SMA FUNERAL HOMILIES 2004
Fr Bob Hales SMA
Fr Eugene Casey SMA
Fr Jim Flanagan SMA
Fr Mattie Gilmore SMA
Funeral Homily 3/11/2004
Fr Bob Hales SMA
Readings: Wisdom 7: 7-11
Romans 14: 7-12
John 11: 19-27
Yesterday we celebrated the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, traditionally referred to as All Souls. This is a very important and distinctive celebration: it is both a recalling into memory and a celebration of hope. Today we do the very same thing for our confrere, brother, uncle, granduncle, relative, friend, Fr Bob Hales SMA. We recall with some sadness but also with a refreshing joy a man who received the gift of life and lived it with no little passion. And we affirm our hope, a hope that Bob shared with us and dedicated his whole life to affirming, namely that at death life is simply changed, not ended.
In this morningâ€™s Gospel passage from St John we have that familiar passage where Martha, expressing a very human disappointment that we would perhaps all share at different times in our life, confronts Jesus with this challenge, â€œif you had been here, my brother would not have diedâ€. Jesus gently chides her for her lack of understanding: it is not his physical presence, which as a complete human being is itself subject to death, that guarantees resurrection into new life but a belief in him as the owner and giver of all life, human and eternal. His own resurrection from the dead was the final confirmation that in Jesus all death is ultimately overcome. And St Paul in the second reading reminds us in very graphic terms that â€œif 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 Lordâ€. What this passage teaches us is that being dead or alive in itself is not very significant in Christian terms but rather the quality of our living. If our lives have been characterised by a desire to live as Jesus lived, as Bobâ€™s life was, then our dying too will a dying as Jesus died, i.e. a movement into a new and fuller life.
Every funeral liturgy is an occasion to re-affirm and solidify this core element of our faith. And so today we pray with a great deal of confidence for Bob, trusting that the Lord to whom he dedicated his life will not be found wanting but will gladly welcome him home into the bosom of Abraham. Bob himself, over the course of almost fifty years of priesthood, consoled many families who had lost a loved one with such comforting words. Today these words are a comfort to his own family who recognise that their human sorrow at his passing from this life is tempered by the belief that he continues to live with God in a different way.
Bob was born in 1928 in Knocknacurra, Bandon into a family steeped like very few others in the very fabric out of which this nation was born. It was a family that knew heroic patriotism: it was a family too that knew the tragedy and awfulness of civil war. This was a subject that Bob rarely if ever discussed. An understandable response to events that, at least at any ordinary level, seem to display few redemptive features.
From his very early years Bob was marked out as an extremely bright student. He attended secondary school at St Augustineâ€™s College, Dungarvan where he was noted as a â€˜brilliantâ€™ student. From here he gained a County Council scholarship to study at university level so the SMA was naturally only too delighted to gain a student with such a natural academic potential. And this potential was realised when Bob gained a 1st class Honours degree in French and later followed this up with an Honours Masters degree in French. Perhaps the one negative feature of this distinctive brilliance was that it meant Bob followed a different academic path to his student colleagues in the SMA.
Our opening reading today extols the spirit of Wisdom. â€œCompared with Wisdomâ€, the writer says, â€œI held riches as nothingâ€. Certainly Bob was richly blessed with the gift of wisdom even if human riches never amounted to anything significant. Bob pursued wisdom throughout his life, always remaining open to being surprised by something new.
Our second reading tells us that â€œthe life and death of each of us has its influence on othersâ€. Bob Hales had a strong influence on my life, and I know on many others too. When newly ordained I was first appointed to Western Nigeria to work among the Yoruba people. Bob was in charge of the language school where we had our first introduction to the wonderful cadences of that beautiful language and its vibrant culture. Bob instilled in me a love for Yoruba that I carry to this day. I treasure those early months and I will always be grateful that Bob was the master who introduced us.
Bob took this role extremely seriously. His early college education clearly revealed that he had a great facility for languages. But when appointed to head up the Yoruba tyrocinium he embarked upon a proper linguistic preparation in London at the School of Oriental and African languages. This helped him to prepare a very well organised course that could be handed down later to those who succeeded him in this role. His love for the Yoruba people was also shown by his painstaking research into the history of mission in Yoruba land.
