SMA FUNERAL HOMILIES 2003
Fr Sean O’Connell SMA
Fr Owen Francis Sweeney SMA
Fr Denis Slattery SMA
Fr Robert V Wiseman SMA
Fr Michael Higgins SMA
Funeral Homily 28/11/2003
Fr Sean O’Connell SMA
Readings: Maccabees 12: 43-45
Luke 23:44-46.50.52-53. 24:1-6
Sean O’Connell was gifted with a very beautiful singing voice. I often heard him give a fine rendition of the song ‘He like a soldier fell.’ Well, if it is characteristic of soldiers to fight to the bitter end and not give up easily, it could be said too of Sean himself “he like a soldier fell”. For many days we had been anticipating his passing at any hour, yet he hung on resolutely to life. And then in the end he simply handed up his spirit. It was almost as if he repeated the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”.
Our gathering today is to celebrate Sean’s long and good life and pray him home into the bosom of the Father. Though the sadness of losing a brother, an uncle, a grand-uncle, an in-law, a friend, a confrere is very real and we do not gloss over it lightly, it is tempered by our Christian faith which sustains us at such times. We know that for Sean this is not the end. Life is merely changed, not ended. We will miss him very much in this life but the guarantee of new life with God is what helps to heal the pain.
In the Book of Maccabees from which we have taken our opening reading today we find the first thought-through Old Testament theology of resurrection. Judas Maccabeus, by his collection for the sacrificial sin offering, attested to his belief in the resurrection. As the reading puts it, “for if he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead”. Our faith too guarantees that it is far from superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. So, we pray for Sean today asking the Father to purify him in whatever way may be necessary so that he can enjoy the fullness of life in heaven.
Our second reading today is taken from the book of the Apocalypse. Here we hear God say, “I am making the whole of creation new; I will give water from the well of life free to anybody who is thirsty; it is the rightful inheritance of the one who proves victorious”. This is a gentle reminder to us that salvation is never earned; it is freely offered. Sean will not be saved because he was especially gifted; he will not be saved because he was a missionary priest for fifty years; he will not be saved because of any other particular quality. He will be saved because he believed in Jesus Christ as his saviour and Lord and accepted that salvation as freely offered.
Our gospel today speaks of that virtuous man Joseph who believed that the body of the dead should be treated with great reverence. So too the women went to reverence the body in the tomb with spices. But they are gently reminded that their focus is wrong. “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? they are told, He is not here, he has risen.” As we pay reverence to Sean’s remains today we know that he is not actually among the dead but is very much alive.
Sean was born and died here in the city of Cork. The seventy-seven intervening years were spent mainly in the West coast of Ireland and the West coast of Africa, finally coming back to Cork in the latter years where he was privileged to be able to celebrate his golden jubilee of ordination just a few short months ago. In all he spent thirteen years as a teacher of Maths, Latin and other subjects in Ballinafad College, Co Mayo, fifteen years in Ibadan, Nigeria, plus two years in Monrovia. He had two stints of appointment at Blackrock Road, first as vice-Superior and Bursar and later as manager of the African Missionary magazine. And a six year term as Superior of our Promotion house in Claremorris, Co Mayo.
Sean was blessed with many gifts. He was grateful for these and he also wore them lightly. He possessed a razor sharp intellect “a powerful brain” but he avoided the temptation to use his intelligence to belittle those less gifted. He was a gifted teacher who evoked in his pupils not only admiration but also affection. In fact, one of his former pupils described him as the finest teacher he ever had, a man of endless patience. In all his appointments he endeared himself to the staff with whom he worked, always seemingly able to project a happy disposition. By his own admission he was not a sports star [he would always say that Derry got those gifts]; nevertheless he became quite an accomplished coach. He was a gifted singer and liked nothing better than a rousing sing-song at a party. His rendering of ‘An Puc ar Buile’, ‘Bheir me O’ or ‘He like a soldier fell’ brought laughter and enjoyment to many, whether in Africa, Ireland or any other place.
