Fr Daniel O’Neill – Funeral homily

The concelebrated Funeral Mass for the late Fr Dan O’Neill took place in St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork on Monday, 29 August at 12 noon. Fr Malachy Flanagan, SMA Vice Provincial Leader, was Principal celebrant assisted by Fr John O’Brien [PP of Fr Dan’s home parish of Oristown, Co Meath], Fr Bernard Cotter [who worked with Fr Dan in Jos, Nigeria], Fr Maurice Kelleher [a classmate in the 1963 Ordination class] and Fr Eamonn Finnegan [Leader of the SMA community in Claregalway where Fr Dan spent 15 years after his return from Nigeria]. Two bishops and 44 priests also concelebrated the funeral Mass. Fr Dan’s only surviving sibling, Hugh, led the large group of mourners from Co Meath. Relatives and friends also came from Claregalway and other parts of the country. OLA and St Louis Sisters were also in the congregation.

Obituary of Fr Dan O’Neill SMA

Fr Flangan delivered the homily, an edited version of which is presented here.

Fr Dan O’Neill died last Saturday which was the feast of St Monica and this is a fitting link with Fr Dan’s great devotion to Our Lady. St Monica was unceasing in her prayers for the conversion of her son Augustine and likewise Mary our mother longs for her children to imitate the example of Jesus and come close to him. All his life Fr Dan was really a man of prayer and he would have prayed in union with Our Lady for all God’s children and I am sure Our Lady and St Monica were there to welcome him home. Today we remember Fr Dan and we give thanks to God for his life as we celebrate his life as a great missionary priest and friend.

The second reading today tells us that:

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus: God will bring them with him”.

Procession of clergy to the cemetery

Procession of clergy to the SMA community cemetery

These words offer us great support and consolation when we are faced with the death of a loved one. Their going seems to be a terrible loss for us and yet our faith assures us that they have gone home to God. They have gone to meet the Lord and will stay with the Lord forever. Fr Dan, by his life lived in faithful service of the Lord and now having died in the Lord – we believe trusting in Jesus’ words that he is now with the Lord and we pray he will be at peace.

Fr Dan O’Neill was born on the 9th December 1937 in Oristown parish, Donaghmore, Navan, Co. Meath. He was the youngest born in a family of 11 children to John and Johanna (née O’Sullivan). From his primary schooling at Gibstown and Oristown national school he proceeded to the CBS Kells for his secondary education

At this time as he pondered his future – he showed interest in becoming a missionary priest and so after his Leaving Certificate he decided to go to the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore in Galway in 1956. The following year he moved to the SMA college at Wilton, Cork to continue his studies for another three years which involved a BA Degree at UCC. In 1960 he moved to Dromantine, Newry for his studies in Theology for another four years. He was ordained a priest on the 18th December 1963 at Newry Cathedral – being one of ten ordained that year.

The following year in 1964 Fr Dan’s first appointment in Africa was to the Diocese of Jos in Northern Nigeria. After his initial few months of Tryocinium at Kagoro where he learnt the Hausa language and about the culture, customs and traditions of the local people – he was then posted to the teaching ministry at Kafanchan Teacher Training College. He continued in the teaching ministry for his first tour till he went home on leave in 1967. On returning in 1968, he requested to change into full time parish ministry which was accepted by the local diocesan authorities. For the next 27 years, Fr Dan served in Jos Diocese mostly in the low lands in the parishes of Shendam, Kwa and Kwande and also some time in Pankshin and Agwanga. All of these parishes had numerous outstations and Fr Dan was totally committed to visiting these young Christian communities – encouraging them and building them up in the faith through the celebration of the sacraments and by his witness.

As a priest, Fr Dan would have assisted at many a funeral of family, friends, relatives and parishioners and he would have reflected upon and shared the message from today’s gospel where Jesus states:

“I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”.

Fr Dan's relatives carry him to his place of rest

Fr Dan’s relatives carry him to his place of rest

Today we speak these words for Fr Dan because with his whole heart he believed in these words. He believed that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. He has passed through death’s door and into eternal life with the Lord. As Fr Dan passed through the door of death last Saturday there was a big Céad Míle Fáilte Romhait from God – a welcome home to a good and faithful servant. Yes, reunited now with his parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends who have gone before him. His life is changed but not ended.

