Fr John Burke SMA
Funeral Homily – 21 November 2006
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork)
Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9
2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
One sometimes has to wonder at the planning of God! To take a man at a relatively young age, a man who is seemingly at the height of his powers and energy, a man who is devoting enormous amounts of time to good works, to the advancement of God’s reign on earth though pastoral action and writing, to take such a man appears to our way of planning as strange. Yet, this is all part of the mystery that is God and the mystery that is life. We do not know the mind of God. All we can do is live with the mystery and surrender ourselves to its unfolding meaning.
John Burke died in the early hours of last Sunday morning at St James Hospital, Dublin. It is important to record here our appreciation of the extraordinary care given by the staff of St James’ throughout John’s illness. Everything possible was tried to effect a healing. The care extended beyond attention to John’s physical condition to an all embracing attention to his person and to his family members and other friends who visited. At a time when it is commonplace to criticise the Health Service it is imperative that we state that in this case for sure the quality of care extended to John was second to none.
John died just a few months short of his 65th birthday. By today’s standards he was still a young man. But he was a man who had packed into this space of time a truly magnificent output. Maybe his early death makes sense when measured against the volume of that output. Our task today is to pray him home into the arms of the God he loved and tried to serve faithfully all his life.
We can make such a prayer in confidence and hope because our faith assures us that it will indeed be so. John believed this himself and dedicated himself to spreading this message through forty years of missionary priesthood in the Society of African Missions. Our gospel today tells us “he who comes to me will never be hungry: he who believes in me will never thirst”. It goes on to assure us that the one who comes to God shall not be turned away. And the final stanza says “Yes, it is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and that I shall raise him up on the last day”. These are words of enormous comfort to those who mourn for John. We have God’s own assurance that he will raise him up on the last day. This means that John lives on in a new way; that at his death life has changed, not ended. And it means that we too will one day die and hopefully share with John the beatific vision.
John was born in the parish of Donoghmore in Limerick in 1942. He schooled locally, taking his secondary school studies at Sexton Street CBS. This school was renowed at that time as a hurling nursery but John was never very keen on sport. He preferred to study and read, behaviour that characterised his whole life. After ordination from Dromantine in 1966, John was assigned to the Diocese of Ibadan in Nigeria. Due to the Nigerian Civil War raging at the time his departure was delayed. This period was spent at short courses in UCC and at the Catholic Communications Centre in Dublin. His first posting in Ibadan was to Oke Ado in the city and this was followed by a posting to Ikire, a more rural setting though still a substantial town. In 1978 he was granted sabbatical leave and took a Masters Degree in Theology in Rome. His return to Nigeria saw a new assignment to the Archdiocese of Lagos. This posting seemed to give John greater scope to exercise his considerable skills. He served in such places as Festac, a developing town in Lagos suburbs dedicated to arts and culture, Surulere, Agege-Ipaja, Apapa.
John Burke was a missionary deeply appreciated by his people. I understand there is to be a vigil at the parish in Apapa next Friday night. John would not be described as a one dimensional or two dimensional pastor. His range of interest was vast and varied. However, two dimensions do stand out: as a builder and as a writer and practitioner of Canon Law. As a builder, John was at his best in finding sites in developing suburbs to establish churches and schools. He could indeed be described as an expansionist. He opened up new parishes and extended the boundaries of the church into areas previously untouched. And he used an innate cunning to draw down the best from his people. His policy was never to produce a finished product at first but rather to allow for some improvements so that the people themselves would gradually come round to demanding and providing for such improvements. And he was noted for the quality of his work. His attention to detail and the quality of the finished product was legendary. Nowhere was this more effectively seen than in the recently constructed SMA house at Obanikoro, Lagos.
This attention to detail of course simply reflected a quality in the man himself. He was always tidy and neat in personal deportment and his dwelling place was always marked by tidiness. In fact, it was the cause of some merriment to his confreres to be asked to take off ones shoes on entering his sitting room in order to preserve the pristine quality of the flooring. However, such apparent obsession with tidiness should not mask the fact that he was also a tremendous host. He always had an excellent table and he could regale a group for hours on end with his company.
His interest in Canon Law developed through frustration at the slow pace at which marriage issues were being dealt with at the Tribunal. He applied for study leave to attend a university in Ottawa, Canada where in the course of two years he attained first a Baccalaureate and then a Licentiate or Masters in Canon Law. He returned to Lagos and was appointed Judicial Vicar of the marriage tribunal of the archdiocese. For the rest of his life he was to devote much time to issues of marriage and Canon Law in general. He has written several books and pamphlets on the topic, and his Dictionary of Canon Law, first produced in 1994 and recently updated, is well respected in the field.
John seemed to have boundless energy. I often wondered how he got time to deal with all that he seemed to manage. The number of books, pamphlets, articles on diverse topics of theology and sociology, and letters written would fill a fair sized bookcase. Perhaps he found the time to do so because he refused to fritter away his time on frivolous pursuits. There could hardly be a more apt reading for his character than the one chosen today for our second reading. “we were not idle when we were with you…..we worked night and day slaving and straining…. now we hear that there are some of you who are living in idleness, doing no work themselves but interfering with everyone else’s”. Something that could never be said of John Burke was that he was an idle man.
During his time in Lagos John was responsible for introducing the Redemptorist Congregation to Nigeria. Appreciation for his support in this venture was expressed when he was made a Redemptorist Oblate, a type of honorary membership, in 1997.
His way of working, though often effective, also had its shadow side. His zeal was perhaps akin to the zeal of the convert. And just like many a convert this zeal was sometimes attended by an intolerance for what went before. In his younger mission days John enjoyed a smoke and a drink. Latterly he frowned on such things. John was a man of action. His style was to look at an issue or a problem, evaluate how it might be improved, plan the improvement and execute it. This style resulted in the type of output I spoke of earlier. He did not like to waste time on too much discussion. Patience would not have been his strongest or most conspicuous virtue; nor would he have always been the greatest admirer of another person’s efforts or output. He was never a great man for meetings. He found the process of consensus decision making for too slow for his liking. He held his own very strong convictions and opinions and could be somewhat dictatorial at times. He held strong views on interfaith issues and inter-religious dialogue was not a theological position he espoused.
As with the SMA so he was with his own family. As a driving instructor, I gather that he could be a bit demanding. But he was a brother held in deep affection. Indeed, I found it inspiring over these last weeks of his illness to see John’s family’s devotion to his care. Tales were told of fun and laughter, disputes and reconciliations, the nuts and bolts of ordinary but treasured family friendship. Hours were spent at his bedside by all family members but I know nobody will be offended when I pay particular attention to Mary’s extraordinary devotion. Having spent countless hours at his bedside in recent months, weeks and most especially days it was fitting that you were by his side when he breathed his last. You will miss him more than anyone. But you will receive comfort and consolation and, in time, come to appreciate that you have been the recipient of a very special gift. I hope our opening reading this afternoon will bring you words of comfort. “.. [the Lord] will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, …. he will destroy death for ever …. he will wipe away the tears from every cheek”. In time, Mary, your tears, too, will be wiped away.
John has fought the good fight, he has run the race. He accepted his recent illness with commendable serenity. He battled for life, indeed battled long after a less tenacious person might have thrown in the towel. When at last his tortured body could fight no longer he surrendered with great dignity.
Ar dheis lÃ¡mh DÃ© go raibh a anam dÃlis.