Sean was a solid administrator, popular with his confreres. He was elected first as deputy Regional and then Regional Superior in Ibadan, Nigeria, a post he filled with distinction, being noted especially for the quality of his hospitality. He continued this service of hospitality in his short stint as Guest Master in the SMA house, Monrovia, Liberia. To prepare for this role he even took up a cookery course. This generosity was allied to a good sense of humour: as someone once said, “generosity to be perfect should always be accompanied by a dash of humour.” In Sean this was certainly the case.
It has been mentioned more than once over these past days of the twinkle in his eye, an engaging twinkle accentuated and magnified by his spectacles. I’m sure Sean himself must have smiled at times over these last months at the irony that such a fine brain would succumb eventually to the relentless march of cancer and that this in fact would be the cause of his death.
If we may look again at our reading taken from the book of the Apocalypse. Here St John describes for us his vision of the new heaven and the new earth. It is described as a city where God lives among people. “He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God with them.” From this we can see that this new city is very much in continuity with our earthly dwelling here below. Here too God lives among people and makes his home among them. This, in fact, is the core of our faith in the Incarnation. God has freely chosen to come among us as a man.
From my knowledge of Sean I am convinced that his theology and spirituality was grounded in this truly Christian belief that God’s incarnation as man means that our humanity is the sacred space where God is glimpsed, grasped, struggled with and finally served. Sean lived that theology as much as preached it. Incarnation means there is no other-worldly, ethereal, spiritual route to God that escapes our humanity. God is to be encountered both in the glorious beauty and the awful messiness of this world; in the ecstasy of sheer joy and celebration as well as the agony of loss and desolation. The way Sean approached life you knew he had no difficulty accepting that theology. He loved nature, plants and flowers of every kind. And he had obvious qualities of kindness, sensitivity, care, compassion and love for anyone experiencing life’s difficulties.
Sean believed that life was to be celebrated not simply endured. Maybe it was this quality, together with a certain care-freeness that suggested life should never be taken too seriously, that endeared him to so many, within his own family and a wide circle of friends. Sean was blessed with the ability to sustain deep and lasting friendships.
There was in him too no doubt a streak of stubbornness. Sometimes this was his friend; at other times his enemy. It was his friend when it settled and secured him in his own humanity. This internal security manifested itself in a freedom that refused to allow others’ narrower life perspectives dominate or control either his thinking or his behaviour. He was his own man and woe betide the one who would seek to alter his personality style. This streak of stubbornness could be his enemy too, especially when it blocked his ability to see another perspective on things. This was often seen to great effect in meetings, but mostly in a humorous way it must be said, where he had the marvellous ability to deflect any point of contention or attack and yet leave you with the impression that he was taking your point fully on board.
The inspiration of his life was perhaps best exemplified in the last sixteen months or so since his stroke. He bore his sickness and incapacity with courage and without complaint. The American journalist, Howard Cosell says “Courage takes many forms. There is physical courage; there is moral courage. Then there is a still higher courage, the courage to brave pain, to live with it, to never let others know it and to still find joy in life; to wake up in the morning with an enthusiasm for the day ahead.”
That would describe the courage that Sean O’Connell showed over these last months. May such courage serve as an inspiration to us all so that we too can accept what life deals us and approach each day with a twinkle and a smile.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 16/10/2003
Fr Owen Francis Sweeney SMA
Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11
2 Peter 3:8-14
The untimely death of the talented and influential always reminds us of how fragile is the gift of life. Yesterdayâ€™s gift does not entitle us to tomorrow. Today is what we have and it cannot be hoarded. In fact, it must be used extravagantly in the loving service of others in accordance with the intentions of the donor.
We gather this afternoon to celebrate the deepening of life of Fr Owen Fra Sweeney, a life gift that was generously shared with many. We gather here because we have hope. By any reckoning Owen Fra died in the prime of health; in this it came as a complete shock to all. But his death, like every death, simply marked a passage from one stage of life to another. If it were not for our Christian conviction that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that it will likewise be for all those who believe in him, our gathering here today would be characterised only by pain and loss. However, our faith helps us to pass through the pain of loss to the telling of a new story. This new story does not have an end. We are not just bidding a fond farewell to a loved brother and friend. Our new story is that Owen Fra has moved with Christ and broken through the confines of this world to an eternity unburdened by timeâ€™s cares. When we begin to live the resurrection life at death, we see what no eye has ever seen and hear what no ear has ever heard. Then we see God face to face and become like him.
