Encountering Love through death
On Sunday, 13 November 2016, Fr Freddie Warner was the Principal Celebrant at the annual Remembrance Mass for our deceased SMA members, their families and our supporters in the SMA House, Claregalway. Fr Freddie was assisted by several other SMA priests, including Fathers Seamus Nohilly and John McCormack, both ministering in parishes in Galway and Mayo respectively. The Mass was introduced by the SMA Community Leader in Claregalway, Fr Eamonn Finnegan, who welcomed all the relatives and friends of some of the 121 SMAs who came from the west of Ireland and who have now gone to their eternal reward.
Drawing on the normal readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year C], Fr Freddie preached and we present an edited version of that homily here.
Malachi 4.1-2 2 Thessalonians 3.7-12 Luke 21.5-19
Good afternoon and welcome. We thank God for this opportunity to offer this Mass for all our deceased SMA confreres, particularly those who were from the west of Ireland. I would like to say a special welcome to all family members, relatives and friends of our deceased SMA brothers, not forgetting either, our OLA Sisters, the SMA community of Claregalway and all who concelebrate this Mass today.
The slow Autumn decay of nature fits in nicely with today’s liturgy and the month of November, a reminder from Jesus that all earthly things are passing away.
So we gather to touch what is eternal: “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away,” Jesus says, and we ask God for the gift of eternal life for those who have already died – in particular our deceased SMA confreres from the West of Ireland, all 121 of them! Among whom are 6 bishops and 3 Provincial Superiors.
Amongst Africans, especially the old people, I often saw death being faced without fear – being welcomed even! On one occasion in Ekiti, Nigeria, I was brought by the Catechist to an old man who requested the “Last Rites”. I administered the full ritual at the end of which the old man burst into tears!
Thinking perhaps he was moved by the grace of the sacrament the Catechist explained that the old man was upset to find he was still alive. His understanding was that the sacrament would complete the business of dying quickly and send him on his way!
All the same, we cannot deny the pain of separation that death brings to those of us who remain, and with
it often comes the question, why? The Church’s answer to this question is really her mission – and indeed the mission of the Society of African Missions also. Both the answer and the mission is to bring us into contact with a Love that is stronger than death. It is to encounter (as Pope Francis regularly mentions) that Love which is strong enough to reach across the grave and unite the living and dead.
“For I am certain of this,” writes St. Paul, the Prince of Missionaries, “neither death nor life, nothing that exists, nothing still to come – can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Encountering that love, made visible in Christ Jesus, is the mission of the SMA and the Church. Even one missionary, compelled by the love of Christ, can make all the difference to people who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.
I am reminded of a taxi driver in Ado Ekiti, Nigeria, whose motto written on the front of his taxi was – “One plus God is a majority!”
For us in Ireland that “one plus God” missionary who made a difference was a young man who had escaped from slavery and later received a visionary call. This is what he wrote: “I saw a man coming from Ireland. He carried many letters and he gave one to me. I read the heading, ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ I heard the voice of the people who cried out: “We appeal to you holy servant boy to come and walk among us.’
That holy boy was St. Patrick. What was it that persuaded him, now freed from slavery, to return alone to the land of his captivity, to his slave masters, to suffering and exile?
“The love of Christ,” St. Paul says, “compels us.” That very same love of Christ would later compel many young Irish men and women, SMA’s and OLA Sisters, to head for the continent of “darkest Africa” where they knew – at least in the beginning – that they faced certain death – as all the rows of white crosses in Ivory Coast, Benin and Nigeria testify –“the love of Christ compels us.”
Our encounter with the love of Christ, that love that is stronger than death has been sustained by two great spiritual resources, both situated in the West of Ireland – Croagh Patrick and Knock Shrine. They have provided a fertile soil for our encounter with Christ’s love and influenced many missionary vocations.
Up until recently we used to climb the holy mountain at night and then queue for hours at the top, for confession and Mass, often in the bitter wind and rain. Yet we thought nothing of it! The Gospel imperative to “enter by the narrow gate” was something we understood.
The great faithfulness of the Irish people to Jesus in the Mass and the importance of remembering our dead, despite a history of oppression, were rewarded by God with a beautiful Apparition at Knock in 1879 that confirmed our trust in Christ’s love for us. It coincided with the completion of 100 masses by the parish priest of Knock, Archdeacon Cavanagh, offered for the souls in purgatory.
In the gentle and vulnerable lamb standing on an altar beneath a cross, the apparition unveils the heart of the mass and the heart of mission as an encounter with the living Christ. Not as a memory from 2,000 years ago, but alive and present now – CHRIST WITH US – bridging the gap that separates life from death and drawing us to encounter God and each other; living and dead, in a new Holy Communion of love.
Knock shows us that Joseph, Mary and John, like Jesus, even after 2,000 years, are alive and continue to share the bonds of affection and love with each other and with us, especially in the Mass. And generations of Irish people and increasingly pilgrims from abroad, have continued to be nourished by these bonds at Knock, most especially in the Mass.
Climbing Croagh Patrick each year in the month of July and walking to Knock on 14th August while fasting,
to participate in an all-night vigil, helped to nurture – especially in the people of the West – a robust faith not easily daunted by the fear of death, and a missionary faith, strong enough to go to Africa and the whole world, yielding harvests of thirty, sixty, and sometimes a hundredfold.
It seems now though the ties of affection and love that knit us together are beginning to unravel; not only between ourselves, but also with God, Mary, our dead, and the saints.
We offer today the sacrifice of the Mass for our dead confreres and ask them for their intercession. We ask Mary the Mother of God, Joseph, John, Patrick and all the Saints, to intercede that we too may be comforted from the persecution and famine of the spirit that has come upon us in Ireland just as our forebears were comforted in their time.
And for those who may not yet have reached Heaven we pray: “Remember those, O Lord, who in your peace have died. With you they faced death’s night, sealed with Your Victory Sign; soon may the splendour of Your Light on them forever shine.”
May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in Peace. Amen.