But it was Bobâ€™s openness to being continually amazed that I think impressed me the most. In our early weeks and months in Nigeria I often travelled out to the villages for Mass etc with Bob. There was rarely an occasion when Bob would not pull up sharply on the road, point into the bush and shout â€œlook at that, I never saw anything like that beforeâ€. By this time Bob had already been over twenty years on mission. I had thought that few things could now amaze him. But, no, he remained open to being surprised. God, they say, is the God of surprises and our basic response to God must always be one of openness to surprise. Bob for me modelled that openness very well. I can imagine that he is now in Godâ€™s presence open-eyed in his gaze of wonder and amazement at the incredible things he is seeing. This is a true posture of prayer. Bob lived it here on earth; I have no doubt that he is likewise living it now in Godâ€™s very presence.
This amazement was the gift that allowed him to think outside the box as we would say in todayâ€™s jargon. He was a true original thinker, quickly bored by the mundane of tedious repetition. He was passionate about life and many of lifeâ€™s subjects while retaining a healthy suspicion of any dogmatism. Perhaps he is well described as a charming eccentric and a benign iconoclast. And this to me is best illustrated in his enormous contribution to the international scene of the SMA.
As a gifted French speaker he was naturally called upon as an interpreter at many SMA international assemblies and other meetings over the years. He also attended many assemblies as an elected delegate. In later years he spent eight years in Rome translating the works of our Founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Bresillac into English. He developed an understanding of and, I would say, even love for our founder that few others have reached. His translations were always accurate but his impish character shone through in a style that shunned a boring literalism for a more free spirited rendering of the meaning of the text. Bobâ€™s translations make these works enjoyable reading and in this way he has made an incalculable contribution to our understanding of our founder and the charism he imparted to his followers. These years in Rome also gave him the opportunity to visit and work in our missions in Cairo, Egypt and India. And he was to follow this up with three further years in an international house of formation in Zambia.
But in all these international settings Bob took a very realistic view. He never became so starry-eyed about international living as to forget that it also has its drawbacks and difficulties. At the end of the day he derived his greatest fun from playing a Chieftians tape, dancing to an Irish tune or singing an Irish song. In fact, the two songs that I most associate with Bob reveal his character very well: Steamboat Bill, a song he would sing with gusto, shows that we should never take life or especially ourselves too seriously, a view of life echoed again in the lines of the poem he often quoted as his second party piece: water in the well getting lower and lower; ainâ€™t had a bath for six months or more. But Iâ€™ve heard it said and itâ€™s true Iâ€™m sure, too much washing weakens youâ€.
That somewhat gently jaundiced view of life guarded against getting carried away with any slight of fancy. Bob had little time for such things. He could cut through to the core of a subject with a withering wit that was utterly precise but never sarcastic. In some ways he presented as a paradox: he could express opinions in a forceful fashion but at the same time these were couched and delivered with an air that hinted at a certain self-doubt.
Bobâ€™s earthy race has now been run. He is now we imagine translating into more precise God-speak. But I have no doubt the humour he expressed on earth has not been jettisoned. He will be sincerely missed by his family, friends and confreres in the SMA, both here in Ireland and in many other Provinces, and the many thousands of people he ministered to especially in Africa. Yesterday we received words of sympathy and a lovely tribute to Bob from Bishop Michael Olatunji Fagun of Ekiti Diocese in Nigeria. And many confreres from other Provinces have also sent their sympathy.
Bob has served the Lord and he has served life well. So, let us end with a little prayer in the beautiful Yoruba language that Bob loved and taught so well: Ki Olurun Oluodumare gba yin ninu aiye ainipekun. Amin.
