Fr Jeremiah O’Connell – homily
The SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Michael McCabe, was the Principal celebrant at the funeral Mass for the late Fr Jeremiah O’Connell at 12 noon on Saturday, 20 August 2016, in St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork. Fr McCabe welcomed all who had gathered from all parts of Ireland, from England, the USA and Nigeria.
We gather today to bid farewell to our brother, Fr Jeremiah Paul O’Connell, known affectionately as Fr Derry – priest and missionary – and assist him with our prayers as he makes his final journey to our true homeland in heaven
Welcome to all who have come here today to take part in this funeral Mass, members of his family, friends and neighbours, SMA confreres, visiting priests (diocesan priests from Jalingo and Minna dioceses, Augustinian, Kiltegan and Claretian priests, and Religious from the OLA, St Louis, Our Lady of Fatima and Infant Jesus Sisters working in Jos.
I wish to convey my condolences to his sister, Mrs Breda Keyes, present here with us for this Mass; his nieces, Regina, Mary and Claire and their husbands; his nephews, Paul, John and Kieran and their wives; his grandnieces, grandnephews, SMA confreres, the Archbishop, priests, religious and the of Jos Archdiocese, relatives and friends.
We remember in this Eucharist the deceased members of Fr Derry’s family, his parents, John and Margaret, his brother, Fr Sean SMA, deceased relatives and friends as well as deceased members of the SMA family.
Joining me in the sanctuary are Bishop Matthew Kukah (Bishop of Sokoto), representing the Archbishop and people of Jos Archdiocese; Fr Bernie Cotter, who worked with Fr Derry in Jos and was a good friend; Fr Brendan McDonnell, OSA, a close friend, and Fr Peter McCawille, Councillor on the Nigerian District-in-formation.
As we prepare to celebrate this Mass we acknowledge our need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
After the readings from the Book of Wisdom, 2 Timothy and the Gospel of St John, Fr Michael delivered the following homily:
“As for me my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to depart. I have fought the good fight to the end. I have run the race to the finish. I have kept the faith”. As Derry goes to meet his Maker, he may well echo these words of St Paul. His life was indeed poured out in the service of God and humanity. He fought the good fight to the end, ran the race to the finish and kept the faith. We can rest assured that he will receive ‘the crown of uprightness’ which the Lord has promised his faithful servants. For, as Christ reminded us in the Gospel we heard a few moments ago: “It is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day”.
The God we worship – the God of Jesus Christ – is not just the God of Love. He is the God whose love is manifested in a total, constant and irrevocable commitment to his people. For the prophets the outstanding characteristic of God is ‘faithful love’ (hesed) – a God who always keeps his promises: “I have loved you with an everlasting love and therefore I am constant in my affection for you” (Jeremiah 31:3)
The constancy of God’s affection for his children is shown supremely in Jesus, the human face of God: “To see me is to see the Father” (Jn. 14:10). Jesus is sent by the Father so that we might experience the faithful love of the Father and have life to the full. It is in Jesus that we see what loving fidelity and what life in its fullness means. It means total and enduring commitment in love. When we, too, are faithful in our commitments, when we make promises and keep them, we manifest the ‘faithful love’ of God in whose image we are made and who sustains our commitment.
Some years ago, the former Master General of the Dominicans, Timothy Radcliff, gave a homily entitled “Making Promises till Death” in which he affirmed the importance of making promises and keeping them, especially at a time when such enduring commitment is seen as outmoded and old fashioned. “The main reason why we should have the confidence to dare to make such promises, Fr Radcliffe stated, is because we are God’s children… We show God to the world by daring to follow our Father’s example” (I Call you Friends, p. 90). Our identity and our dignity as God’s children is manifested above all in our “making promises till death” – promises we make because we know that the God of faithful love will enable us to keep them.
Fr Derry’s life of selfless missionary service manifested this profound truth in a very striking way and to a remarkable degree. As the Archbishop of Jos, Most Rev Dr Ignatius Kaigama, stated at a Thanksgiving Mass on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of Fr Derry’s Ordination, just over 2 months ago: “Fr O’Connell served God and humanity tirelessly and touched the lives of many who today occupy important positions in our country, despite the challenges he has endured for 60 years.”
Derry was born in Hartlands Ave, the Lough parish, Cork on 10 May 1932. He was the youngest of three children of John O’Connell and Margaret O’Donovan, a girl and two boys. He is survived by his sister, Breda. His older brother, Seán, also an SMA priest, passed to his eternal reward thirteen years ago.
