Fr Oliver Smith SMA
Funeral Homily – April 9th, 2005
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Romans 8: 8-11
Luke 12: 35-40
I imagine, if we were given a choice about when to die, many of us would choose to die during the season of Easter. This is the season of alleluia and new life. The season when we are reminded again and again that death is truly swallowed up in victory. For Oliver Smith it was a lovely blessing to die during this season. And to have died in the very week that the Pope himself died, a man who seniored Oliver by only 20 days, must be regarded as a special privilege indeed.
Oliver had the blessing recently of celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of ordination to Priesthood, 60 years of service in the Lordâ€™s vineyard. We had that quiet but dignified celebration here in this very oratory less than four months ago. Indeed, it is sobering for all of us to realise that both of the men we celebrated that day, Tom Higgins and Oliver, are now celebrating life in greater fullness.
So, Oliver has much to be grateful for, especially in these latter months. And we can be grateful too that the Lord spared him a long period of suffering. Who would have expected that Oliver would have that fall last Monday afternoon, necessitating his removal to hospital and the onset of death. But given that his injuries suggested that his recovery was going to be partial it was indeed a blessing that his death came quickly.
Our gospel reading today is that familiar passage where the Lord reminds his disciples that they must be dressed and ready for action. This referred most probably to the necessity to be always ready to advance the kingdom; but it can equally be interpreted, as the church has done so down the ages, as a reminder that we are not in control of life. It is in Godâ€™s hands to give and to receive. And, so, it is necessary to be prepared when the Lord sends that invitation. My sense is that Oliver was ready for that call. Not in any morbid or compulsive sense but rather as something that would happen without fanfare in the Lordâ€™s good time. In fact, he lived life to his fullest capacity right to the end, in spite of severe restrictions to mobility. In fact, he did so to a degree that many of us would have wished he did not. He reminded me sometimes of the old grandmother in her late 80s who said, “I donâ€™t suppose I shall live for ever, but while I do live I donâ€™t see why I shouldnâ€™t live as if I expected to”.
Our first reading this morning from the prophet Ezekiel is the great promise spoken to the people of Israel to give them hope of rescue from bondage, slavery and captivity in Babylon. It comes after that famous passage of the vision of the dry bones. The bones, being representative of the people of Israel, were dry because the people had no spirit in them. They had reneged on the promises through their sinfulness. But God never reneges on a promise. And so the bones will once again come to life and they will be resettled in their own soil. This will happen when Godâ€™s spirit dwells among his faithful people. The promise of this reading can also be interpreted on an individual level. Godâ€™s promise to us, in Jesus Christ, is that he will dwell eternally in spirit among his faithful people. This is a tremendous reassurance at the time of any funeral.
That reassurance is strengthened in the passage from Paul to the Romans. Once we have moved our interest over from the unspiritual [that is a life of selfishness and tendency to sin – or living in the flesh, as Paul so graphically puts it] to the spiritual we are assured that Godâ€™s own spirit has made his home in us. When we step back and reflect on that statement we recognise what an awesome statement it is to make – Godâ€™s own spirit has made his home in us. And then Paul goes on to say “and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you” Again, this passage refers primarily to living a spirit-filled life while on this earth. It means the Spirit of God permeates Christians and prompts them to live for God. But it also signifies a continuing life in the Spirit beyond the grave; a life that is possible when this earthly life has been lived in this spiritual way.
It was this same spirit that prompted Oliver Smith to offer himself for missionary priesthood in the SMA way back before the beginning of the 2nd World War in 1939. Mobility, and in the end lack of mobility, became a feature of Oliverâ€™s life. He had been born in Tralee, Co Kerry in 1920. He had two sisters Marie and Rose with whom he shared a deep bond of affection right to their deaths. Some members of his extended family had entered religious life before him. In his early years he moved to Carlow and was entered as a student in the diocesan seminary, Knockbeg College. I believe I am right in saying that he was a contemporary of Fr Tom Gorman there. He was also a contemporary of the late bishop Patrick Lennon, brother of Fr Tommy Lennon SMA. These must have been good years for Oliver as he often spoke with some affection of those years. It was at Knockbeg that he first had any encounter with SMA. A photograph in the 1939 SMA calendar of a darkhaired priest wearing a white soutane and a sun helmet attracted his attention. The priest was Fr Michael Carolan SMA [Offaly] who later became Oliverâ€™s first PP in Shendam, Nigeria. Oliver was ordained to the priesthood in December 1944; said his first Mass in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin and received his first missionary appointment to the prefecture of Jos in Nigeria.
His missionary career was dominated by ministry in the fields of education and administration. He was both supervisor of schools and Education Secretary for Jos at different occasions. Later he was assigned as Staff Inspector for Christian Education in the Ministry of Education in Kaduna State. He served as bishopâ€™s Secretary in both Jos and Kaduna dioceses. Archbishop Jatau of Kaduna, who was once his houseboy, later became his bishop. In fact, at the jubilee celebration here four months ago I made a smiling reference to his bravery in moving from one territory to another within the Region of Northern Nigeria. This was not something done very frequently.
In all, Oliver was to give 42 years of active service to mission in Nigeria. This was a remarkable achievement given that he did not always enjoy robust health. Perhaps more than most, he enjoyed the colonial era in Nigeria. He had good memories of that time too, memories that he later committed to paper when, in his retirement years, he began writing short stories. Thankfully, he was to have these published some years ago so they now stand as a tribute to his writing ability but more importantly as an important memoir of a particular era of missionary endeavour.
In 1989 Oliver returned to Ireland and retired to Kells, Co Meath where he lived in retirement with his sister Marie for the next eleven years. In 2001 he came down here to Blackrock Road and has been a member of this community ever since. Many people here will have memories of Oliver, some from his early years in seminary and mission, others from later years. He was certainly his own man, a true “fearr ann fein” He had an independent mind and would not be easily swayed from a path of action once his mind was made up. One would have to say he had a steak of stubbornness and could be somewhat awkward at times. His was a quiet presence, but a presence not easy to ignore even if that was not always reciprocal. His choice of funeral arrangements reflects a facet of his character that was intensely private. A spirit of generosity and kindness was also present: this was evident in his desire to leave his bodily organs after his death to anyone to whom the medical profession would deem them to be of benefit. His age counselled against actually using these organs. He is also known to have formed bonds of warm attachment and affection with staff members in this house. And he always marked his gratitude when a good deed was done to him or for him.
Our faith assures us that all the bonds of friendship and affection that knit us together in this life do not unravel with death. So, it is with this assurance that we now say our final farewell to our colleague.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.