Fr Tom Higgins SMA
Funeral Homily – 3 February 2005
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Wisdom 3: 1-9
Romans 12: 3-13
John 12: 23-28
1st February ushers in the Season of Spring. We notice a lengthening of the light at both ends of the day. That theme of light is carried on into the second day of the month, when we celebrate a mini-festival with lighted candles as we contemplate the Presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. 1st February is also the Feastday of St Brigid, secondary patron of Ireland. Tom Higginsâ€™ theology and spirituality would have little truck with modern day, feminist inspired connections being made between a pagan goddess and a Christian saint, but that he should die on this particular day is not without some significance. Brigid consecrated her whole life to God, as a virgin; so did Tom. Brigid is renowned for her hospitality, almsgiving and care of the sick. These are themes running through the life of Fr Tom; at one point, as giver; at another, as receiver. He died peacefully early on Tuesday morning, in Blackrock Road, after a protracted illness.
Our first reading this afternoon is that reading from the Book of Wisdom that is regularly chosen for funeral liturgies. The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God. It is appropriate for Tomâ€™s funeral liturgy. In the reading, the afflictions of this life are seen as slight in contrast to the blessings that will surely follow in the life to come. God has put the virtuous to the test, like gold in the furnace, and they have not been found wanting. They who trust in him will understand the truth, those who are faithful will live with him in love; for grace and mercy await those he has chosen. Tom lived his life with great fidelity to the Lord; our faith convinces us that he has moved into new life and there has met mercy itself.
In the gospel, we are reminded that the grain of wheat must die if it is to lead to a rich harvest. New life is possible only when the old has died. Nature itself is a brilliant teacher in this regard. For the Christian, of course, we are not talking of just any kind of new life. We are talking about nothing less than new life in Godâ€™s very being. Jesusâ€™ resurrection from the dead is the guarantee of the hope we claim as Christians that one day we too will rise with him into everlasting life. This was the faith that inspired Tom Higgins to dedicate his life for over 60 years in missionary priesthood with the SMA. How lovely it was that we were able to celebrate with him the Diamond Jubilee of his ordination to priesthood, just six weeks ago. Tomâ€™s was a life rich in blessing, but not without its pain also.
A native of Sligo town, Tom was born on July 8th, 1918 into a family of three boys and three girls. He completed his Primary education with the Marist Brothers in Sligo before going on to secondary school in Ballinafad and Wilton. From here he moved on to Cloughballymore, where he cherished the spiritual atmosphere and the great family spirit existing between the Staff and the students. He graduated from University College, Galway in 1941. His first mission appointment after ordination in 1944 was to Monrovia, Liberia. It is fitting that the present Archbishop of Monrovia, Michael Francis, who would have been ten years of age when Tom first reached those shores, had just arrived in our house for convalescence just a matter of days before Tom died.
Tom had a very significant missionary career in Liberia. He began as a teacher, was later a pastor, and later still an administrator. Tom seemed to possess many of the gifts outlined by St Paul in his letter to Romans in that passage we read here this afternoon – teacher, preacher, administrator. In each ministry he gave of his gifts freely; and he was never less than a thorough gentleman. He was very highly regarded by all his colleagues as he served as Regional Superior from 1953-64. In this particular ministry he became noted for the quality of his hospitality, something which St Paul reminds us we need to make our special care. He also had huge compassion for his confreres. During these years in Liberia, finances were never too plentiful and the church was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet from the ordinary resources of the mission. Tom worked with the creative spirit of another confrere to establish a rubber plantation at Kakata to raise funds for the mission. The pioneering work in this regard was to survive up to the recent tragic war.
Unfortunately, ill-health, in the form of a very debilitating disease of both his eyes, was to force him to leave his beloved Liberia in 1970. There is no doubt that this experience was a defining one in Tomâ€™s life. I am reminded of the comment of Thoreau – “as a young person we dream of building a bridge to the moon and sometime in mid-life we pick up the materials weâ€™ve gathered and build a woodshed.”
Tom was to work for another nineteen years in pastoral ministry in the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle in Northern England. Poor eye-sight was to continue to plague him, and he was to develop other health complications including cancer. So he returned to work in this parish of Wilton for five years, before moving into full retirement in the Wilton community in 1994, where he lived contentedly until requiring a higher level of nursing care at the Blackrock Road community since 2002.
At the beginning of this homily reflection I focussed on the image of light. Light and sight are inextricably linked. Tomâ€™s seeing of the physical world changed around 1970. I think it would be true to say that the way he viewed faith and the Church also changed around that time. Tom would say, of course, that it was the church that had changed; his view had remained constant throughout. However one judges that debate it is very true that Tom found it painfully difficult to come to terms with many of the changes, liturgical and otherwise, brought about by the Vatican Council and subsequently. He was never afraid to argue his point with great conviction. He did more than argue; he aligned himself with some of the traditional movements within the church, such as the movement for the restoration of the Latin Mass, and was a devoted supporter and participant until increasing frailty made it simply impossible for him to continue.
Throughout this period Tom always maintained his dignity. He did not cede his point easily but he always tried to dialogue with courtesy and respect. He remained, as always, a real gentleman. Thatâ€™s why the second reading this afternoon, taken from the Mass for the feastday of St Brigid, rings true. St Paul tells us, “Do not let your love be a pretence, but sincerely prefer good to evil. Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other.” Tom showed his love for his brothers by trying to get us to move back from what he regarded as the wrong way, and he did so with profound respect. He certainly worked for the Lord with untiring effort and great earnestness of spirit. And he certainly did not give up when trials came.
In the same reading each of us is urged not to exaggerate our real importance and to judge ourselves soberly by the standard of faith that has been given to us. Tom had no doubt that his cause was an important one: but he never exaggerated his personal importance and had a sober judgement of himself.
Our faith asserts that Tom is now participating in the heavenly liturgy, where arguments of style and language are no longer relevant. He is at peace in body, mind and spirit. Our prayer is that he will enjoy the fullness of Godâ€™s eternal peace.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.