Fr Larry Skelly SMA
Funeral Homily – 22 January 2005
(Preached by Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA, Provincial Superior)
Macc 12: 43-45
Matt 11: 25-30
The Tsunami tragedy in S.E. Asia over the holiday period has given rise to lively debate as to where was God during this tragedy. How could a good God allow such a tragedy to happen, many asked. This is not a new question. The problem of suffering has been debated since the beginning of time, since humanity has become aware that suffering is part of the human condition. Some valiant attempts at explanation have been offered, running something like the following: God’s is a creation in freedom where the marvellous processes of nature have the capacity to produce wonderful development and growth but can also bring utter destruction and devastation. For God to intervene to stop disasters occurring would necessarily involve the cessation of freedom. In such a state we would all be responding in a programmed fashion like robots. God’s gift was to create the world with its own laws, and human beings with freedom and the ability to make choices.
However, no rational attempt to explain God’s mode of acting is sufficient. All fall short because the miracle of nature is greater than the human mind can grasp. But that does not mean that we flounder in a sea of meaninglessness and despair. Far from it, in fact. Because Christian faith asserts that God did make a decisive intervention in human history by coming among us as a man, a full and complete human person, and took on himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, the suffering of all humanity. For those of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord, we do not recognise a God who stands aloof and witnesses disinterestedly a human tragedy but rather we recognise a God who suffers along with us in our suffering. But not only is he a God who co-suffers with us: he is also the God who, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his victory over suffering and death, holds out to us the promise and hope that in him we too pass through death into new and everlasting life. This is the hope of the Christian, this gives a meaning and fuller context to human death. At death life is changed, not ended.
Even in the centuries before the birth of Jesus, as is testified for us today in our opening reading from the Book of Maccabees, it was recognised that it was a sensible thing to pray for the dead. It says, “For if he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.”
That introductory reflection on the Tsunami disaster is prompted by another reflection. Why are some people taken suddenly in the full blossom of youth, however the circumstances of their death, while others, like Larry, seem to linger on and cling to life when human wisdom would seem to dictate that life has no more to offer them? This too is mystery. Mystery that is intolerant of rational explanation. But mystery that opens us to wonder and praise when better regarded through the prism of Christian revelation. This point is brought out very cogently in our Gospel passage. Jesus says, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.”
Larry Skelly died last Thursday morning, just eight days short of his 79th birthday, in the loving care of the nursing staff of St Theresa’s and his confreres in the SMA. His last days were, thank God, devoid of pain due to the care and affection in which he was held.
Larry had a rich and varied career in the SMA. He was a true Dub, doing his early schooling in the O’Connell School of the Christian Brothers, where he had a brilliant academic record. In fact, I was told some years ago by the late Fr Gerry Crowe SMA, a classmate of Larry’s both in secondary school and the SMA, that Larry gained first place in Ireland in the Leaving Cert examination in the subject of history. [Although I have not been able to have this independently verified. Gerry remembered this because he himself got third place!] Larry continued all his life to read widely in history. His library is a veritable treasure-throve of history books of the highest quality.
It seemed fitting, then, that Larry was assigned to take history for his degree subject at Cambridge University, after ordination in 1950. Larry was to give the next 54 years of his life sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ through the Society of African Missions. It is fitting that our second reading today, taken from the Mass of the morning on which Larry died, from the letter to the Hebrews, presents a fine theological reflection on the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Jesusâ priesthood is contrasted with that of the cultic priesthood, which needed to present a new sacrifice day after day. Christ’s sacrifice of himself was made only once, is redemptive for all time and is not a new sacrifice presented afresh day after day. However, it is renewed every time we celebrate Mass. It is the privilege of the priest to stand in persona christi and day after day offer again to the Father this one saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It was Larry’s privilege to do this thousands of times in the course of his 54+ years of priesthood.
Larry’s first African appointment was to Cape Coast in Ghana where he was to spend the next eleven years as a teacher in St Augustine’s College. From there, in 1965, he transferred to Nigeria, where he spent the following eight years teaching in St Gregory’s College, Lagos. His African career, then, was given over entirely to the educational apostolate. As well as basic teaching, he was a Housemaster, and produced some plays such as Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of being Earnest. Ill health took its toll in the early 70s, particularly a liver problem, that necessitated his staying out of the tropics for the remainder of his career. This ill health was to remain with him until the end but it did not prevent him from a productive career outside of Africa. He spent one year in Rome as anglophone secretary to SEDOS. A combination of factors intervened to cut his stay there rather short. He was then to spend twelve years in parochial ministry in the Archdiocese of Dublin, in the parish of Rathmines. This was followed up by a year’s sabbatical in our Maynooth house and another year as assistant in this very parish of St Joseph’s here in Wilton, from 1991-92. In these years of ministry he is particularly remembered for the high quality of his preaching. I can testify to that myself because I was a colleague of his during his year in Maynooth. His sermons were short, sharp and always to the point. Even the students rated his homilies very highly! During this period he had to undergo very major surgery. But, thank God, he recovered well and went on to enjoy a further fourteen fulfilling years of life.
His interest in reading was to stand him in good stead in his next appointment as editor of the SMA Bulletin, a task he performed efficiently and effectively. But, once again, progressive ill health forced him to move into retirement here in Wilton in 1998, until finally moving over to Blackrock Road in the middle of 2003.
That outline of his career presents a man who was obviously gifted with a very keen intellect. As with every gift, it did have its shadow side. He was a keen debater and he liked being correct. At times he presented as irascible and, indeed, grumpy. No doubt ill health contributed significantly to this aspect of his character. And it was redeemed by a beautiful smile that was generally ready to surface behind the sometimes rather forbidding exterior countenance. Larry was a man who maintained long and faithful friendships through his life. Many of his friendships were formed in his early school years and survived right to the end. I suspect that he did not have a plethora of friends; he was careful in his choice, but those who befriended him were loyal and true.
Larry has now gone home to the God he tried to serve faithfully and well throughout life. He had, and we have, much to be grateful for.
Ar dheis lamh De go raibh a anam dilis.