If anything can be said with certainty about human life, it is that we are pilgrims, wayfarers, travellers. The greatest pleasure in Owen Fraâ€™s life was walking the mountain paths of Munster. It is not a bad metaphor for a life well spent. On Sunday evening last Owen came down from the mountain for the last time. When Mary and Carol reached his car they saw him mumbling a prayer. It is certainly a wonderful consolation to know that he moved from this life to the next with a prayer on his lips. The shock of his going, the painful ache of his being no longer among us will gradually give way to an appreciation of the blessings surrounding his death. Thank God he had not reached the main road and caused a motor accident. His final day was spent among a group of young people that he dearly loved. And his final minutes were spent, Iâ€™m told, in one of the most picturesque settings in all of Godâ€™s creation.
I chose the first reading for todayâ€™s Mass from the Book of Wisdom. Many of you will recognise it as the opening reading of last Sundayâ€™s liturgy, the day Owen Fra died. In this reading we hear King Solomon praising the gift of wisdom as being infinitely more valuable than all his massive wealth and worldly possessions. Those who came to know Owen Fra over these past years would agree, I believe, that he had acquired a certain wisdom, somewhat understated perhaps, certainly tolerant, non-judgemental, respectful, a wisdom nourished by an acceptance of his own vulnerability. It was a wisdom minted not without pain: a wisdom hewn in the struggle to live with and master addiction. But it was this quality that made him so popular with many people, some of whom were at least one generation younger than himself.
Our second reading this morning from the letter of St Peter reminds us that Godâ€™s time is calculated according to a different standard to our own. A day can mean a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. There is consolation here for the family and friends of one taken suddenly. Owen Fra enjoyed 65 years on this earth and they were years lived to the full.
The oldest in a family of four children he showed an aptitude for study from an early age. From primary school in Goleen he moved on to the SMA College in Ballinafad before embarking on the usual path of studies to SMA priesthood. His academic gifts were recognised by taking a science degree in UCC and following this up by taking a post-graduate science programme in Cambridge immediately after ordination. His love for the teaching of mathematics was satisfied in a missionary career of twenty one years spent in education in Nigeria, first in the diocese of Ondo and later at Loyola college in Ibadan. During those years he published a book on mathematics to help his students come to grips with some difficult concepts and problems.
I believe it was this willingness to go that extra mile in service to others that endeared him to many and enabled him to form friendships that withstood the test of time. He had been in regular contact with many of his former students from Loyola college. Every now and then they organised a re-union in London to which Owen Fra was always a treasured invitee. His willing service of others was his way of living out that instruction of Peter to live our lives without spot or stain so that the Lord will find us at peace.
Ill health eventually forced his return from Nigeria. Given that there was probably a kidney weakness from his birth it is remarkable that he was able to survive the tropics for so many years. His return and subsequent life in Cork for the last fifteen years or so was marked by three distinct passions: regular and frequent visits to his family in Goleen; a meticulous attention to detail in his office work at the service of the SMA; and an equally meticulous attention to all aspects of his life with the Cork back-packers group.
Our gospel this afternoon calls us to be prepared for the Lordâ€™s call because we never know the day or the hour it might be received. This preparedness is not to be entered into out of a sense of fear but rather as a true response to the bountiful gifts of God. This really is another name for faith â€“ the quality of living in confident trust in the hoped for return of Jesus. This preparedness has two dimensions: looking forward in hope; and looking back in gratitude.
These two qualities were obvious in the life of Owen Fra. His preparation for upcoming events were so meticulous as to be almost obsessive. There was never a stray paper on his desk at the end of a day. Office details for months in advance were already attended to. But this was all done in a quiet way, without fanfare or notoriety. So I have no doubt that his preparations to meet the Lord were equally attended to, solidly but without pretension.
