Fr Owen Maginn SMA
Funeral Homily – 05 December 2006
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior at SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork)
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8,11
“When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that love is the Holy Spirit”. When Meister Eckhart spoke those words back in the 14th century he may well have been motivated by having encountered someone like Fr Owen Maginn. I think for most of us the abiding memory we will carry of Owen is his laughter. Even when he was being most serious, or trying to be most serious, even in the latter days of his sickness when describing a condition that was obviously painful and critical, he could hardly conclude his remarks without breaking into his trademark giggle. That mischievous sparkle in the eye [as someone noted in our website guestbook], that giggle and laughter, were manifestations of something very wholesome inside the spirit and body of this extraordinary missionary.
Born into farming stock in Co Down in 1920, Owen was to spend just a few weeks short of 63 years as an SMA missionary priest. Never one of Nature’s athletes, always frail, he looked often a little the worse for wear. Yet he was to survive into his 87th year and hung on tenaciously to life, never more so than in these final eleven days when it seemed utterly futile to do so. His heart was obviously very strong, a heart that beat with love and compassion for all those he encountered in those 86 years. In the light of these long days of holding on his dying on Sunday morning was in a strange way almost sudden. In the space of about three minutes the still strong breath grew more and more shallow until eventually he was breathing no more. It was a beautiful, peaceful death, the mirror image of a life well lived. His going is well captured by our first reading this afternoon. “For everything there is a season,…. A time to be born, and a time to die”. Owen died not when any of us thought he was ready but when God was ready. As the reading puts is: “God has made everything suitable for its time; but although he has given us an awareness of the passage of time, we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does”.
All of us here present will have many memories of Owen. What is beautiful about our Catholic faith is that we exercise these memories now in this funeral liturgy in the context of a much bigger remembering. As Christians we believe that it is precisely in our remembering that we come to wisdom and new life. At Mass we gather around the table of the Lord to remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we believe that this action is not simply the mental recollection of a past event. We come hoping to be forgiven, to be nourished, to be challenged and sent forth; and we believe that our act of remembering is a means through which God enters into and transfigures our lives.
Our offering of Mass today is a prayer for the repose of the soul of Fr Owen. And we believe that just as the Father raised Jesus from death so too at the last day he will raise Owen. Owen himself held such faith with a passion. He dedicated his life to sharing this faith with others. How often he must have reflected on the prayer of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Father, 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 world”. And the final verse of this Jesus prayer could indeed be a prayer that Owen himself would make: “I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that the love with which you loved me may be in them”.
Perhaps a little known fact about Owen’s early life was that he spent from about the age of three to eight in the city of Detroit in the State of Michigan, USA. At that stage his only brother Tom had been born and the family was to move back to Drumaroad. Owen took his secondary education at St Patrick’s De La Salle, Downpatrick from 1934 to ’38. Along with other SMAs, then and later, he seems to have benefited greatly from the fine education received from the Brothers. His decision to join the SMA in 1938 was influenced by Fr Sexton Cahill SMA, a native of Crossgar, Co Down, whose brother, Fr Denis, was the P.P. in Drumaroad and whose nephew, Fr Sexton Doran still works in Zambia.
After ordination in December 1943 he was assigned, along with his class-mate Fr Jim McCarthy, to further studies in Cambridge. He secured a Masters Degree in History but his time there was bedevilled by ill-health. His humour was evident in an early letter back to the Provincial where he wrote: “we feel a lot more confident of a 1st in heaven than we do in Cambridge”. He did not find the environment in Cambridge conducive to faith growth but one must keep in mind that the time was not particularly marked by a strong ecumenical spirit. He was troubled by bronchial difficulties and eventually pulmonary tuberculosis was diagnosed. This necessitated the collapse of his left lung and its subsequent re-expansion.
Believing that his health might not be able to withstand a severe tropical climate, his superiors appointed him to Egypt in 1951. He was appointed to St Georges College, Heliopolis. He once described this college as an effort to be a second Eton. He had to return to Dublin in 1953 where he was operated on for duodenal ulcer and the removal of a significant portion of his stomach. A lesser man, in the context of such a medical history, might have decided enough of travelling. But not Owen. He returned to Egypt for another three years during a very turbulent if exciting period in Egypt’s history.
