day prior to his murder he had asked to speak to a priest colleague. He talked with him for several hours about the most pertinent personal things in his life and concluded the session by receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. What better way could anyone prepare for the call of the Lord.
The opening reading from the prophet Isaiah foretells the mission that Jesus would later claim as his very own mission. To receive the anointing of God’s Spirit in order to “bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives; to comfort those who mourn”. As we shall see later this too was the very same mission to which John Hannon dedicated his entire life, even to the point of death.
John Hannon was born here in Newmarket-on-Fergus on 22nd April, 1939. After his schooling in the local primary school and St Flannan’s College, Ennis he later found himself studying for the missionary priesthood in the Society of African Missions. He was ordained priest in Newry Cathedral on December 18th, 1967 and his first missionary posting was to the archdiocese of Lagos in Nigeria. John was to spend the next 25 years labouring in the Lord’s vineyard in Lagos.
Memories abound from his time in Lagos. In the archdiocese he was best known for his building prowess and his love of youths. John never took the simple route to any achievement. Not for him the ministry of a settled parish. He always wanted to break new ground. He was the quintessential missionary. He never wanted to stay in a place once the church there was firmly established. Thus he was always to be found on the outskirts of the city. Nothing drove him more than the desire to open new stations so that new Christian communities could be formed. He would go into an area that was almost completely derelict and in the space of a few short years have transformed it into a thriving parish environment. And these establishments were always erected among the poorest of the poor. He not only brought life to the church community but the community as a whole. And it was not only the Catholic community that benefitted from his enterprise. Wherever John moved whole networks of community were to follow in his wake.
John never used fancy words to describe his mission philosophy. But if one were to put words on it it could be well described as the holistic or integral development of peoples. It was once said that common sense is genius dressed up in working clothes. John’s genius was revealed in the practical and the concrete. He built many fine structures of concrete and iron. But, perhaps more importantly, he built up also peoples self-esteem. He built up peoples’ spiritual lives through celebrating the sacraments for them and offering solid catechetical programmes; he catered to their health needs by establishing health clinics; he catered to their economic needs by establishing small industries and trained illiterate peoples in various skills and trades such as typing and sowing so that they could become self-supporting and support a family; he catered to their educational needs by providing them with school fees and sometimes establishing centres for training in reading, etc. And he often had to do all this against the wishes of some powerful local interests. He rarely established any new parish without first incurring the wrath of some local chieftain who thought his own control was better served by keeping the people in poverty and ignorance. But John had such a keen sense of social justice that he never stood back from the battle to lift up peoples’ lives irrespective of the personal cost such an undertaking necessarily involved.
John’s ability to combine a strong faith in Jesus Christ and the living out of that faith in practical terms described above is beautifully captured by Cardinal Okogie, archbishop of Lagos, in his message of condolence read out at the funeral service at Matasia last Friday. I quote this powerful paragraph, “John, a great missionary, always ensured that he had with him the Bible, the Cross, as well as practical skills which he passed on to the people wherever he went. In doing this, he empowered them spiritually, socially and economically. His ability to combine practical life and a life of prayer made him firmly rooted in the spirit and tradition of the Society of African Missions. The Society no doubt has lost a loyal ambassador. In all his activities, John made no mistake of minding the work of God as to forget the God of the work. His love for Jesus prompted all he did. He was a man of prayer and a committed priest always ready to labour for Christ not counting the cost”.
John’s passion for truth and justice meant that he was impatient to get things done. He hated hypocrisy. He never sacrificed principle for popularity. He had strong views and he was never afraid to express them even at the cost of upsetting the civil and ecclesiastical establishments. His compassion for the poor, for orphans and street children knew no bounds and he did not hide his impatience with those he considered to be failing to provide solutions to urgent social problems.
Paradoxically, I think, it was this impatience that marked John out as a very real human being. He may be a modern day martyr but he was not a plastic character and he was certainly no plastic saint. I think he would be the first to object to some of the fine tributes that have been paid to him over this past two weeks. He did not always have an easy relationship with his bishop or Society superiors. I myself, like most of my predecessors, have been the recipient of some strong letters admonishing me for my inability to see things from John’s perspective. But one always knew that behind the annoyance was a heart that pained because his people were suffering and he felt their suffering would continue as long as his project was unattended to.
What John did in Lagos he was to continue to do in Kenya. Here again his love of youth and his love for the poor were very much to the core. In about three years he had built up a thriving community at Matasia from a very small nucleus. That he was appreciated at Matasia was abundantly clear from the extraordinary farewell he received last Friday.
John’s horrible death was absolutely tragic. It seems doubly tragic that a man who dedicated his whole life to others should suffer such a fate. We may perhaps never know the mindset that inspired those who carried out this foul deed. But we can be very sure that they do not truly represent Africa. Sad to say, such an experience is not alien to our own experience here in Ireland. There is scarcely a day goes by that we do not hear of one or two or more murders. All murder is senseless. All murder is evil. Whether it happens in Africa or Ireland it has the same senseless quality. And such evil can only be countered by genuine goodness, goodness that results from an ever deeper conversion to Jesus Christ.
But if his death was tragic, his burial was magnificent. The people of his parish were embarrassed and shamed by his murder. But greater than the embarrassment and shame was their sense of huge loss of the Father they loved dearly and whom they knew loved them. The outpouring of grief was tangible. So too was the tremendous pride they took in all that he had achieved among them. They showed that he belonged among them by preparing a marvellous funeral liturgy and a burial place in the centre of the Stations of the Cross that John had lately erected in the church compound. The whole church of Kenya came out in force to show its solidarity. Ten bishops of the local church were present at the Mass which was led by the Papal Nuncio to Kenya. Up to 150 priests were joined by as many religious sisters and brothers. At least 3000 people came to pay their last respects.
John is now at final rest among the people to whom he gave his entire life, the people to whom he belonged. He will be missed by his family and loyal supporters. John was always very proud of the great support he got from the people of this locality and other contacts in Ireland. He will be missed by all of us his colleagues and confreres in the SMA. And he will be sorely missed by the people of Matasia and Kenya in general. But the memories we carry will sustain us in Christian hope. And we pray that the life of this courageous and indefatigable missionary will inspire in each of us a desire to commit ourselves more fully to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are told by St Paul that “the life and death of each of us has its influence on others”. John Hannon’s life has certainly not been lived in vain.
Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.