Funeral Homily 1 May 2004
Fr Eugene Casey SMA
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 2: 7-13
Ephesians 1: 3-6, 11-12
John 6: 35-40
Last Tuesday I was fortunate to attend a conference in Dublin where one of the guest speakers was Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, past Master-General of the Dominican Order worldwide. The topic he addressed was the disparities in our world and the huge numbers of peoples who find themselves on the margins of this very unequal world of ours. His talk concluded with a reflection on the power and potential of the Eucharist to be an agent of reconciliation, and to be a ritual that provides that ingredient of balance that is so lacking in our everyday experience. In subsequent discussion he was asked how the Eucharist we celebrate on a daily or weekly basis could really be a true sign of this reconciliation and balance. He responded by saying our Eucharist needs to be beautiful or not at all.
That insight came back to me when I visited Fr Eugene after lunch on Wednesday last. There were some minor changes detectable in the quality of his breathing. But what struck me most of all was that he was holding three simple daisies in his left hand. There was nothing ostentatious in it, but it was profoundly beautiful. Who is to say, but perhaps that simple touch of beauty, sparked by feminine intuition, was what Eugeneâ€™s tired body needed to finally yield up his spirit later on Wednesday evening.
We gather here today to pay our final respects and pray home to God this gentle soul. His home-going was slow and laboured. But it also had a quality of grace. Over these last long days he was never alone. Surrounded by caring and loving staff, prayerful support of friends, confreres in the SMA and his closest family, he was able to enjoy a quality of peace that might otherwise have been unreachable. We know with the assurance of faith that Eugene is now going home into God. We pray that whatever purification may still be called for will swiftly be attended to.
At times such as this it is we who survive who most need the assurance of faith. Our readings today speak eloquently of Godâ€™s nearness, of Godâ€™s desire to never let us be forsaken. Our opening reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus tells us that the hope and trust we put in the Lord is not misplaced. â€œYou who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy;â€¦ you who fear the Lord, trust him;â€¦â€¦ you who fear the Lord, hope for good things.â€ Why? â€œBecause those who have trusted in the Lord have never been disappointed. One quality that shone forth from every pore of Eugeneâ€™s being was this trust in the Lord. Fear of the Lord, understood best as respect for all that is of God, was the cornerstone on which Eugene built his life. He lived that faith in quiet perseverance and shared that faith as priest for over fifty years.
Eugene was born in Tournonagh in the parish of Gneeveguilla, Co Kerry one week before Christmas in 1928. He attended primary school in the parishes of Kilcummin and Scartaglen before moving on to the SMA colleges at Ballinafad and Wilton. His studies with the SMA came to fruition at ordination to the priesthood in 1952. These studies were undertaken with serious application and discipline. He developed his prayer life and got a deeper appreciation of the Christian mystery. This awesome mystery is so beautifully described for us today in our second reading from St Paulâ€™s letter to the Church at Ephesus. We are consoled to know that we have, each of us, been chosen in Christ even before the world itself was made, to live through love in Godâ€™s presence. We have even been adopted as sons and daughters to praise the glory of his grace. And we have been chosen from all eternity to be the people who put their hopes in God before he cameâ€.
In 1952 Eugene set out to share something of this faith with the people of Benin City Diocese in Nigeria. He was to spend the next fifteen years here ministering in different stations in the sprawling diocese. Indeed he gained a certain degree of notoriety when in October 1959 the Cork Weekly Examiner did an entire front-page feature in word and picture on his work in the parish of Ashaka. He roofed the church in Ashaka and was responsible for building many schools in this huge parish. He ministered in Nigeria during the exciting years of transition from colonial rule to self-rule. These were perhaps the happiest years of his life. It was an era of unprecedented expansion in the church in Africa, particularly in that part of Nigeria.
But Eugene was also to experience the horror of civil war. His later years in Nigeria coincided with the awful Biafran war. This experience â€“ by all accounts Eugene witnessed some scenes of unspeakable horror and human degradation â€“ was to take a huge toll on his health. From that time forward Eugene was never again to experience what might be regarded as robust health. Indeed one of his most endearing characteristics was his faithful and persevering service to the mission of SMA in spite of ill health.
On returning from Nigeria Eugene was to give another 28 years of loyal service to the Irish Province of the SMA in various apostolates. His heart ached to return to Africa but this was not to be. He served for a short time in vocations ministry, ministered for some months in the diocese of Salford in England but he will be most remembered for his work for our promotion team as a mission box collector. He attended to this duty with diligence and is fondly remembered by many a shopkeeper who was the recipient of his quiet and respectful attention. Later in Blackrock Road he was to give loyal service as sacristan in the community chapel.