Owen Fraâ€™s creative side was especially evident in his evolving of a whole new priestly ministry for himself when he returned to Cork. Through his contacts with those unsung heroes and friends of mission in the Apostolic Workers he acknowledged and affirmed a service to mission that often goes unheralded. Within this group too he formed friendships that endured.
Within the back-packing group he honed out a new ministry, a ministry less institutional and perhaps more suitable to our time. He never talked with anything but sheer enthusiasm about his weekend walks or about the people he encountered along those walks. His body language alone could never disguise the fact that within this group he was utterly content. His influence for good was obvious. So many have spoken over these days of the blessing it was to have known him. But what was obvious too was the fact that his relationships here were characterised by mutuality. He may have become a father figure but he was a brother first and foremost.
This was a living of priesthood totally devoid of any trappings of power. A priesthood of listening, of caring, of befriending. A priesthood of sharing in the question rather than always providing the answer from on high. A priesthood that acknowledged, again gently and without fanfare, that he too was in need of nourishment. I sometimes wondered what was the attraction in these walks beyond the mere exercise. Encountering such a wholesome bunch of human beings as I have met over these last few days has given me a very clear answer.
Fr Owen Francis Sweeney will be missed. His passing leaves a lacuna in the lives of us all. There is much that we can learn from his life. As we pray him back into God this afternoon we take our consolation from the knowledge that he has served well. May all of us be equally worthy of the same accolade.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 9 July 2003
Fr Denis Slattery SMA
Readings: Job 1: 23-27
1 Thess 4: 13-18
John 12: 23-28
A few months ago â€“ just prior to the war in Iraq â€“ I had a meeting with Fr Denis in the dining hall of SMA, Blackrock Road. It was just at the end of lunch and Denis came in and sat down beside me. I was well aware that by now Denis had become quite confused about his overall surroundings. He began by telling me â€œI am not at all happy with what is going onâ€. I was trying to decipher if he was talking about some issue within the community or house or something in the wider world. When my first efforts to elicit what might be troubling him were fruitless and when he then asked â€œwhat is happening todayâ€ I felt sure he had been looking at the TV about the impending war in Iraq and that this was what was troubling him. I told him that Mr Hans Blix, the arms inspector, was reporting to the UN in New York that day. Denis seemed to be happy with this answer. Then as we walked along the corridor back to his room he asked â€œare you going to that meeting?â€. I was a bit thrown and asked what meeting he was referring to. When I realised he was referring to the meeting at the UN I said I was not going. â€œBut will there be some Rev Father going?â€ he said. At that stage I thought it was better to ease his anxiety and so told him that yes there would surely be some Rev Father going to the meeting.
I tell you that little story not to make fun or jest of the confusion of an old man or to make him the butt of our laughter. I tell it because for me it reveals, in an extraordinarily uncanny way, an essential character of Denis Slatteryâ€™s entire life. It serves, in fact, as a metaphor for all that he stood for. Denisâ€™ life had one simple, basic aim: to put God at the centre of all things. However incongruous it might seem in our sophisticated times to have a Rev Father present at the meeting of the UN, it suggests that for Denis not having God visibly represented was to make the meeting all the poorer for that. And, God knows, if God were more visibly represented that day we may have avoided the ongoing conflict that started up just a few days later.
Denis Slatteryâ€™s life was one totally dedicated to the Lord. He spent a total of 55 years as a missionary in Nigeria in varied apostolates, so becoming one of the two longest serving missionaries in Africa from the Irish Province. But for a man of such rich and wide experience his faith was basically simple and traditional. Right to the very end Denis was faithful to his rosary, and up to very recently to the Stations of the Cross. These were the twin poles that sustained his mission throughout his life, and they did not leave him down.
Our first reading this morning from the Book of Job captures well what a life of total dedication to the Lord results in. It results in the conviction that God lives beyond death. Denis had a conviction that, like that of Job, could have been written on stone that God lives and that after death God would hold him close. And Godâ€™s judgement would be a gentle judgement because God would take his part.
