Fr Jim Kirstein SMA – funeral homily

Fr Jim Kirstein SMA

Fr Jim Kirstein SMA

Fr James [Jim] Kirstein died in the Cork University Hospital on Monday, 23 January 2017.

Fr Michael McCabe, SMA Provincial Leader, was the Principal celebrant at Fr Jim’s Funeral Mass on Thursday, 26 January 2017. He was assisted by Fathers Ben O’Brien OSA, Des Corrigan SMA and Ignatius Malwa SMA. Fifty other priests concelebrated the Mass at St Jospeh’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork. After the Mass, Fr Jim was laid to rest in the adjacent SMA community cemetery.

After the Gospel, from Luke 24:13 – 16, 28 – 35, Fr McCabe preached the following [edited] homily.

They who trust in him will understand the truth, those who are faithful will live with him in love; For grace and mercy await those he has chosen.

I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.

With a knowledge, born of love and seasoned by a life of prayer and faithful service, Fr Jim knew that nothing could ever separate him from the love of God made visible in Christ. Like Mary, he responded to the Lord’s call with a wholehearted “Yes” and lived that “Yes” to the very last moment of his life. We can rest assured that, going to meet his Lord and Master, he will be welcomed with grace and mercy. Throughout his almost fifty years as an SMA missionary priest, Fr Jim broke the bread of God’s Word for all those to whom he ministered, helping them to recognise the One who could offer them that “living bread” which alone satisfies the human heart. His ardent desire was to be one with Christ and to lead others to Christ. His choice of Scripture text for his Ordination card reflects this desire perfectly: It is now no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Fr Jim has now reached his final destiny and is fully united, face to face, with the Lord whom he sought with all his heart and served with the last ounce of his strength. We who are still on our pilgrim journey and hope to meet Fr Jim again when Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like his own in glory, can find inspiration and encouragement from the example of his exemplary life.

Jim was born in Ardfallen Estate, Douglas, Cork, the eldest of a family of three – two boys and one girl – of Francis H Kirstein and Margaret (Foley). Following his early education at Sullivan’s Quay in Cork, Jim worked for 7 years as a Secretary to the Manager of Irish Steel in Haulbowline, Cork. In 1961, at the age of 26, he discerned that the Lord was calling him to become a missionary priest and entered the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore, Co Galway. After “Clough” – as we called it – he moved on to the SMA House of Studies in Wilton, Cork, where he combined the required course of Philosophical Studies with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in history and Spanish (1962-’65). Having obtained a BA degree with honours, Jim embarked on his study of theology at the Major Seminary of the Province, in Dromantine, Newry (1965 – ’68). He became a permanent member of the SMA on 11 June 1968 and, along with 8 other classmates, was ordained a priest by Bishop Eugene O’Doherty in Newry Cathedral on 18 December 1968. He is survived by three of his classmates who unfortunately cannot be here today: Fr Jackie Brennan (now a member of the American Province); Fr Tom Fenlon, who is engaged in active ministry in the west of Ireland; and Fr Cathal McKenna, currently on mission in Zambia.  

Following his ordination, Fr Jim was appointed to the diocese of Jos, Northern Nigeria, where he ministered for the next 17 years, first as member of the teaching Staff of St Murumba’s College (1969-’77) and then as Spiritual Director in St Augustine’s Major Seminary (1877-’83). During summer holidays from the Seminary – when most Staff members would have been relaxing with their families – Jim undertook an intensive programme of Spirituality studies at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, leading to a Master’s degree in Spirituality. This was a Course to equip him for the ministry dearest to his heart – spiritual accompaniment. Jim enjoyed his work in St Augustine’s, though the task of being Spiritual Director to over 200 seminarians must have been quite onerous. In 1982 Jim was also was appointed to an SMA Commission to prepare for the 1983 SMA Assemblies, for which a new (Berger) methodology was employed [dreaming of a desired future and planning how to realise it].