In everything that Eugene did he was the essence of decency, courtesy and gentleness. Until relatively recently he enjoyed to smoke his pipe; at such times he looked the picture of contentment. Over the past few weeks when Eugeneâ€™s condition was deteriorating many people outside our community spoke to me of his gentleness, he was a lovely man, a real gentlemanâ€ was the common refrain. It is a fitting epitaph.
Our gospel reading today comes from Wednesdayâ€™s Mass, the very day on which Eugene died. A powerful eucharistic and resurrection theme is contained within it. We began with the theme of eucharist; it is appropriate that we conclude with it too. â€œI am the bread of lifeâ€, Jesus tells us, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and â€œThe will of the one who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, and that I should raise it up on the last dayâ€. St Irenaeus puts it very beautifully, â€œWhen the mixed chalice and the baked loaf receive the word of God, and when the eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ, which bring growth and sustenance to our bodily frame, how can it be maintained that our flesh is incapable of receiving Godâ€™s gift of eternal life?â€.
How often in the course of his seventy-five years did Eugene share the bread of life? Perhaps uncountable. What is countable was his dedication to the Lord. We have Jesusâ€™ own assurance that he has not been turned away. Indeed, if he needed any assistance, our mother Mary, to whom Eugene held a great devotion, would not have been found wanting. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that Eugene is being buried today on the very first day of Maryâ€™s month of May. And on the Feast day of St Joseph the Worker, that quiet companion of Mary in the Holy Family. A quiet man, with no pretentions to honours or greatness, a man whom I believe Eugene could identify with quite easily.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 7 February 2004
Fr Jim Flanagan SMA
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24
John 11: 19-27
A nun was teaching catechism to her infants class. One day she invited her class to write a note to God. As you can imagine she got some varied and interesting responses. One little child wrote, â€œDear God, instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why donâ€™t you keep the ones you have already?â€ I donâ€™t think any adult would voice such a thought. But that is not to say we donâ€™t sometimes carry such a feeling in our heart. Especially when the one who has died is a loved one. Rationally we know that life on this earth will come to an end for all of us, and yet the unanswerable question as to why it has to be so can remain locked in our heart.
Thatâ€™s what makes the funeral liturgy such a powerful ritual. It is both a ritual of remembrance and of letting go. Today we gather in this church to say a prayer of farewell for Jim Flanagan after 84 good years of life. The ritual also expresses for us better than mere words our faith conviction that for Jim life is now changed, not ended. Our belief is that he is journeying back to the Father. Our prayer is that God will have mercy on him and make his homecoming swift.
There is something very wholesome about the Catholic tradition of praying for the dead. There is something very egalitarian about it. At every graveside, whether of saint or sinner, we make the same prayer, â€˜Lord, have mercyâ€™. That is our prayer for Jim today too. Because even for those who love God, death leaves unfinished business â€“ damaged or damaging relationships, misunderstandings unresolved, words of love or apology unspoken, the need to forgive and be forgiven. The only thing we can do with such unfinished business is to place it in the hands of God whom we believe to be all merciful. So our prayer then is neither from fear or as fire insurance, nor is it a crude attempt to appease an angry God. It is an expression of our continuing concern for the one who has died. It is an exercise in the virtues of faith and hope and love, even in the face of death, which puts an end to none of these things.
Our first reading this afternoon is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Itâ€™s probably as good an answer as you can get to that little girlâ€™s question at the beginning. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. And God has made everything suitable for its time. No doubt Jim used such consoling words on many occasions in the course of his own ministry as a priest. And he also lived these opposites in tension throughout his life. Today we are weeping and mourning but we do so with a remembrance of times of great laughter and dancing. Jim had a deep appreciation of the blessings God gives us in this life. He enjoyed good food, laughter, dancing and get-togethers of all kinds. He had a very well developed ability to give; he had an equally well developed ability to receive. And in the receiving he was also a giver.