This is a great statement and model of faith that each of us would do well to emulate. God is ever striving to set us close to him. If closeness is not attained, the fault is on our side not on Godâ€™s. Denis believed this to be so with an iron will and utter conviction. It was such a conviction that enabled him to serve as a missionary in Nigeria for so long.
During his sixty three years of priesthood Denis would have used the words of the second reading this morning [from the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians] many times to comfort the bereaved. It is fitting that these words should comfort us today. When someone dies at a ripe old age as Fr Denis has done there is a certain rightness and symmetry about it all. But this does not make the parting any less real, and for his family there will be a gap in their life for some time. Today would have been a day of huge rejoicing in Nigeria and it was certainly a regret of Denisâ€™ that he did not die in Nigeria. One of the OLA Sisters, a colleague of Fr Denis for many years in Lagos, told me last night that he had asked that twenty cows be prepared for his funeral.
But celebrating a life well lived is little comfort if that is all there is to it. But our faith assures us that at death life is changed not ended. With St Paul we proclaim that â€œJesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesusâ€. Our true celebration today then is that Fr Denis is living in Godâ€™s eternal presence.
Because of his illustrious missionary career Denis was to receive many honours and tributes. However, our Gospel passage from St John today reminds us that it is God and Godâ€™s Son Jesus Christ who must ultimately receive the glory. If a man serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too. If anyone serves me, my Father will honour himâ€. There is no doubt that Denis served well throughout the 87 years of his life. He received many honours here on earth for his efforts, and rightly so. This is part of the hundred-fold that Jesus promises to those who dedicate their lives to him. And no doubt the Father will honour him too in the heavenly banquet.
There is no doubt that Denis took great pride in all his achievements. But his life was ultimately lived not to bring honour to himself but to give honour and glory to God. When our lives are lived for God the honours that come our way are genuine and lasting. On the other hand, a life dedicated to this worldly achievement brings honours that are superficial and passing. Fr Denis was to receive many honours, statements of genuine appreciation and affection, the only tangible way people had to mark a life of outstanding public and Christian service.
It would take more than a short funeral homily to capture and celebrate the life and missionary career of Fr Denis Slattery. But some of the major events are worth noting.
- He was born the seventh child of eight on the odd day of a leap year on one of the most eventful years in all Irish history, the 29th day of February 1916. This surely presaged a career of singular significance;
- He was ordained in December 1939, a few months after the outbreak of World War II, an occurrence that meant a career path as a Scripture Scholar had to be foregone.
- He was appointed to Lagos, Nigeria where over the next sixty years he made an enormous contribution to the life of its peoples, becoming a national figure in a number of areas:
– as an educator, first at St Gregoryâ€™s College, Lagos and later at the Technical Grammar school of St Finbarrs which he founded, the first school in Nigeria to run technical and grammar subjects in conjunction;
– as journalist and editor of the Nigerian Catholic Herald newspaper where he not only promoted the growth of the Church but was to significantly influence the political situation of the country and incur the wrath of the colonial masters through vigorous support of the independence movement, the rights of workers and through strategic friendships with the emerging political elite of the nationalist movement;
– as a sportsman and sports administrator he was perhaps best known on the national stage; he left a lasting legacy in the Nigerian football association, establishing the referees association and becoming Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association for a number of years;
– as a pastor of souls through his work in various parishes, his pride and joy being his last posting to St Denisâ€™ parish, Bariga close to his beloved St Finbarrs; he also served as Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Lagos for many years up to his retirement.
Such contributions were acknowledged at various stages throughout his career. Denis himself refers to many of them in his autobiography published in 1996. But it was the honours that he was to receive at the very end that were the most significant of all. He was indeed blessed to have lived long enough to appreciate them.
On December 18th, 2001 President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria conferred on him the title of OFFICER OF THE ORDER OF THE NIGER in recognition of fifty-five years of outstanding service to the country and people of Nigeria.