In 1957 he was called back to the seminary staff of Dromantine. Many SMAs, including many present here this afternoon, have very warm memories of his time in both Dromantine and Cloughballymore. He moved to Clough as Superior for a number of months in 1963 due to the illness of the late Fr James Byrne SMA. He was professor of ecclesiastical history in Dromantine as well as being Dean and subsequently Spiritual Director. It is some testimony that I can say for sure that I never heard a single negative comment about his time as a student formator. Having spent altogether seven years at this task it is no mean feat to come away with one’s reputation unscarred. He had a strong positive influence on many future missionaries.
In 1964 his request to return to Africa was granted and he returned for the next ten years to St Georges in Heliopolis. One could spend many a pleasant hour with Owen being regaled with stories of that period of his life. During his recent illness he was telling me, with many interjections of laughter, of events in Cairo during the six day war with Israel. His later years in Cairo were marked by some dissatisfaction with what the college was achieving and his own desire to work as a missionary in a more pastoral setting. This wish was fulfilled when he was assigned to the Diocese of Ndola, Zambia in 1974.
What was characteristic of Owen’s life was his tremendous ability to form friendships. This gift he maximised to the full. It stood to him all his life. When people moved away he maintained friendships through a phenomenal regularity of correspondence. The friendships were as likely if not more likely to be with young people, often female, as with older folk. It is probably true to say that this gift and indeed his whole life truly blossomed during the last 30 plus years lived in Ndola.
“The life and death of each of us has its influence on others; if 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 Lord”. Thus we heard in our second reading this afternoon. How appropriate to mark Owen’s life and death. His influence was first of all manifested through his family. Being the elder of a two sibling family unit his attachment to the family of his brother Tom was perhaps even stronger than the norm. He had a huge interest in all that went on for his brother Tom, Sadie and the children. And he was intensely proud of them. Even to the point of insisting that the children sing or perform for all SMA visitors to the house, something not always appreciated by the performers themselves. But his love and care for them was very much reciprocated. Throughout his life he was held in great devotion. This has been witnessed to telling effect these last days of waiting on Owen’s return to the Lord. This has been a difficult time for all you his family but I know that you also regard it as a time of rich blessing. Your witness of love and care has been inspiring and I know it will bear fruit in your own lives.
During Owen’s year or so sojourn in Blackrock Road we often teased him that nobody had more girl-friends visiting than he. His was an easy and comforting presence and it was no surprise that he could draw into that presence people young and old, male and female. His ministry in Zambia had a profound effect. Damian reminded us the other day of the outpouring of support from parishioners on his journey home last winter. He had a lovely ministry to those living with HIV/Aids – Sr Dr Eileen Keane, the pioneer of so much of the response to the Aids crisis in Zambia, has a fund of humorous stories from that field that would be too much to relay here; he acted as Spiritual Director and Chaplain to many Sisters communities; and he looked after his little parish each weekend with great consistency. His presence in Bishop’s house as companion and confidential secretary was much appreciated. He was a wise counsellor to young and old. The members of the Friends of Africa found in him a father who was non-threatening and non-judgmental but someone who could put before them a challenge to become the life-giving and wholesome human beings God was calling them to be.
Owen’s ability to befriend was aided in no small way be a voracious desire for news. He never tired of hearing the latest from any direction and he was not beyond engaging in the occasional bit of gossip. His curiosity revealed a genuine sincerity. He was at his best when debating or arguing a point in theology or the SMA or the Diocese. He was extremely well read and while never becoming offensive, he held his views with a real tenacity, though his views could change in a short space of time and they certainly changed significantly over the years. He developed over time into quite a progressive thinker and had little patience with the minutiae of church discipline if it did not seem to serve the broader gospel imperative. He was genuinely interested in people and nothing gave him greater pleasure than sharing good news.
Fr Owen Maginn will be hugely missed by those to whom he ministered and by those who ministered to him. Many fond stories have been shared during these days of mourning. His family and community of origin, the wider SMA family, the Church in different parts of Africa are all parting with a unique and gracious character. If one were to write a one line epitaph it might go something like this: he was one nice, decent, wholesome human being.
Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.