The death of someone we love is always a shattering experience. It tears out a part of our own hearts. To celebrate in faith the death of a loved one is in no way to deny this pain of separation and loss. For all who truly love, the sense of loss is real and profound and needs to be acknowledged.
In this funeral Mass for our dear brother, Fr Sexton Doran, we acknowledge that loss but we do so in the context of our faith and in light of the promises the Lord has made to us: the promises movingly expressed in the readings for today’s Mass:
For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body.”
“The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek. He will destroy death for ever”.
“I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall take you with me; so that where I am you may be, too.”
In this context, then, we remember Fr Sexton’s life and witness as we bid him a final farewell.
Sexton (or Secky as he was known by his confreres and friends) was born in Loughinisland, Co Down on 8 June 1933. He received his primary education at the local National School in Loughinisland and his secondary education at St Patrick’s High School, Downpatrick. After Secondary school, he worked at home for a number of years before deciding to become a missionary priest. Two of his uncles were priests – Canon Dennis Cahill of Down & Connor diocese and Fr Sexton Cahill SMA, after whom he was named. No doubt he was also influenced by the fact that his three sisters had joined religious Congregations. His sister Mary entered the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent dePaul and is presently stationed in Dublin. His two other sisters, Marie and Margaret, joined the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption, who had a convent in nearby Ballynahinch. Both are missionaries in South Africa.
Sexton entered the SMA Novitiate in Cloughballymore, Co Galway in September 1957 and took his first temporary oath of membership of the SMA on 25 June 1954. From Cloughballymore, Secky went to the SMA Major Seminary in Dromantine for the study of Philosophy and Theology and became a permanent member of the SMA on 12 June 1963. He was ordained a priest, by Bishop in Newry Cathedral on 18 June 1963 along with 9 others. Sexton was described by his Superiors as “a very fine, steady and reliable young man – frank straightforward and manly.” All who lived and worked with him came to recognise that he possessed these qualities in abundance as well as an indefatigable passion for mission.
Fr Sexton’s first mission appointment was to Benin City diocese, Nigeria [1964-1968]. He worked in busy mission parishes with multiple outstations where he got plenty of opportunities to exercise his obvious evangelising passion. In one of the parishes in which he served, Ekpoma, he experienced first-hand the terrible impact of the Nigerian Civil War [1966-1970], especially when the Mission House came under direct fire from the Federal troops who were chasing the retreating rebel [Biafran] forces through the area. Thankfully all survived the event.
In 1968 Fr Secky was asked by his Provincial Superior, Fr Larry Carr, to return to Ireland and take charge of Promotion work in Northern Ireland. Based in Dromantine, Fr Secky took over as Vocations Director and recruited many young men for the Society. While he devoted his time and energies unstintingly to this work, his heart was always in Africa and, in 1972, he asked to return there. However, owing to difficulties in getting visas for missionaries in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War, he was appointed instead as Superior in Dromantine. He served in that position for one year until he was asked by Fr Carr to lead a group of Irish missionaries on a new mission in Zambia. He and Fr Michael Igoe were the pioneers of this new missionary outreach which on the instructions of Fr Carr aimed at bringing “the distinctive SMA qualities of teamwork, dedication and trust in providence” to the developing Church in Zambia. Fr Secky was still Superior of the Irish missionaries in Zambia when I was appointed there – my first mission – in 1975. I could not have asked for better model of missionary commitment or a more conscientious and inspiring mentor.
Fr Secky was to remain for 37 years in Ndola diocese until his ill-health forced return to Ireland in 2010. During his years in Ndola diocese, Fr Secky served in Francisdale [1973-1979], Kansuswa parish, Mufulira [1979-1982], Twapia and Dola Hill parish, living in the Cathedral House [1982-1990], Luanshya [1990-2002]. In January 2003 he took up his last appointment at St Mary’s, Kamuchanga, in Mufulira.
Secky had many additional responsibilities during his years in Zambia. He was Superior of the Irish group for the first five years. He established various chaplaincies to different schools and Colleges. He was one of a three-man team set up to help the establishment of a Zambian branch of the SMA. He was also for a time Vocations’ Director in Zambia. On a diocesan level he was Chairman of the Priests’ Council and Vicar General to Bishop deJong [1980-1990]. He was noted for his care and attention of the diocesan clergy, particularly those who were ill or had other difficulties, often caring for some of them in his mission at Luanshya. Also during his years in Luanshya, convinced of the need for proper education, he was Chaplain to several Third-level Colleges, seeing it as a means to ensure that the students received a proper grounding in their faith.
I have said that Fr Secky’s life was dominated by a passion for mission. I saw this passion in action during the short time I was in Zambia myself. I became aware of it again when Fr Secky came to Rome in 1990 on a sabbatical programme. I was on the General Council at the time and in charge of ongoing formation. I asked Secky to write about what his sabbatical had meant to him. What he wrote tells us a lot about him and his passion for mission.
“It is said ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and it is certainly my experience that being absent from Mission duty for a year has not lessened the appeal of Africa or my determination to return there. On the contrary, my sabbatical leave has only intensified my resolve to return to Africa. I would hope that at the end of my course I will be in better shape to return to the missions with renewed energy and, hopefully, with a few new ideas, to continue to respond as effectively as possible to the need of the people.
Over his 37 years in Zambia, Fr Secky made an inestimable contribution to the development of the Church in Ndola Diocese. A Zambian sister, Sr Bupe Chileshe, who came to Cork to visit him two weeks ago, sent me an email last night in which she expressed beautifully the impact Fr Secky had on the lives of the many Zambians to whom he ministered: She wrote: “Like a lion he fought the good fight. He showed us how to be leaders of our own destiny. He believed in us when we did not trust ourselves.”
In December 2009, Fr Secky and a Zambian SMA priest were the victims of an armed robbery during which both were injured. After some time recovering in Zambia, Fr Secky was forced to return to Ireland, his long and illustrious missionary in Africa at an end. But his heart remained there and during his four years in Blackrock Road he kept in touch with happenings in Zambia and the different SMA’s – Irish and Zambian – who still toiled there.
Fr Secky’s remarkable life dedication to mission was inspired and nurtured by his family, his parents, uncles, brothers, sisters, relations and friends, and the local Catholic community into which he was born. Their sterling faith and spirit of sacrifice ignited in Secky a desire to cross geographical and cultural borders to share that faith with the people Nigeria and Zambia. Several of Fr Secky’s large family are here today and I wish to acknowledge their presence and thank them for the support they gave him all through his life, right up to the end.
The last chapter of his life, his final illness, brought Secky’s total offering of himself to God to completion. He bore his illness and weakened physical condition with great dignity, courage and patience. He approached death as he had lived his life: gracefully, full of the grace of God.
Fr Sexton brought the light of God’s grace and God’s presence into the lives of many. He ministered God’s healing and forgiveness wherever he was. His missionary life was, in the words of the SMA Superior General, Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, on the occasion of Fr Sexton’s Golden Jubilee, “a model of strength, goodness, companionship, prayerfulness, sincerity and a source of inspiration for everyone who knew him, young and old, African and expatriate”. What is before him now as he ascends the mountain of God, is, as Isaiah tells us in the first reading, the great heavenly banquet where “every tear will be wiped away” and “death will be destroyed for ever”.
May his great spirit be filled with the utter fullness of God and rest in that peace which passes all understanding!