As a consequence of this his own townâ€™s people in Fermoy honoured him last summer with a civic reception in recognition of his life achievements.
So, Denis Slattery truly was an extraordinary missionary. In an era of great heroes he stands among the very best. The breath of his vision and the diversity of his practical expression of that vision mark him out as truly unique. A man who more than compensated for his smallness of stature by a voluminous output, remarkable by any standards.
Today, as we lay this legend to rest in the peace of the Lord, we can truly say of him ni bheidh a leithead aris ann.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 31/1/2003
Fr Robert V Wiseman SMA
Readings: Isaiah 55: 1-11
Romans 5: 5-11
Matthew 11: 25-30
The famous Union leader, Mike Quill is said to have told the first official he met in America after arriving from Kerry that â€œif thereâ€™s a government here, Iâ€™m agin itâ€. I like to think that humorous quip reflects something of the life of Robert [Bob] Wiseman SMA. Today we celebrate Bobâ€™s passing in peace from this life to new life. There are no governments to deal with anymore.
Every funeral presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the really core matters of our faith. Bobâ€™s funeral is an occasion to give praise and thanks to God for his infinite goodness and eternal fidelity. This is brought out very clearly in all our readings this morning. The first, from the Prophet Isaiah, using the theme of life-giving water to represent the very life of God that we are invited to share, speaks only of receiving this life. Again and again the scriptures remind us that salvation is not something we can either earn or buy. It is a totally free gift of God and our only task is to receive it. Using the metaphor of trading, the prophet tells us that we donâ€™t need any money to receive the gift that God is offering. That is to say, salvation is ultimately not about our response but rather about Godâ€™s incredible generosity. He has made an everlasting covenant with his people. That covenant was ratified and sealed by Christâ€™s death on Calvary and guaranteed by his resurrection on the third day. That is why a funeral for a Christian is not so much a moment of sadness as it is a moment of celebration.
The prophet goes on to turn on their head our normal categories of judgement. â€œFor my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways â€“ it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughtsâ€. There is a great consolation in that for all of us: which one of us would want to stand before our neighbour and make their judgement the final arbiter of our salvation.
Should we still remain to be convinced, our second reading from St Paul to the Romans makes a very convincing case. â€œWe were still helpless when â€¦ Christ died for sinful menâ€ And â€œhaving died to make us righteous, is it likely that he would now fail to save us from Godâ€™s anger?â€ Our hope then is based not on anything that we ourselves might have accomplished in this life. Rather is it based on the fact that we have been reconciled with God through the saving death of Jesus Christ, his Son.
One of the treasured memories many of us will carry is that of the quality of peace of spirit and soul that Bob seemed to enjoy in his final weeks. Even though he was still suffering considerably on a physical level, a suffering that was ministered to in a very loving and caring way by all the staff of St Theresa unit, he did exude a peace of soul that was new. It was quite humbling to sit by his bed as he was being overseen, as it were, by the Diving Mercy image. As someone put it to me â€œwith physical decline came spiritual ascentâ€. It was very clear that the words of todayâ€™s gospel were being played out in our very presence: â€œCome 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 lightâ€. Bob is now blessed to know that only in the Lord can we find true rest.
Bob was one of the great characters in the SMA. Certainly it can be honestly said of him that he was a larger than life figure, and his physique was pretty large. Coming from a family blessed with a great musical background, it was no surprise that Bob excelled in the musical sphere. He is said to have been able to make the piano accordion talk. In his younger days he was also a renowned athlete and footballer. Within the SMA I donâ€™t believe there was anyone as much talked about as Bob. And it was generally with affection. This was true also of those many people who would have come to know him around the environs of Blackrock Road.
It is no secret to anybody that Bob was not always the easiest man to live with in community. St Benedict is reported to have said that if a religious community did not have a difficult brother among them they should send to the neighbouring monastery for one. That did not present itself as a difficulty in Blackrock Road for some years. When we have a chance to stand back from it all we can now better appreciate that Bobâ€™s presence was truly a gift, even if at times that gift was not fully appreciated. Sometimes I think we all failed the test of Christian charity. But on the whole I believe there was a genuine care, concern and real love shown to Bob right through his years of sickness. And each of us recognised that because of our own sin and weakness we had no right to stand in judgement over any man.