After completing his early education in Glasheen Primary School and the Presentation Brothers’ College, Cork, Derry followed his brother, Seán, into the SMA, and, in 1950, entered the SMA Noviciate at Cloughballymore, Co Galway. There he also completed his Philosophy studies. After taking his first oath of membership in the Society he continued his formation at the African Missions’ Seminary in Dromantine, Newry. On 13 June 1955, Derry made his permanent commitment to the SMA and, one year later was ordained a priest in by Bishop Eugene O’Doherty in Newry Cathedral along with 12 classmates.
Following his ordination, Fr Derry was asked to undertake a Bachelor of Science Degree at UCC. In 1960 he was appointed to Jos diocese where, apart from a few short breaks in Ireland – mostly for health reasons – he was to spend the rest of his life, combining the varied ministries of teaching, administration and pastoral care. He was first appointed to the teaching staff of St Joseph’s College, Vom, where he served with Fr Maurice Burke as principal until 1967. He was then appointed to teach science in St Murumba’s College, Jos, where he was Principal for many years. I am told that he is still remembered for his experiments in chemistry and had a beautiful laboratory in St Murumba’s.
During the school holidays, Fr Derry did not rest on his oars but engaged in pastoral work in Kwa, one of the most challenging missions in Jos diocese – an area of primary evangelisation among the poorest and least privileged Nigerians. We heard from Fr Cotter yesterday how significant this direct missionary engagement with the people of Jos was for him. It forged an unbreakable bond between him and the people of Jos.
In 1977, he moved into full-time parish ministry, first as Parish Priest St Theresa’s Cathedral parish and from 1979 up to this year, in the parish of St Louis, both in Jos Town. As well as being in charge of these busy parishes, Fr Derry, a gifted, conscientious, and patient administrator, served as Vicar General of Jos Archdiocese, under the late Archbishop Ganaka, and his successor, Archbishop Kaigama, from 1975 – 2001. He was also responsible for the financial administration in the Archdiocese for many years. Despite his heavy responsibilities, Fr Derry always found time to befriend and counsel the many young Nigerian priests who came to his office: a hidden but invaluable ministry that was deeply appreciated by the local clergy.
In 2007, during the centenary celebrations for the arrival of the first SMA missionaries in Northern Nigeria, Fr Derry was honoured by Archbishop Kaigama for his years of service to the Church in Jos and given the Papal award, “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice”. In June this year, on the Diamond Jubilee of his ordination, Fr Derry was again honoured in the parish that had been his home for the past 37 years in a ceremony attended by many Nigerian dignitaries, including the former Governor of Plateau State. A new Parish Hall was dedicated in his honour and a compilation of his homilies published. In his homily on that occasion, Archbishop Kaigama stated that Fr Derry’ life epitomised the ideal of “true service”. “He (Fr Derry) came without complaint; he came joyfully to serve despite the obstacles, challenges and problems he endured.” Fr Derry’s service to the Church in Jos was, he stated, “an example of accountability and transparency” for all priests to follow. He left an “indelible mark in the hearts of innumerable Nigerians”, many of whom came to celebrate that special day with him.
While Derry was not as outgoing in character as his older brother, Sean, whom I knew personally from my years in Liberia, he was far from being a recluse. He had a great welcome for all who came to visit him and, like his older brother, was a most hospitable host. I was fortunate to be on the receiving end of that hospitality on the occasion of my visit to Nigeria in November last year. I have spoken of Derry unstinting commitment to the service of others. This was, I must add, leavened by a sharp wit and an ability to find humour even in the most trying of circumstances. Speaking of him in a letter of condolence I received two days ago, the Irish Ambassador to Nigeria, Sean Hoy, wrote: “like many of the SMA missionaries in Nigeria, Fr Derry was a man who had a great love for the local people – peppered with an Irish sense of humour that is often necessary to get through the challenges of a normal day”.
In his famous encyclical Letter on Mission, Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II stated that missionaries are the recipients of “a ‘special vocation’, patterned on that of the apostles”; a vocation “manifested in a total commitment to evangelisation, a commitment which involves the missionary’s whole person and life, and demands a self-giving without limits of energy or time.” We can truly say that Fr Derry’s life was the embodiment of that ‘special vocation’. While he was a Cork man who never lost touch with his roots and loved his family dearly, his heart remained with the people and priests of Jos archdiocese. No sooner had he arrived in Cork in late June on his annual vacation than he began speaking of returning to his beloved Jos. Even when he was hospitalised and diagnosed with a terminal illness, he held on to the hope of returning later this year. However, God had other plans for him and three days ago called him to his eternal home.
May his great heart rest in peace and may he receive the reward of a loyal and faithful servant!
Michael McCabe SMA