Fr Joe Egan, SMA, preached at the Mass prior to the burial of Fr Paddy (PJ) Kelly, in St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork. Both had been students together in what was then the SMA Novitiate in Wilton in 1973 / 74.
The readings for the Mass were taken from Micah 6:6-8, Romans 10:9-18 and John 1:1-5, 9-14,16-18.
The following is an edited version of Fr Joe’s homily.
The reading we have just heard from St John’s Gospel is one of the pivotal texts of the New Testament, for it highlights the divinity of Jesus in a striking, remarkable way. Read at Mass on Christmas morning, it highlights the mystery of the Incarnation and its centrality in our Christian lives. Jesus Christ is truly divine; he is the Word of God, completely one with the Father from eternity, but now he has descended from on high in order to unite us with God and bring us back to the Father. He does this by taking on our human flesh, identifying completely with us in all things but sin, even while bearing its burden and the iniquity of our condition. To encounter God now, you don’t have to go very far; you don’t have to ascend to the heavens and you don’t have to leave the world behind; on the contrary, God is to be found in the midst of everyday life, if only you have the eyes to see and the willingness to respond. In the most fundamental sense possible, then, the Incarnation is the measure of Christian life and mission; it is the model of mission par excellence and the Incarnate Jesus is the supreme missionary, bar none.
Subsequently, in the course of his life and ministry, Jesus lived out in practice the implications of this approach to mission. As he is the Word of God, it is not surprising that every word of his was full of significance as he sought language to explain the extraordinary love of God for humanity and to invite a response. The parables and stories he told were incredibly powerful in this regard, because they drew people into the mystery of that love in a way that highlighted their radical implications. Jesus did not teach the eternal mysteries of God in an abstract, timeless manner, but rather, through a series of dramatic images taken from everyday life, he challenged and provoked his hearers to see God in the midst of their daily lives, in the great and small events that came their way and shaped their days. Jesus the missionary, then, is a storyteller par excellence; he is the living embodiment of the message that he preached and demonstrated in every aspect of his life. From the very beginning of his ministry, he made himself available to others, so that they could experience God’s love directly for themselves; his presence to the sick, the blind and the dying brought him into direct contact with their pain and rejection, which he took upon himself along with all the sin that was at odds with God, and brought them healing.
Yet all this was not without cost, as St John duly recognises when he points to the deep-rooted resistance to Jesus and to God’s way of doing things: “He was in the world that had come into being through him and the world did not recognise him. He came to his own and his own people did not accept him.” The way of Incarnation is the way of divine grace par excellence, but it is a costly grace, which none of us finds easy to accept; for we are deeply insecure in our very make-up; pain and rejection cause us great anxiety, and, above all, suffering and death break our hearts and cause us endless grief.
Our lives as Christians is firmly grounded in the Incarnation of Christ, the Word made flesh. “From his fullness,” St John writes, “we have all received grace upon grace.” PJ – or Paddy as he was affectionately known by his family – was the beneficiary of that grace in so many ways in the course of his life, and like every Christian it left its mark on him.
It left its mark on him personally, for he too was some storyteller: a raconteur with a great sense of humour who was never short of a joke or delightful story that only brought laughter while giving his own unique insight into events taking place – even solemn ones on the most formal liturgical occasions. He didn’t have much time for pomp and ceremony, for status and titles and places of honour, or for the privilege and legalisms that sucked the life and joy out of the message of the Gospel and with which much of formal religious practice comes packaged. His antennae for nonsense and pretentiousness were finely tuned; he could see what people were really about; he could spot the pompous and ridiculous immediately, and he invariably responded with a hearty grin and a wry comment that put everything in a very different perspective. As with Jesus himself, who is remembered in the Gospels as a friend of the poor and who communicated God’s grace with extraordinary generosity and gracious excess, Paddy stood in opposition to all that is mean and miserly and joyless in the practice of the faith; for him, the grace of God is for everyone and it ought to be grounded and celebrated joyfully in every aspect of our Christian lives.
The outpouring of God’s grace on Paddy fundamentally shaped his missionary journeys; for though he might not have put it this way himself – indeed, he would certainly have been embarrassed to have it expressed in these terms and just laughed it off – Paddy’s missionary life is perhaps best understood in terms of the Incarnation. In hindsight, that was obvious from Day 1 back in 1980 when he landed in Africa. As a result of bureaucratic delays, he left Ireland several weeks after the rest of us. And having landed in Lagos, he was promptly detained, found to be persona non grata because of his very name. For those of us who were hundreds of miles up country, his detention was an inauspicious beginning to our missionary lives, and it left us bemused about what we had left ourselves in for; yet it didn’t faze Paddy in the least. Eventually, after his situation was clarified and resolved, he joined us in the diocese of Ekiti to learn the Yoruba language, and from there in June 1981 he went to Ilorin diocese where he spent the next 15 years, adding the Hausa language to his repertoire of communication skills as he did so.