I think one of the first comments I ever heard about Jim Flanagan was about his renown for hospitality. It was truly legendary. Few failed to mention it in offering a description of his character. One sister the other day described him as a â€˜great Bord Failteâ€™ man. And what for her was special was his openness towards all. It mattered not your colour or creed; you were welcome at Jimâ€™s house and at his table. And as a host he also had great class. I well remember one occasion in Maynooth some years ago when he took me to task for not providing table napkins for the students, as he felt it would be an important ingredient in their training to work in Africa. He was a dapper and stylish man himself and believed his guests deserved the same.
Of course, in being this kind of host what was he doing really but living out the message of our second reading this afternoon. Jim was merely imaging the boundless hospitality of God. The Letter to the Hebrews is a wonderful expression of the change that has come about between the Old and New Testaments in peoplesâ€™ understanding of God. Where Moses comes before God fearful and trembling with fright, in the Church everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven. This status has not come about through accident. Rather it has come about through Jesusâ€™ shedding his own blood for our purification.
In the gospel we have that familiar exchange between Jesus and Martha. Martha shows that she already has some understanding about the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus gently teaches her that her understanding is deficient. Not only will there be resurrection on the last day, but Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life. Of course, this was an utterly blasphemous claim. A claim for which he was murdered by the officials. But it was this shedding of blood and subsequent resurrection that testified to Jesus not being a blasphemer but truly the Son of God. And as the reading from Hebrews teaches us today, Jesusâ€™ sacrifice has overcome for us all obstacles to oneness with God.
Jim Flanagan lived a very full and interesting life. Born in Belfast on January 1st, 1920 into a family of eight children, evenly divided four boys and four girls. He attended secondary school at St Maryâ€™s Christian Brothers in Belfast before entering the SMA where he was ordained 60 years ago this year. In December this year he would have celebrated his Diamond Jubilee of ordination. The first six years of missionary experience were lived in the vicariate of Ondo Ilorin, Nigeria. He was then sent to do a BA degree in UCC between 1951-54. Subsequent to this almost all his missionary career was involved with teaching and the education field in general between Benin City and Warri Dioceses. His name will be forever associated with Immaculate Conception College, Benin. In fact his service in this apostolate was to coincide with the great boom and thirst for education marking the country of Nigeria in those years. The church saw the value of education as a tool of evalgelisation. Jimâ€™s expertise as an educator was recognised by the Nigerian government which appointed him to various regional and national boards of education, while successive generations of students were to benefit from his pastoral care and tact which Jim continuously showed by word and example. Example is probably the key word to understand Jimâ€™s character. He not only â€˜talked the talk, he also walked the walkâ€™.
On a visit to his home at Warrenpoint just a few months ago, Jim, despite failing health, was both keen and proud to show me a vast quantity of photograph albums. What I noted especially was not just the quantity and variety of photographs but Jimâ€™s demeanour in all of them. Whether it was playing host at one of his legendary parties or in the school room or football pitch with a group of students Jim was clearly enjoying himself. It was clear from such photographs that Jim took Jesus at his word when he said, â€œI have come to bring you life, life in all its fullnessâ€. Not for Jim the half-life; not for him a life to be endured; no, for Jim, life was to be celebrated, grasped and lived fully. He knew he needed to apologise to no one for having this attitude for after all was that not what the Master promised.
Returning to Ireland in 1986 he was to spend the next eight years or so as a chaplain to the Army. In this relatively short time he was to make a deep impression on all he encountered. His colleague chaplains, and soldiers of every rank were never less than warm in their appreciation of his service. Once again it was his quality of hospitality that is often recalled.
Having reached the year of Golden Jubilee in 1994 Jim decided it was time to take things a little easier and retired to his beautiful home in Warrenpoint. These ten years or so of retirement were years of continued blessing and life enhancement. He golfed, played music and once again enjoyed nothing more than playing host to a regular succession of guests. Eventually acute ill health necessitated his transfer to our mother house in Blackrock Road where for the last three months or so he has received the loving and tender care of the community and nursing staff.