Bobâ€™s opening years in the priesthood were happy years. After ordination in 1954, he was assigned with his class-mate, another West-Cork man, the late Fr Laurence Collins, to Liberia where he spent the next nine years. He is remembered fondly in Monrovia for his work with youth. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that we bury him on the feast of St John Bosco, patron saint of youth. Bob retained a huge interest in Liberia right up to his final weeks and spoke about the towns and villages there as if he had only left them a matter of months ago. He had short spells in the diocese of Ondo, Nigeria and on secondment to the British Province before returning due to ill health to Blackrock Road in 1969.
There is no doubt that his life is mainly characterised by these last 33 years. They were years of complexity and contrast, marked by some highs and some very deep lows. There were times when Bob could be the most engaging confrere that you would care to meet. His love of fishing and his appreciation of nature allowed him to fill hours of lively conversation. He had a huge interest in all that was going on in the SMA and very few things passed him by. He had a lively interest in and no small knowledge of local history. And he had a kind spirit that manifested itself especially in his relationships with lay staff and particularly during his assignment of caring for the sick in the house.
It has to be said too that there were occasions when Bob evoked in others very strong feelings indeed. Feelings of sadness, pity, care, concern, compassion, the desire to cure, as well as feelings of annoyance, anger and frustration. When the illness was in control, reason was of little avail. Whatever kind of inner demons inhabited his tortured soul, they gave rise to fierce anger that was often projected out on anyone who might attempt to intervene, even for his own protection. And the anger was understandable. Bob had a huge unfulfilled potential. The twin addictions of alcohol and nicotine, with their accompanying psychic imbalances, made it next to impossible to release this potential. We can only imagine the inner turmoil that was thus generated.
Someone said to me yesterday that Bob is not in purgatory because he has lived it already down here. Another person said that maybe he was the only saint among us. Well, he was not a saint in the conventional sense, but maybe we should not dismiss the notion too readily either.
All we know for sure is that he is now at peace. Many have commented on how serene and peaceful he looks in death.
Thank God we have a God who does not see or judge as we do. I can imagine Bob smiling down on all of us today and enjoying our celebration of his life.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 6 January 2003
Fr Michael Higgins SMA
Readings: Eccles. 3:1-8,11
1 John 3:1-2
There is something terribly sobering about a death 30 hours into the new year. The new year marks new beginnings, it conjures up an image of possibilities to be fulfilled, almost limitless possibilities. Death then strikes with finality and with the cold reality that in this life all possibility is ultimately finite. Michaelâ€™s death [or Mick as we knew him in the SMA] on Thursday morning last, 72 years into this life â€“ 18 months shy of 50 of them spent as an SMA priest â€“ marked the end for him of this life possibility.
But we would be very foolish indeed to believe that this marks the end of the story. Mickâ€™s story is much more than a story of 72 years. His story is part of the Christian story which claims that at death life is changed, not ended. At death we pass from this life into new life. Perhaps, then, the new year is not a bad symbol of the new life that Mick has now entered.
If it is sobering to die on the new year it is surely inspiring that we bury Mick on the great Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany is about the unveiling of the baby Jesus as the Christ, i.e. the messiah or saviour of all people. Mick spent a great deal of his life unveiling that mystery for people in Nigeria, England and Ireland as a member of the Society of African Missions.
The Epiphany of Jesus, his true significance for the whole universe, can only be accurately understood in the light of the mystery of life, death and resurrection. Every funeral puts this mystery before us. For priests who proclaim these mysteries on a daily basis it is no different. The priestâ€™s life too is confronted by the same mystery.