What did he do there, you might well ask? In terms of the reading from the prophet Micah, he walked “humbly with God.” In terms of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, he simply did what he was sent to do: to preach the Gospel, even if not always using formal religious language, as he encouraged others to begin the journey along the path of evangelisation that led to Christ. And in terms of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, he followed the way of Incarnation by living out one of the great insights of the Second Vatican Council – that the Incarnation brings Christ into a certain unity with every human being (Gaudium et spes, 22). This is the spirituality which underpins his lifestyle and which leaps out from the pages of his obituary notice:
spending hours with people, “just sitting with them, chatting, learning their stories and listening to their cares and worries,” while also dedicating himself wholeheartedly “to their spiritual welfare, travelling for hours to far-distant outstations to celebrate Mass and the other sacraments,” sleeping in what passed for the ‘sacristy’ of the simple churches that had been built by the local community.
“The footsteps of those who bring good news are a welcome sound,” St Paul informs us in the second reading. That was certainly true in Paddy’s case, because his feet were firmly planted on terra firma, on the ground wherever he found himself. He was a completely grounded person, who was happiest when imitating closely the way of Jesus along the dust-covered roads of Galilee long ago. His spirituality was firmly grounded in the events of daily life, by means of which the mystery of God continues to become visible, God’s grace manifest and God’s word communicated in season and out. Though widely read, his theology was not so much an academic one of the classroom or library, which is really not of much use in the situations in which he revelled, but rather an intensely practical one:
– of the marketplace, where people gathered to buy and sell and fashion the bonds of social life;
– of the workplace, where people earned their daily bread by the sweat of their brow;
– and of the pick-up truck, which was so important in the task of building community from the ground up.
Later in his life, after an interlude in Ireland, Paddy returned to Africa in 1999, this time to East Africa, where he once again gave expression to this fully grounded way of life and spirituality in the rural parishes of Tanzania where he worked. In those situations, too, his actions did most of the talking and when necessary he used Swahili – the local language in which he had become fluent – while he sowed the seeds of Gospel in rural communities just as he had done in Nigeria two decades before; sowing those seeds in tiny and inconspicuous ways, barely noticeable because they were so ordinary, yet like the mustard seed in the parables of Jesus with an awesome power, the power of the Gospel itself, underpinning and nourishing them. Throughout his life, Paddy gravitated towards the margins because that was where he was most comfortable and where he gave and found acceptance; and that was where his personal qualities, his common touch and great sense of humour, intersected with his spirituality of everyday life to bear witness to the Gospel in a powerful, yet deeply humble and completely grounded way.
Though the way of Incarnation is the way of divine grace par excellence, as I noted earlier, it is also a costly grace that makes demands on us which we struggle to manage. Paddy knew those struggles too, for though he was rugged and tough, those exterior qualities masked a certain shyness, a sensitivity, a vulnerability that only came to the surface occasionally, as it did in recent years with the loss of his mother, Eileen, and his sister, Veronica. That vulnerability was most noticeable in respect of himself, for he always put others first, downplaying the burdens, the anxieties, the insecurities, the sicknesses, the headaches, the malaria and all the afflictions of life in the tropics even as they weighed increasingly heavy on him. That, it seems, was the case right up to the very end, when the ‘wear and tear’ of his missionary life finally caught up with him and his final sickness snatched him suddenly, but peacefully, from this life.
In 1973, 47 years ago, he was one of the students who walked these surroundings and worshipped in this church, as he took the first steps towards missionary priesthood. The landscape around here then was very different; green fields in every direction; no shopping centre, no hospital, no traffic lights, just a long, tree-lined avenue leading to the main road into the city. On that avenue, students could walk and talk, tell jokes and share stories; and, there being no mobile phones available in those days, simply cover for each other as they made use of the best available technology to communicate with the outside world – a 50-yard dash to a nearby post-box along the college wall. It was here in this very church that the students served at the altar and helped bury some of the missionaries who were laid to rest in the graveyard just beside the church. Now almost five decades later, some of us are back here to lay PJ to rest beside them.
PJ, as I noted above, was a completely grounded individual who gave practical expression to the Incarnation of Christ throughout his missionary life. Today his grounding in Christ is complete, as we place his body in the grave to return to the dust from which all of us are made. But, in saying that, we are also saying in faith that his spirit has been set free to soar to encounter his Lord in paradise. Included among the many stories he once regaled us and many others with were ones about St Peter at the entrance to paradise, the aptly described ‘pearly gates.’ Now that he has arrived there, I suspect he is probably a little shyer and somewhat reticent, even bashful. Nevertheless, I think we can be assured that he will gain immediate entrance to the joyous vistas beyond, because all his humour and stories are now summed up in the one great story he told: of a life at the heart of which was the Gospel, in whose service he spent the most of four decades in Africa, where as he ‘walked humbly with God’ to bring Good News, his footsteps were a welcome sound because they prepared the way for those of Jesus himself, in whose life and vision he was firmly grounded.
May his footsteps today be a welcome sound in the halls of Paradise.
May the seeds of the Gospel he sowed in so many places while here on earth continue to bear fruit.
May the love he communicated so joyously and humorously now come to perfection in him.
And may Christ who bestowed on him grace upon grace welcome him with open arms, so that he is reunited with his parents, his sister and nephew to bask in the glory of God forever. Amen.
Fr Joe Egan, SMA