Homily at Funeral Mass for Fr Paddy Kelly SMA

Monday, 20 January 2020 – St Dympna’s Church, Kilnadeema, Co Galway

When I first stood in this church in September 2017, a couple of months after Fr Paddy came here, Sunday Mass was just ending. He introduced me to the congregation. At the end of Mass, a number of you greeted me and two of the ladies, after welcoming me said, “Father will you ever tell him to cut down on the sermon! “Tell him yourself, I’ve been telling him for 35 years and it’s still made no difference!” I never succeeded, did the women of Kilnadeema?

And the words which Paddy’s nephew Rian read for us – “preach the Gospel; be prepared in season and out of season, correct, rebuke and encourage –with great patience and careful instruction” – come to my mind as I recall those ladies. Paddy saw his mission as a priest to preach the Gospel, insist on it but, as the reading also says, to encourage and be patient with the people you’re preaching to. And that’s why his sermons were a bit longer sometimes. But they were always well-prepared. As his nephew said about one of the symbols brought to the Altar a few minutes ago: “For 40 years he preached God’s word, treating each sermon as though it were his first, choosing every word with care and honouring even the most subtle of meanings.” And it was the basis of his missionary style in Africa which he also brought home to Clonfert!

Paddy’s leaving us was a bolt from the blue but, thinking about him, I’m saying to myself, “Kavanagh, why are you surprised?” From the first day we met, in September 1973, PJ never worried about himself.

As the first reading says, “the virtuous ones, though they die before their time, will find rest” and “they have sought to please God, so God has loved them.

After Paddy’s ordination in Laurencetown in 1980 he was found to have a serious ulcer problem. So he couldn’t head for Nigeria as planned. Waiting for the doctor’s permission to go Paddy wrote several times to the Provincial Superior in Cork complaining about his situation. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, “I feel fine / I don’t feel sick at all / I’ve no pains or problems / I don’t know why they won’t let me go…..”

Typically Paddy, no concern for himself at all. And he had that attitude until last Tuesday. In 1980, all he wanted to do was get to Africa to preach the Gospel. And last week all he wanted was to get some Lemsips and get back to work in the parish.

He eventually arrived in Nigeria and was promptly locked up in jail at the Airport! The sign outside Lagos Airport – Welcome to Nigeria – was clearly not meant for him. Paddy had the same name as an Irish Holy Ghost missionary who had been deported from Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War. The following morning the immigration authorities sorted out the mistake and he was released to begin his missionary life in Nigeria. After six months learning the Yoruba language – and Paddy had a great gift for languages, speaking Yoruba, Hausa and Swahili fluently – he was appointed to Ilorin diocese where Bishop Willie Mahony SMA, from Derrybrien, was the bishop. He will be forever remembered for the fifteen years he spent in places like Osi, Ekan Meji, Agwara, Guffanti, Adewole….

Why? Because from the start, Paddy was notable for his missionary ‘style’: spending time with the people, sitting in the village markets, speaking with them, listening to their stories and their worries and problems. And praying there with them. No rush. And nearly always attached to a cigarette! His ministry was truly about taking time, spending time with the people, just as Jesus did.

SMA seminarians were sent to him for training. When they and Fr Paddy would arrive at an outstation church – and remember this could be after 1, 2 or even three hours driving – they might find no one there. So he’d park himself under whatever shade he could find and just sit there – of course smoking a cigarette – and wait until the people gathered for Mass. No rush. As they say in Nigeria, “God’s time is best”.

And so back to today’s Gospel – I was hungry and you gave me food, a stranger and you made me welcome, in sick and in prison and you came to visit me’ – Fr Paddy Kelly took these words to heart and lived them out right up until last Tuesday when the God he so fervently believed in called him to his eternal rest, “Length of days is not what makes life honourable, nor number of years the true measure of life; they have sought to please God, so God has loved them.”

Last Saturday night Fr Paddy preached about God having no favourites; that we’re all loved in the same way. And we’re all invited to live the Gospel to the full in our daily life. Fr Paddy sought to do that in his care for those around him, the sick, the elderly, the young, those with any sort of worries…. His whole life was given to the care of people in Africa and here at home, wherever he was posted. Yesterday and this morning I’ve heard some stories of Fr Paddy’s kindnesses here in the parish.

Not for him the trappings of high living. He had no interest in material things. Visit any of the mission houses where Paddy lived and all you met was the bare necessities. Paddy ate what the people ate, mindful that they had so little and no way would he make a distinction between himself and his people by living any different or buying expensive non-African food which might be available in the bigger towns.

He just wasn’t interested in creature comforts. Reminds me of his time when he had the ulcer. What’s the need for any fuss. And even in the days before he died, he made little of his sickness. Not taking care of himself. Rarely allowing others to take care of him.

Paddy spent some years at home collecting Mission boxes in shops or preaching in churches around the country about the work of our Irish missionaries. But Paddy always wanted back to Africa. After finishing in Nigeria he headed, in 1999, for Tanzania where he worked for seventeen years before finally coming home in late 2016 – in Mwandoya, Kilulu… There, as in Nigeria, Paddy was noted for his simple lifestyle, so much so that a number of our African and Indian seminarians were sent to him as part of their training. On several occasions Fr Paddy and a seminarian would arrive at an outstation church – and remember this could be after 1, 2 or even three hours driving – they might find no one there. So he’d park himself under whatever shade he could find and just sit there – of course smoking a cigarette – and wait until the people gathered for Mass. No rush. As they say in Nigeria, “God’s time is best”.

On hearing of his death, Fr Basil Soyoye from Nigeria wrote:

PJ’s down-to-earth approach to mission challenged and broadened my vision of what it was to be a missionary. PJ was one with the people. In addition to speaking the Yoruba language and feeding on what was locally available, he made it a duty to visit homes. He went to farms to bless the people and their farm. He never hesitated to turn the Mission house into a health center… I remember the night he vacated his bed for a sick elderly man whom he had to drive to the clinic at the next village the following morning.

PJ was honestly and freely human and I think this transparency earned him the respect and appreciation of everyone in the parish community.”

He wasn’t interested in high-falutin ideas, He was always practical in what he said and did. On one occasion when on the way to an outstation with a seminarian they got a puncture. Realising he had no spare tyre he said to the student, “well, what’s your theology book say about this?”

Was Paddy a saint? Not at all. He was like any of us, he had his good points and bad points, faults and failings. That’s why in this funeral Mass – as in every funeral Mass – we ask God to forgive him any faults he may have had. And I’ve no doubt God has.

But we also give thanks for a good life, a generous life, a life of strong faith and living witness to the love of God for us.

I’ll finish with a Yoruba proverb:

Ki Oluwa te e si afefe rere.
May the Lord carry him on a gentle breeze.
PJ, pray for us!

Martin Kavanagh SMA