It’s interesting that in one of the villages in Kwande parish in Nigeria, a young man called Jonathan Mallong was very impressed with Fr Dan – because of his regular visits to the village to celebrate Mass and the sacraments and also the interaction between Fr Dan and his catechist as he interpreted Fr Dan’s sermon into the local language. So much so, that when the celebrations were over and in the moonlight, the little boys and girls in the village would dramatize the celebration of the Mass or the wedding or the baptism as the case may be. This young boy Jonathan was often asked to play the part of Fr Dan and he did it with great joy and enthusiasm, while his cousin played the role of the catechist. Jonathan claims that this is how he first encountered Christ and wanted to follow him. This boy Jonathan is now Fr Jonathan having been ordained an SMA priest in 2012. To this day, Fr Jonathan attributes his vocation to be a missionary priest to Fr Dan – such was his influence and the example he left on him.

In 1996, with the creation of the new jurisdiction of Bauchi Vicariate in Northern Nigeria, Fr Dan decided the leave Jos Diocese and go to assist his brother SMA’s in this area especially the late Bishop John Moore SMA whom he knew so well from Jos Diocese. Fr Dan was appointed to the parish of Biliri and set about with great enthusiasm in getting to know the many outstations attached to it. But by mid 1997 sickness had visited Fr Dan again and it resulted in him returning to Ireland for medical treatment. While at home it became evident that his illness was more serious than first expected and by 1998 it was decided that he could no longer return to Nigeria.

In fact, ill health played a big part in Fr Dan’s life – even throughout his 30 years in Jos Diocese he was hospitalised on a number of occasions. He had his own share of pain and suffering. But Fr Dan was a fighter and kept bouncing back and he was undoubtedly disappointed when he could no longer go back to Nigeria.

Fr Bernard Cotter recited a decade of the Rosary as Gaeilge for the repose of Fr Dan's soul

Fr Bernard Cotter recited a decade of the Rosary as Gaeilge for the repose of Fr Dan’s soul

Fr Dan had a great love of the Irish language (the cupla focal) having grown up in that Gaeltacht area of Baile Ghib outside Navan. He was a keen photographer and he was a no mean player on the football pitch either. He played minor football for his native Meath and won an all-Ireland minor medal in the mid 1950’s. He was a keen GAA supporter all his life and I can remember a few years ago when he got a new laptop and he told me how delighted he was that now he could listen to the local radio station LMFM on the internet and catch up on the local GAA news from Meath.

In 2001, Fr Dan accepted an appointment as FVC (Family Vocations Crusade) Director for the West of Ireland. He travelled all over Connaught encouraging and supporting vocations to the SMA missionary priesthood. Again, there were no half measures – he was totally committed. But by 2005, ill health came to visit him again and he decided to step down from this work. But as one door closes another one opens and Fr Dan set about on a prayer ministry from his base at the SMA House, Claregalway. Every week he travelled to Knock to assist at Our Lady’s Shrine and sometimes he travelled a few times a week. The late Msgr Joseph Quinn of Knock wrote a letter to the SMA saying that Fr Dan O’Neill is “most dedicated and does great work in the Faith Ministry Department at Knock, in particular he commutes from Claregalway and quietly performs his ministry”. For the next ten years Fr Dan continued in this role and was available for prayer groups and prayer counselling to those who visited him regularly at Claregalway.

But within the last year, his health problems became more serious and it was evident that he could no longer manage on his own but needed nursing care and so he was transferred to St Theresa’s SMA Nursing Unit in Blackrock Road, Cork.

The last few months for Fr Dan were not easy as his condition deteriorated. During this time I often visited and seen Fr Dan sitting quietly in his room – in a sense he was as if quietly waiting for the Lord. Just as we heard in the First Reading today – “in the prayerful silent waiting” – I do believe that Fr Dan received the grace to prepare to meet his Maker – to meet his God whom he served faithfully all his life.

Fr Dan received the call home last Saturday and he accepted that invitation. He has given almost 53 years of service as a priest – loyal and generous service to the SMA both in Africa and in Ireland. Service given at times in difficult situations and when one’s health was not so great.

I am confident that Fr Dan has heard those words on Saturday morning: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome home. Enjoy the place prepared for you since the foundation of the world”.

Fr Dan may you rest in peace.      Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

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