When we interpret a lifeâ€™s journey in the light of the resurrection it means that all of lifeâ€™s events are not just significant in themselves but are significant in terms of the whole. That is brought out very clearly today in our first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is a time for every purpose under heavenâ€¦ a time to be born, a time to die. Ultimately, then, our time is only a particular participation in Godâ€™s time. Mickâ€™s passing came very quickly after the first diagnosis of cancer but this may indeed have been Godâ€™s blessing as he was surely spared a time of physical suffering. As the reading puts it: God has made everything suitable for its timeâ€¦. and we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does.
Our second reading from the first letter of St John is a strong call to think of the love that the Father has lavished on us. We are reminded to think about it because it is something that does not always come naturally to us. We are more likely to approach it from the other angle and wonder about the love that we are trying to lavish on God. This is to approach it from the wrong angle. St John reminds us that we are already the children of God. In other words he is saying just rejoice in that for now. What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed. But he instructs us not to worry about that because all we know is, that when it is revealed, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is. Here we have a partial unveiling of the mystery of the resurrection: it is about being like God and seeing him as he really is.
In our Gospel passage we have further confirmation of this. Jesus prays to his Father that those given to him will be with him in his glory. He has revealed the Father to us and demonstrated that the very love of God himself is present in our midst. Baptism calls each of us to live in that love with one another. Mick tried to live his life according to this belief. And he dedicated his life to making this message known to others.
Mick was a big, strong, powerful manâ€¦â€¦ yet a gentle man. His gentle voice belied an inner as well as an outer strength. Generally cool and calm, I think he could be described as a regular kind of guy. Somewhat stolid and slow moving, undemonstrative, perhaps even unsophisticated. And he was certainly unpretentious.
He joined the SMA as a young man through schooling in Ballinafad, Wilton, Clough and Dromantine. He may have been slow moving in his general deportment but he was certainly a fine athlete. I learned that he won one if not two county minor football titles in Cork with the famous St Finbarrâ€™s club. He played full-back on the Galway minor team of â€™48 when his immediate opponent in the Connaught final against Sligo was a clerical student with the Passionist congregation. Actually, by coincidence, on that day in the senior final [described by Jack Mahon as the greatest Connaught final he ever witnessed] the Galway centre-forward was an SMA priest while the Mayo centre-back was an SMA student. Mick himself later played as a corner forward on the Galway team in the All-Ireland senior semi-final of â€™54.
I suppose one could describe him as a hoor of a footballer.
Such a training undoubtedly came to his aid in the mission fields of Nigeria. He was assigned to Benin City diocese where the bishop was another son of Galway, the late and famous Bishop Patrick Joe Kelly. Mick spent most of these years in the creeks of the delta region of Warri. In one of his letters he described his condition in those years as â€˜semi solitary confinementâ€™. Actually, that part of Nigeria holds a special significance for this very church here in Robeen. Fr Tom Bartley SMA, a native of this parish, brought the timber of an iroko tree, one of the most famous of all Nigerian trees, back here to his native place to make the doors and rafters of this very church.
In all Mick spent 23 years in that part of Nigeria building schools and churches, baptising, confessing and in every way possible creating Christian community. He generally enjoyed good health. In the late 1970s he believed the Nigerian church was becoming self-sufficient in personnel so he opted to change. In 1978 he moved to England and gave valuable service to the SMA and the Church through working in two SMA parishes and a further spell in the Diocese of Westminster. In this he revealed a generosity of spirit because his own desire at that time was to move to America.
He returned home to his native diocese of Tuam just over ten years ago and is fondly remembered by the people he served in Claddaghduff, Skehana and here in Robeen. I know that there are many of you in the church here this afternoon from each of these parishes who carry very warm memories of Mickâ€™s ministry among you. I pray that these memories continue to nourish your faith.
Mick may have had a gentle voice but this did not mean he could be easily trifled with, whether on the football field or in life in general. He had a healthy and genuine self-respect and wanted others to treat him with respect. He was especially sensitive to being treated as a human or clerical football.
So, as we lay him shortly to rest, we know that his good deeds go with him. His faith has been tested in this life and not found wanting. As St John promises in our second reading today we believe that he is now seeing God as he really is.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.