Fr James Gerard Lee SMA
Funeral Homily – February 22nd 2006
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-3.6.8-9
James 3: 13-18
John 6: 35-40
When Archbishop Michael Francis of Monrovia returned to Liberia on Tuesday of last week, after more than a year of medical care in the Blackrock Road community, and word came through that he had travelled comfortably and well and was now positively blooming and blossoming back in his native environment, it was almost as if Jim Lee gave himself permission to die. Though Jim would shy away from any comparison to the holy man Simeon in the temple there was a Simeon like quality to his passing, as if he were saying ‘now your servant is ready to go in peace’. It was as if the knowledge that the bishop whom he had faithfully companioned for the guts of thirty years, sometimes in days of extraordinary danger, was safely home was all that he needed to let go that fragile grasp of life.
Jim’s impending death had been signalled since last October. When word came through from Monrovia that Jim needed to be accompanied home for some intensive medical treatment we knew things did not look good. However, thank God, he was to enjoy a few months of relative good health which allowed him to make re-connections with his blood family and spend some quality time among his confreres in the SMA. Since the middle of last week the deterioration in his health condition dramatically accelerated until he finally answered the call home to the Lord some few minutes after 9am on Monday morning last. Jim had lived a good and full life for almost 82 years, 53 of these spent as an SMA missionary priest.
So, we gather this morning as a hoped-filled Christian community. Our natural human sadness at departure is real and must be honoured, but it is a sadness expressed in the context of belief that, after a long life here on earth, Jim now continues to live in the resurrected life promised by Jesus and guaranteed by him through his own victory over death. For Jim life has changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven. This is our belief. This too was Jim’s belief. A belief he lived and preached as a missionary for 53 years. Our task this afternoon is to pray for Jim that whatever in his character remains to be purified in order to be ready for the full embrace of the Father’s presence might quickly take place. And we support his sisters, Lucy and Margaret, in their time of grief.
The Letter of St James selected this afternoon was the reading at Monday morning’s Mass. There is a certain appropriateness about the fact or coincidence that these words of his patron saint should be proclaimed on the morning of Jim’s death. St James instructs his community that they should express their intelligence through humility and wisdom. Their hearts should carry no bitterness, jealousy or self-seeking ambition. They should be people of honesty and integrity. They should be peacemakers, being kindly and considerate to others. They should be full of compassion and express their goodness through a lack of partiality or hypocrisy in all that they do. C ertainly a tough ideal. None of us ever reaches that ideal. From my knowledge of Jim Lee I think he made a better than average stab at it.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah foretells the mission that Jesus would later claim as his very own mission. To receive the anointing of God’s Spirit in order to “bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives; to comfort those who mourn”. This became Jim’s mission too as he sought to fulfil that mandate throughout his life, never more so than in the last fifteen years of dreadful civil war in his beloved Liberia. I know that much of Jim’s personal money was given to the poorest of the poor and he has even mandated this beyond his death. And surely his recent ministry has been nothing else than binding up hearts that were broken by war; nothing else than continuing to proclaim liberty to a truly captive people, a liberty that they might not enjoy in this life but a true liberty promised by Jesus Christ. And how often must he have comforted those who mourned, not just those who mourned in the normal process of life and death but particularly those who mourned through the senseless death of a savage war. Yes, his people would certainly have recognised in Jim a ‘priest of the Lord and minister of God’, as Isaiah puts it.
Our gospel reading today contains a powerful theme of eucharist and resurrection. “I am the bread of life”, Jesus tells us, “whoever comes to me will never be hungry”, and “the 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 day”. St Irenaeus puts it very beautifully: “When 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 God’s gift of eternal life?”.
James Gerard Lee was born on 29 May 1924 at Drumaroad, Castlewellan, Co Down, the eldest in a family of two boys and three girls. Though the vocation to priesthood was there from an early age, he delayed somewhat his pursuit of it. He matriculated from Garvey College, Belfast in 1946 and proceeded to Cloughballymore and Dromantine. His first posting after ordination in 1952 was to Lagos archdiocese, in the parish of Lafiagi. At the end of this tour he was called home to take up an appointment as Provincial Secretary and Archivist. Jim was none too pleased to be offered this appointment. He had major misgivings about it and found it not to his liking. On a yearly basis he asked the Provincial to review the situation and allow him return to Africa. His persistence eventually paid off and he was allowed to pursue a course in catechetics in Brussels. At this time the discipline of catechetics was taking a more prominent role in missionary practice.
His next missionary stint was lived at St Leo’s College, Abeokuta. He was to spend ten years at this post where he put his catechetical training to good use. The end of this period saw a stage of personal unsettlement which he was to eventually work through with great faith and perseverance. To aid his working through these issues he was assigned to the diocese of Northampton in England, first working in the parish of Kettering and, later, becoming part of the first team in the newly opened SMA parish in Luton. He was to give two years here before again accepting an African assignment. His next African venture was to Liberia, beginning in 1976 to head up the diocesan catechetical programme for the archdiocese of Monrovia. There is little doubt that the next 30 years were momentous, for the country of Liberia and for Jim personally, but they were also perhaps the happiest and most fulfilling years of his priesthood. During this thirty-year period he was to have a sabbatical break in Maryknoll, New York where he was to gain a Master of Arts in theology and also to give helpful assistance to the American Province’s formation programme.
Jim was not the only missionary to give sterling service during the war in Liberia. There are many other heroes in both the local church and among the missionaries. But Jim’s contribution was a telling one. His courageous gesture to stay on in the war zone so as to help in the evacuation of other expatriate civilians did not go unnoticed by the press in Northern Ireland. He was given banner front-page headlines in the Irish News and, perhaps more surprisingly in the Belfast Telegraph. It was nice too that his services to humanity were recognised by the Liberian government when, in 2004, they admitted him to the Human Order of African Redemption with the grade of Knight Great Band.
My memories of Jim only span the years of the war. His enthusiasm was infectious, his work ethic inspirational. To see him rushing about in the autumn of his life, rolling up the sleeves of the white cassock in his characteristic and individual manner, was something to behold and admire. Last summer, at the tender age of 81 years, he sat in my office. We were discussing the financial affairs of the archdiocese and looking at possible systems that could be put in place to guard against a recurrence of the chaos that had inflicted them. The system he described to me was a complex one, one that would tax the mind and energy levels of a much younger man, but Jim was taking it in his stride. He left the room with a bounce to his step and a level of excitement that one might expect more from a missionary about to set out on his first tour than one who had already celebrated his golden jubilee. I thought to myself, ‘there is Mission Alive personified’. Oh that one could harness such enthusiasm.
This hectic life has now ceased. But Jim’s legacy lives on. Especially in the hearts of his nephews and nieces who held him in deep affection. And in the hearts of all those, especially the poor, to whom he dedicated his heart and his life.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.