And now our prayer for Jim is that he is no longer playing host but is rather a most valued guest at the table of the banquet of the Lord.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.
Funeral Homily 13 January 2004
Fr Mattie Gilmore SMA
Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-3, 7-11
Titus 2: 11-14. 3:4-7
â€œDeath is not the cursing of the dark because the light has gone out, but the extinguishing of the lamp because the dawn has comeâ€.
The dawn of transformed life opened for Mattie Gilmore at 10.35pm on Saturday night last. It was in the end a very gentle passing over after days and even weeks of fairly acute unsettlement. Mattieâ€™s was a life of almost constant movement. The nature of his illness meant that even up to the final hours that perennial restlessness was played out even in his sick bed. It was the mercy of God that granted him the final half day of serene peace. For that we give thanks to God.
And we give thanks this morning for a long life well lived. A life of persevering commitment to the call to missionary priesthood. A life of variety and rich blessings. And as we give thanks we also pray to the God we know only as merciful that he will receive Mattie home into the bosom of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. There he will be able to perform two tasks for us: continue to walk with us as a companion, albeit now on the spiritual plane; and be our advocate, our patron, the one who can intercede for us all as he lies close to the breast of the Lord.
The story is told that Peter Ustinov was once asked if he thought the great Luciano Pavorotti was proud and somewhat arrogant. Ustinov was genuinely taken aback by this suggestion. He is said to have replied rather forcefully: not at all. It is just that he is very keenly aware of his uniqueness. I donâ€™t know how keenly aware Mattie was but he was certainly unique. Born in Moylough, Co Galway into a family of eight, four boys and four girls on July 15th, 1915 â€“ one year into the First World War – ; he was ordained to the priesthood on December 22nd, 1940 â€“ one year into the Second World War â€“ ; he died some hours into the Churchâ€™s celebration of what is simultaneously the final feast of the Christmas season and the opening feast of Jesus adult life and ministry, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.
All mission, inclusive of Jesusâ€™ mission, begins with Baptism. How fitting then it was that a man who had spent 63+ years as a missionary priest should die on this beautiful feast. For that reason you will have noticed that I have chosen for todayâ€™s Eucharist two of those readings we heard on Sunday from the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. As well as being appropriate to the day, they are likewise appropriate to the context.
The opening reading from the prophet Isaiah paints a beautiful pastoral scene where the Lord is depicted as a shepherd gently caring for his flock. â€œHe is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewesâ€. How often Mattie must have gathered lambs in his powerful arms during his seventeen years as farm manager at Ballinafad. The reading also carries that beautiful message of consolation. The promise is that the time of service will be ended and sin atoned for. That promise from the Old Testament was fulfilled through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He took upon himself the sin of all humanity and redeemed it. That is the promise that sustained Mattie Gilmore for over eighty-eight years. It was the promise that inspired him to commit 63 years of his life to missionary priesthood in the SMA.
The passage also suggests a softer image of God than what we often see. In fact, many scholars suggest this is a clear expression of the feminine dimension of God, which offsets the often harsher, judgemental, more masculine image presented. And, in a way, that too is fitting to Mattieâ€™s character. For a man of quite extraordinary physical strength, a quintessential masculine figure, there was in him a kindness and a decency, a gentleness and a courtesy that belied that strength. His was a balanced and rounded personality that attracted the affection of many.
However, before we get carried away in extolling his virtues the second reading reminds us that it is not really who we are or what we do that saves us but simply the sheer compassion of God. It is worth listening to Paul again as he writes to Titus: .. it was for no reason except his own compassion that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which he has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our saviour. He did this so that we should be justified by his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.â€ Mattie, like all of us, will be saved through the mercy and compassion of God but his life response to the graces received was generous and sincere.
