Fr Christopher Murphy SMA
Funeral Homily – 02 February 2007
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork)
Readings: Job 19:1.23-25
Hebrews 4: 1-5.11
Matt 7: 21.24-27
All things are born and die in time, but only in the case of human beings is an awareness of temporality constitutive of their identity. Without remembrance, we know not who we are, can make no plans and have no hope. We learn, or fail to learn, to live and speak the truth – and truthfulness takes time. This quotation from the theologian, Nicholas Lash, reminds us of the importance of remembering. It is through remembering we know who we are. In the life of Chris Murphy there is much to remember. In fact, eighty-eight full years of remembering. Sixty-two years of that as a missionary priest in the Society of African Missions.
And there is something appropriate about presenting his body back to the dust from which it came, as his spirit continues on in God, on the day we commemorate the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. This feast challenges us to walk as children of the Lord in our entire way of life. Chris was a man who did that to great effect. Our prayer is that Chris will be resurrected again on the last day and that we too will one day join him in paradise. This is the promise held out to us in our readings today. In the Book of Job we read: “after my awaking, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God”. The figure of Job in the Scriptures may well have been referring to mortal existence but with the development of faith we believe that promise is held out into eternity.
The Hebrews reading is unequivocal in its testimony of faith. “The promise of reaching the place of rest God [has prepared] still holds good, and none [should] think they have come too late for it…. We who have faith shall find a place of rest“. Chris Murphy believed that with utter conviction. He imbibed such faith from his parents and in the loving home environment around Moynalty, Co Meath where he grew up as the youngest of nine children. That faith and religion was an important feature of Chris’ background can be seen from the fact that two of his sisters became nuns. The family was steeped in questions of God and manifestations of faith. Little wonder, then, that the youngest child should dedicate his life as a missionary priest.
Chris had the unique distinction of being born on Christmas Day – hence the name. It gives some chronological context to his life to realise he was born at the conclusion of World War I and ordained a priest towards the end of World War II. Born in Mullagh, Co Cavan where he took some of his primary schooling, the family moved to Moynalty which Chris always considered home. Then he schooled in CBS, Kells, in Ballinafad, Wilton, Clough and Dromantine. His attraction to the missions was ignited by the sight of a photograph of a white bearded missionary sailing up the river in a riverboat. Chris did not do anything extraordinary at school to set him apart from others but even at this age he was seen by his superiors as a man of sound judgment and prudence. And even then was noted his faithfulness to his spiritual exercises, something that would truly mark the remainder of his life.
After ordination in December 1944, Chris was appointed to the Prefecture – later Diocese and archdiocese – of Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. The territory of the Prefecture at that time measured 125,000 sq km. Next week the Church in Northern Nigeria will celebrate 100 years of its existence. It’s fascinating to realise that Chris Murphy was a key player in the growth of that Church for half its lifetime. He served in many different stations, mainly in the Southern Zaria region. Here he built up vibrant Christian communities in his typical quiet, unassuming way. He was loved by the people who knew him affectionately as Fr C. Murphy. He was an efficient administrator and was untiring in his zeal and devotion. His early days in Kaduna were not easy. Times were tough and the comforts of life sparse. Though always frugal in life and habits, Chris lost patience with the long delays waiting for public transport and so was delighted when allowed by his bishop to purchase a bicycle. However, his enjoyment was short lived because when his Parish Priest returned from home leave he commandeered the bicycle for himself.
Jesus says in the gospel passage of today: “It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord”, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven”. For Chris Murphy doing the will of God was intimately bound up with doing the will of his superiors, i.e. true obedience best understood as deep listening. Many of the tasks given to Chris were ones he would not have chosen for himself. His call home to be the Superior of the house of studies here in Wilton from 1958 to ’61 was not a job he would have chosen for himself. Having stated his own preference for a different assignment he graciously undertook the role when it was offered to him a second time. Students of his from that time in Wilton, many of them here today, speak only in the highest manner of his carrying out of his duties in this role, eventhough I gather that sometimes he gave off the impression that he was not ever quite sure what he was supposed to be doing.
He was released back to his beloved Nigeria in 1961. He continued his steady work in parish ministry up to his election as Regional Superior of the members there in 1974. This was a clear sign of the deep esteem and respect he enjoyed from his colleagues. It was during these years that a Superior from another congregation described him as the wisest man he had ever met. Evidently this priest had participated at a meeting with Chris over a three-day period and Chris never once opened his mouth to offer an opinion. This really was characteristic of Chris – don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence and of those who say nothing, few are silent. They say that wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk. Yes, Chris was very wise.
Ill health was to determine the future course of his missionary career. In 1987 he moved into the Regional house at Kagoro as Guestmaster. Here his availability, welcoming manner and wise counsel was appreciated by all. Eventually, continuing ill-health necessitated his return to Ireland where he was to spend the next fourteen contented years between Blackrock Road and Wilton. He exuded unflappability and contentment. He could be described as a man who knew how to belong to himself. If, perhaps at first, his exterior countenance suggested a somewhat forbidding presence, one very quickly realised that nothing could be further from the truth. Within this broad frame lay a sensitive soul and a tranquil and serene spirit.
Such a lifestyle of course did not happen by sheer accident. It was built on a very obvious devotion to a life of prayer. Chris was a deeply prayerful person. He had a special gra for the breviary and the rosary. Both had to be in a key position beside his bed right up to the time of his death. He did not need to convince people of the importance of prayer by any vocal sermons. His lifestyle itself was the sermon. Prayer was the rock on which this sensible man built his house. Over the years rains came, floods rose and gales blew, but his house was never in fear of collapsing. It was too firmly founded on the rock of prayer. In his prayer, too, he knew that well timed silence was more eloquent than speech.
Chris’ quietness did not entirely hide a very delightful, wry sense of humour. His self-deprecating comments were usually offered with a chuckle. One always suspected there was a deeper laughter going on inside the big frame but his gentle nature was a stranger to uproar of any kind. His was a dead-pan, understated kind of humour, typified by this oft heard comment in latter years as he would be heading off to siesta: “Let’s cut some slack this afternoon”. I gather that even in his days as a clerical student when home on vacation from seminary he would visit with the old folks around Moynalty and read the paper to them. However, what Chris was reading bore little relationship to what was actually written in the paper. Many fruitless visits to the newsagent could not unearth such a wonderful story in any newspaper.
There is one danger in all of this, of course, that one might get the impression that it was his goodness than won him salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chris, like all people, will be saved by the free gift of God. He has not earned it; he has simply responded to it. Today we celebrate in thanksgiving that his response was faithful.
His quiet, unobtrusive presence will be sorely missed. His rosaries, his breviary, his wise counsel. The Hebrews text told us: “God’s work was undoubtedly all finished at the beginning of the world”. Chris’ participation in God’s work in this life is now finished. It may be finished but its effects will be long-lasting. He has fought the good fight, he has run the race. May he now enjoy the rewards of his labours.
Ar dheis lÃ¡mh DÃ© go raibh a anam dÃlis.