Fr Mattie McNeely SMA
Homily preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Leader at the concelebrated Funeral Mass on Saturday, 25 September 2010 at 12 noon in St Joseph’s SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork.
Wisdom 6: 12-16 – Hebrews 4: 12-16 – Matthew 11: 25-30
Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use
I think that little saying might sum up the character of Fr Mattie McNeely SMA. To me, one of the most striking features of his character was a spirit of adventure and a spirit of enquiry. Just because things were so in the past did not mean they always had to be so; and just because things did not happen in the past did not mean they could never happen. This openness of mind and enquiring spirit is a prelude to the gaining of wisdom. And this open enquiry was carried out with a great humanity and an engaging sense of humour.
The opening reading from the Book of Wisdom is appropriate. “Wisdom is bright, and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her”. Mattie’s range of interest was wide: from reading, to photography, to travel, to languages, to history, to archaeology, to gadgets, to having the craic! The search went deep, not for things at the superficial level only but for the wisdom of God too. And this wisdom of God was usually revealed through another human being. In fact, you could say that wisdom befriended him. Mattie loved to see new things, to encounter new peoples and cultures and to nourish his soul with the goodness he imbibed from these different cultures. I suppose it was this adventurous spirit that propelled him to embrace a missionary vocation. His vocation path allowed him to sample different expressions of how it is to be human and he himself benefited enormously from such encounters.
Today we gather in this church to pray him home to the God he sought to love and serve all his life. We do so in the conviction of faith that Mattie will rise in body on the last day. As our gospel points out, such a faith does not come easily to the learned and the clever but rather to those who possess a childlike openness to possibility. Mattie possessed such openness, as I’ve said. Now he has gone to rest in God as his labours and burdens of this life are over. I have no doubt that he will have found Jesus gentle and humble in heart. As the reading invites “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light”. Mattie has had his share of medical burdens since his early years as a missionary in Nigeria. But, as we shall see later, these were embraced as gift as well as burden.
Mattie was born in Castlebar, Co Mayo on 1st August 1933. No matter how far he travelled from there, Mayo always held a very dear spot in his heart, and it was fitting that he should die, surrounded by a loving supportive family, in his beloved Mulranny. After secondary studies Mattie took the usual route through SMA studies until he was ordained a missionary priest in June 1956 without yet having reached his 23rd birthday.
I like to think that Mattie’s missionary vocation was inspired by the sentiments in our second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews. “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts.” He dedicated his life to follow that word and spent 54 years of his life sharing that word as a missionary priest. God’s word is alive and active even as I speak. When we allow our lives to be illumined by God’s word we have the possibility of becoming the people God has called us to be. It is sure that we don’t always achieve the perfection we desire but our faith assures us that God is at our side even when we are weakest. “For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. Let us be confident, then, in approaching the throne of grace, that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help.” Our confident prayer for Mattie is that he too will experience the mercy of God.
Mattie’s first appointment was to Northern Nigeria where he served in the diocese of Jos. He was the founder of the Minor seminary for Jos diocese – first at Akwanga and later moved to Barakin Ladi – and had the pleasure on his brief visit to Nigeria a few years ago of seeing the beautiful tall trees that he had planted as saplings 50 years earlier. Ill health, especially liver trouble that was to stay with him right to the end, forced a return from the tropics for a few years, years he spent as a teacher in the Major seminary at Dromantine. But he returned to his ministry in Jos diocese for another fourteen years, after which he did some media studies in Lyon, France, prior to taking up an appointment as assistant to the late John O’Mahony SMA in the Media Centre in Kaduna archdiocese. Much was accomplished there, perhaps the highlight being the media coverage given to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria in 1982.
A new avenue for mission service opened up for Mattie in 1982 when he answered a call to serve as Guestmaster and part-time Anglophone secretary at the SMA Generalate in Rome. Mattie is fondly remembered by all SMAs and all others who visited the house during those years. His driving tours of Rome were legendary; not everyone returned to the house with the contents of their stomachs intact! The phrase When in Rome Do as the Romans Do was certainly heeded by Mattie when it came to driving style! But he was renowned for the quality of hospitality. A colleague of the time, writing in the SMA International Bulletin, described his style as “a kind of well-camouflaged efficiency not unrelated to SMA and Christianity.”
After his sojourn in Rome, Mattie accepted an assignment to the SMA team in Cairo, Egypt. He was appointed to Heliopolis where he ministered in the parish and also had a very fruitful ministry among English speaking expatriates. He became de-facto confidant, counsellor, spiritual director and especially friend to many who found his support invaluable during some difficult times. Egypt was a posting that allowed Mattie to engage his enquiring mind to a huge extent. He became fascinated by Egyptian history and archaeology. I well remember one visit I made there myself in 1996 when Mattie brought me on a tour of some museums and gave me an enthralling lecture on the tomb of Tutankhamen. He also sought to understand the mind of fundamentalist and extremist Islam. Cuttings from newspapers and articles on the subject were regularly sent to the Provincial office.
It seems to me that Mattie lived his life according to the wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. I understand that Mattie’s family chose this passage for the Mass in Mulranny yesterday morning. Mattie was not one to complain about how life was treating him. Rather he preferred to accept and embrace whatever life threw up in his path. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die” Mattie’s ready acceptance of the various illnesses that visited his life is a case in point. When serious cancer visited him some nine years ago he accepted this with equanimity. He accepted that it would require some life-style changes. He would not have the same freedom and ability to do all that he had done in the past. But he accepted this situation without complaint. There was still much that he could do and his choice was to live life to the fullest in every given situation.
His sickness was almost a gift to such an enquiring mind. He seemed intrigued by the workings of the human body – as lived out especially in his own body – and was fascinated by the medical advances that allowed him to live life in a very dignified way. And he was ever grateful to those who cared for his wellbeing. Exactly a week to the day he died I spoke to him on the phone. He was as positive as he had always been. He wanted to assure me that he was getting the greatest of care, whether in the Galway clinic, Castlebar hospital or from those around him in the community and his home in Mulranny. He exuded excitement as he described to me the present medical situation, not that I fully grasped the various technicalities. We did not discuss death but there was no sense that he wanted to avoid the subject either. Clearly Mattie was living for that day only and what might come tomorrow would bring its own beauty. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. I know from talking with his family that Mattie came to embrace the day when it was time to die. We are being reminded nowadays by different gurus that it is important to live in the now. It seems to me that Mattie exemplified such an approach to life.
He struck me as a man supremely content in his own person. The Mattie I knew was accepting and non-judgemental. Perhaps it is this quality more than any other that endeared him to so many people. Mattie’s wide circle of friends comprised peoples from the corners of the globe, and each one was treated with courtesy and accorded due dignity. This was one of the ways Mattie lived his missionary calling: to be a witness to God’s unconditional love in the heart of the world.
As we now pray him home to God, he will be greatly missed – by family, his confreres and all his friends. He specifically instructed that he should be buried among his brothers in the SMA cemetery here in Wilton. A home for his body for however long.
But his real home is in heaven.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.