After his secondary school studies in St Jarlathâ€™s College, Tuam, where Mattie was noted as an accomplished footballer, he joined the SMA and was ordained to the priesthood in a class of twenty in December 1940. He was appointed to the mission in Liberia but due to the 2nd World War his travel was postponed for about two years. He spent the next eleven years in Liberia, mainly in the area of Cape Palmas Prefecture. He was then called home to become Bursar of Ballinafad College and farm manager. He was to give the next seventeen years in faithful service of this post. I already spoke of his physical strength. Even more apparent was his lovely humanity. He befriended the students to such an extent that I donâ€™t believe I have ever heard a single student speak a bad word about his experience of Mattie in Ballinfad. But he befriended the whole of the West of Ireland. Local farmers, neighbours became his friends and through him became friends to the SMA. His presence at Fairs in the pre-Mart days or at football or hurling matches the length and breath of Connaught was legendary. He was also a great man to attend funerals, whether it be a funeral of an SMA confrere or a friend in the West of Ireland. How often he must have heard todayâ€™s gospel being read at another funeral. How fitting then that today Jesusâ€™ prayer to the Father is not for someone else but for himself.. â€œFather, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the worldâ€.
Long before his seventeen years were completed at Ballinafad Mattie was requesting a return to Africa. He was eventually appointed back to Liberia in 1972 and was to serve the next 24 years of his life there. Had it not been for the horrendous civil war that gripped Liberia as the 1990s dawned and continued right up to very recently, it is possible that Mattie could have served there for even longer. And indeed it was not for the lack of desire that he remained in Ireland since 1996. Being chaplain to the Catholic hospital in Monrovia allowed him to witness at first hand some of the carnage and devastation of this awful war. But he survived it by reason of a solid yet unpretentious faith and through noble courage and perseverance. His work was recognised on his 80th birthday by the Pope himself in granting him the papal medal â€œPro Ecclesia et Pontificeâ€.
Mattie presented quite a sight in Liberia, especially in these later years when he walked from place to place in his distinctive stately gait, clad in white cassock. While enjoying the relative security of the hospital compound, he also had his run-ins with the rebel forces and found himself arrested at one time. Thank God things concluded well but it was an anxious time for Mattie himself and for those responsible for him.
I suppose that episode encapsulates much of the light and the shadow in Mattieâ€™s personality. He could at times be enormously engaging and attractive while at other times infuriating and exasperating. In a sense he was a loveable rogue. His favourite Latin word was gaudeamus. What he will possibly be best remembered for was the notion that time itself, and punctuality especially, was often more a concept than a reality. Few members of our Society have as many stories told about them. These stories usually involve a unique turn of phrase and invariably recount how previous plans had to be abandoned because Mattie was operating from a different plot. However, what is remarkable about such stories is that they are nearly always told with a great deal of humour. The incident at the time may have induced frustration but the subsequent recollection can bring forth nothing but laughter. Mattie was like that. His genuine goodness and good intention was so transparent that it was difficult to remain angry with him for long. That is not to say that he did not possess a steak of determination that could easily descend into stubbornness.
Mattie had a none too subtle way of preparing the ground to achieve his objective. As mentioned earlier, after 1996 he longed to return to the mission in Liberia though he was now more than 81 years of age. I can count at least eight times in these intervening years when he approached us about the possibilities of returning. He would begin with a huge effort at plamas but his native honesty inadvertently sabotaged his best efforts. He would begin by saying something like â€œWell now youâ€™re a big man in this our Society [reflect a little and decide that this was not entirely true] then say â€¦â€¦ well not exactly a big man [and realise that this may not be exactly the best route to go] and finish by saying â€¦â€¦ what am I saying sure of course you are a big manâ€. Of course, by this time the object of the plamas was totally undone.
After 1996 he spent six happy if not entirely contented years in Claregalway where again he befriended so many people in the locality. Increasing ill-health necessitated his transfer to Cork for medical supervision in the second half of 2002. As Damian said yesterday, his heart never really rested here but again he claimed the affection of all, not least the very caring staff of St Teresaâ€™s nursing unit.
So, as we say our final farewell to Mattie this afternoon we know we will miss him dearly. No longer will we look for him in every place but the place he told us he would be and where we arranged to meet. Now we will look for him in the very presence of God himself. Because God has told us that it is so. It is Jesusâ€™ wish that we be with him as our gospel proclaimed to us today. God has desired Mattie since his very conception to be with him for all eternity. We trust that he is already on the way.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.