Golden Jubilee homily – Fr John O’Hea

Fr Fintan Daly preached the following homily at the Mass celebrated at the SMA House of Studies, Bodija, Ibadan, Nigeria on Friday, 4 March 2010 to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Priestly Ordination of Fr John O’Hea SMA.

The first aim of every prayer and every religious celebration should be to give thanks and praise to God. And this evening we thank and praise God for many things.

First we thank God for life and health and for the gift of faith. And this evening we thank God for you seminarians, for your vocation and for the wonderful gifts and talents that God has given you.

Second, we thank God especially this evening for the life of Fr. John O’Hea who is a man of sincere faith and who is devoting all his energy now to handing on the faith to others.  Since some of you may not know Fr. O’Hea very well I think I should say a few words about his life.

John was born in Co. Cork, Ireland 78 years ago. He was born into a very special house, because 15 priests were born in that house.  Yes – 15 priests. That must surely be a record.  These 15 were not all

brothers. They belonged to several generations. He has one senior brother Fr. James, who is an SMA priest and who only retired from Ibadan in 2007 after 55 years of faithful service in Ibadan.  The other priests were uncles, grant uncles and great grand uncles.  One of his uncles was also an SMA priest who worked in Liberia for many years. He also had an uncle who was bishop of their home Diocese.

Some of the other uncles worked in Dioceses in Ireland and in America.

So John grew up in a house where there was a tradition of vocations to the Priesthood and to the Missions, but when John finished his secondary school, he did not think of the priesthood.  Instead he studied at a College of Agriculture and there he learned a lot about machinery and technology which he was already interested in.  Then he worked for a while with a Telephone Company where he became more interested in technology but eventually the call to the Missionary life came to him and he joined the SMA.

He studied at the SMA seminary and the University of Cork and was ordained on 21st. December 1960.

One interesting thing about that ordination was that it was the first ordination ever to be televised by the BBC.  Many people expected to see the ordination during the TV News programme that evening, but only a few seconds of the celebration was shown and it came after the price of turkeys! That was a lesson to the newly ordained priests. For them the ordination was the most important thing that could happen, but for some people, the price of turkeys before Christmas was more newsworthy than an ordination.

In 1961 Fr. O’ Hea was appointed to Ibadan, and he has given dedicated service during the past 50 years.  His first appointment in Ibadan was to teach in Fatima College, Ikire.

Then he taught at Oke-Are Seminary.

After Oke-Are he served in the parishes of Iwo, Ikire, Oke Offa, the Cathedral and Apata.

I must mention a few interesting things about him during these years:

1             In 1966 he went to the small village of Lashegba to spend school holiday time working in the farm of a Yoruba family, hoping in that way to learn the Yoruba language. The farmer rejoiced to have a European working as a labourer in his farm.

2             Later when he was in Iwo he built mud houses for lepers. And he built the parish house and church on a refuse dump. When I saw the refuse dump I thought it was a crazy place to think of building anything.  But John was able to see beyond the smoke and the smell and  a fine church and parish house were built there.

3             Many parishes and religious houses have called on John when they had problems with engines or electricity or plumbing. Indeed he is a jack of all trades and a master of them as well.

4             He also has done many things to help people in ways that we would never think of. For example a few years ago a tailor had a serious accident on a motor cycle.  The fingers on his right hand were severely damaged and he feared he would not be able to do tailoring again.  But John bought a left-handed scissors and encouraged him to use it. The tailor is continuing his tailoring as well as ever. 

And there are many others that he has helped in many different ways.  He hardly spends any money on himself but he provides a lot for others. It was due to his initiative when he was in the Cathedral that Ile Alafia – Home for the Needy – was started and that home now feeds about 300 poor people every day.

5             John has also a great sense of humour. I will tell you about one funny incident that happened in 1970.  At that time John was returning from leave. He brought back some apples for his brother Fr. Jim. It was the time of the civil war and soldiers were at the customs and they were very strict in examining every bit of luggage.  When the soldier saw the apples he said ‘This is illegal, you cannot bring these into the country.”

John said, ‘Sorry, but what will happen to them now”?   The soldier said, ‘They have to be destroyed –and you must pay to have them destroyed”.

John said, “I will destroy them myself” and he started to eat one of the apples. The soldier joined in and the two of them ate all the apples and they parted as the best of friends…

That tells you a lot about John, how he can make the best of a difficult situation.

But John is above all a dedicated priest and a very zealous missionary. We thank God that there is a great friendship and respect for priests and religious in Nigeria, and in many other African countries also. Sadly in some parts of the world, scandals have caused many people to lose their respect for priests. I pray that will never happen here in Nigeria or in Africa.

In the 50 years since Fr. O’Hea was ordained there have been many changes in the church and in the world. But we have seen nothing yet. The changes in the future will be much greater than anything we ever dreamt of. How can you young people prepare for the future?

Well there may be many things we can do, but the most important thing for us is to focus our attention on Christ.