In 1983, Jim was appointed to the post of Director of Students in the SMA Formation House in Maynooth, and he was to serve there the next 8 years (1983-1991). While this particular role may not have been his personal preference, he accepted it in obedience to his Superiors and because it was the role he was needed for at the time. During his summer holidays he travelled to Jerusalem to teach a course on St John’s Gospel at the Ecce Homo Centre run by the Sisters of Sion. During these years he was also vice-Rector of the Formation House, and a member of various commissions – recruitment, formation, and retirement. Despite his heavy workload, Jim had time for a regular game of golf (and I remember having had a few games of golf with him in which he beat me easily). From an early age he was a keen sportsman, proficient in many sports, including hockey. He ate frugally, and kept himself fit.

Following a sabbatical in 1991 (brushing up his knowledge of French in Paris), Jim received a new assignment as a member of Staff of the deBrésillac Centre in Calavi (Benin Republic) – an international centre devoted to the spiritual formation of SMA students joining the ranks of the SMA, especially from the recently established branches of the Society (1992-’98). For Jim this assignment represented an exciting new challenge. In 1983 a new phase in SMA mission had been launched by the then SMA Superior General, Fr Patrick J Harrington. This was a time when the axis of missionary outreach in the Church was shifting from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. While the numbers entering the Society in the Europe were in steep decline, the numbers entering the Society from Asia and especially Africa were on the rise.

In Calavi, Jim worked in close collaboration with our French and Italian confreres, helping to form students of nine different nationalities, and covering three continents, to become SMA missionaries. Writing in the Provincial Newsletter, Link, he described his time in Calavi as “an enriching experience of internationality”, and he viewed his ministry there as “a sign of God’s Kingdom calling us into one family”. He was held in high esteem by his French and Italian colleagues who appreciated his wisdom, generosity, openness, and ability to speak better than tolerable French. Following his death I have received a number of tributes to him from them.

In 1998, Fr Jim’s contribution to the international development of the Society was to take a new turn, when he was asked to be Superior of the House of Studies in New Manila, Philippines. Once again, at the age of 63, he readily agreed to embrace this new challenge and adapted himself to the climate and culture of the Philippines. He served in this role for the next 7 years, while also engaging in pastoral ministry at weekends in the SMA Good Shepherd Parish, and continuing to give retreats and offer spiritual direction when an opportunity arose.

All in all, Jim spent 27 years of his life in the field of formation. I remember a priest friend of mine (who was also involved in the ministry of formation) telling me that anyone who spent more than 15 years in formation was either crazy or a saint. Well Jim was certainly not crazy, though he was totally committed to becoming a saint and helping others on the same journey that he himself pursued. From my own conversations with him, I know he had very definite opinions on what were the important ingredients of a formation programme; and spiritual accompaniment held pride of place in his list of priorities. However, there was nothing ‘airy fairy’ or ‘up in the clouds’ about Jim’s spirituality; it was eminently practical and down to earth. God was to be found in the ordinary experiences of everyday life (à la Karl Rahner), or as an Irish poet puts it even more memorably: ‘God in the bits and pieces of every day / A kiss here and a laugh again, and sometimes tears / A pearl necklace round the neck of poverty’ (Patrick Kavanagh).

In 2005, returning to Ireland in poor health, Jim took over the management and supervision of our principal Promotion’s Office in Blackrock Road and continued in that role until a further deterioration in his health forced his retirement in 2010. Despite his precarious health situation, Jim continued to serve the Blackrock Road community – being ever available to help out wherever and whenever he could.

Familiar himself with infirmity, he was a constant companion to the sick and retired confreres in St Theresa’s, and offering spiritual and material help, untrumpeted, to many people. He kept in close contact with his sister, Elizabeth and the members of his family and will be sorely missed by them. The last months of his life in St Theresa’s and in Cork University hospital were painful, but he bore his suffering with admirable fortitude until three days ago the Lord decided to call him home. As he is now united with the One he loved and served so well, may we, who are the poorer for his passing, draw strength and inspiration from the example of his life.

Ar dheis de go raibh a anam dilis.

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