Thank God we know something about Christ, but we are only beginners. Christ is so wonderful in every way that we can always learn more about him. Pope Paul VI certainly knew a lot about Christ, yet when he was in Nazareth he said he would like to go to school once more so as to be close to Mary in the sublime school of Nazareth and learn more about Jesus.

Another time Paul VI gave a long sermon on Christ, he said, Christ is the secret of history and the key to our destiny. He is the mediator, the bridge between heaven and earth” and he ended by saying, “I could never finish speaking about him”. And we can never finish learning about Christ and we should try to learn more about Christ because St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, “Nothing is more important than to know Jesus Christ.”

The motto of the Jubilee Year 2000 was “Christ the same yesterday, today and forever. The point being made was that is the key to every age and to every place. So if we focus on Christ it will help us to cope with the changes that we will meet in the years to come.

At the beginning of this Millennium John Paul II wrote a beautiful Letter in which he told us to “Launch out into the deep“. Here the Pope was appealing to people to move out and be involved in

evangelisation. All of us here are missionaries. Let us hope that we will always be zealous missionaries. Fr. O’Hea has certainly given us an example in this regard. I know that Fr. John’s sincere wish is that each one of us would hand on the faith. We must be missionaries not only by word, but also by example. It is interesting that in that same letter Pope John Paul II quoted the words of the Greeks to Philip, “We want to see Jesus”. The Pope said that people still want to see Jesus and they expect to see Jesus in us.

In 1972 there was a big Congress for the Laity in Rome. During the Congress a lady from India said for the past five days many things had been discussed, but nothing had been said about Christ. Her question then was: “Why do you send us missionaries who are interested in many things but who do not show us the face of Christ?”

I hope that will never be said about the SMAs or the OLA Sisters.

But it does remind us that people expect to see the face of Christ in us, and they will only see the face of Christ in us if we see the face of Christ in the many ways he is present in the world around us.  John Paul II told us to contemplate the face of Jesus with the eyes of Mary. Think of the love with which Mary looked on the baby Jesus as she held him in her arms in Bethlehem, and think of how sorrowfully she looked on him as he hung on the cross. In order to contemplate the face of Jesus with the eyes of Mary we need to purify our vision. If we purify our vision we will see the innocent face of Jesus in the innocent face of a child. And we will see the loving face of Jesus in the loving care of a mother for her children, or in the loving care of a nurse for the sick.

And we will see the sorrowful face of Jesus in the face of those who suffer. But Jesus also has a glorious face and we see the glorious face of Jesus in those who joyfully serve the Lord in spite of difficulties and doubts and confusion around them.  We also see the glorious face of Jesus in the face of those who rise up from failures and from disgrace and sins.

If we purify our vision we may even see the face of Jesus in the world around us. Like the poet we may be able to say, “I see his blood upon the rose… I see his face in every flower“.

Above all we see Jesus in the Eucharist and we hear his voice in the Scriptures.

And if we attentively listen to His word every day and reverently receive Him in the Eucharist, this will help us to see the face of Jesus in the many ways he is present in the world.  If we try to contemplate the face of Jesus with the eyes of Mary, we will learn a lot about him, but we will never exhaust the wonder and the mystery of Christ. That is why heaven will not be boring. Each new day in heaven will be like a new adventure, a new opportunity to explore the wonder and the beauty of Christ, and of the Father and Holy Spirit – and the beauty of the Lord far surpasses all the beauty that we ever dreamt of.

So let us launch out into the deep, let us enter into the mystery of Christ and let us hand on this wonderful gift to others. Let us with all our zeal join with Fr. O’Hea in handing on the faith.  The faith

is needed now more than ever before.  The world is a troubled place at the present time. So many countries in Africa and the Arab world are in trouble. We pray for the many people who are in danger and we pray that the Lord may touch the hearts of those leaders who are oppressing their people. But in spite of everything we must be people of hope.

And it is interesting that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have written about the importance of hope. 

And the Second Vatican Council said “The future belongs to those who are strong enough to give succeeding generations reasons for living and hoping”.

We have reasons for living, we have reasons for hoping. So as well as handing of the faith, let us also hand on hope because you cannot have one without the other and of course love joins faith and hope together. So let us keep in mind the dying words of our Founder, which were Faith, Hope and Love.

May we have a living faith to inspire us to launch out into the deep,

may we have hope that is strong enough to survive every storm and every temptation

And may we have love that is pure and enables us to see the face of Christ in the people we meet so that we will treat everyone with respect.

Finally we end as we began, with a word of thanksgiving. We thank the Lord for all his blessings. We thank Him for the life of Fr. John – and John we thank you yourself for your dedication and faithful service and for the many ways.

My advice to you now that you are a Golden Jubilarian and aged 78: I say don’t begin to feel you are old.

When Pope Leo XIII was celebrating his 93rd birthday someone shouted “May you live to be 100”.  He replied, “Why set limits to God’s providence?” 

So do not set limits to God’s providence. St. John Vianney said, “It is always springtime in the heart of those who love God”. We know you John love God so we hope your heart will always have the freshness of Springtime.

The very last words of our Founder were “Thank you”.  So we conclude by saying Thank You Lord, Thank you John and thank you all.

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