Fr Vincent Lawless – Funeral homily

Fr Vincent Lawless SMA was laid to rest in the cemetery attached to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Kilconieron, Co Galway after a funeral Mass, concelebrated by more than 40 priests, on Thursday, 8 September 2016.

His brother, Fr Brendan [PP of Portumna] was the Principal Celebrant. Among the assisting clergy were Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert, Fr Benny Flanagan PP, Fr Michael McCabe [SMA Provincial Leader] and Fr Eddie O’Connor [Community Leader, SMA Blackrock Road, Cork].

After the Gospel, Fr McCabe preached the homily, an edited version of which is presented here.

“For your faithful people, Lord, life is changed not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”

These words, from the first Preface of the Mass for the Dead, express our firm belief in our Risen Lord and our expectation that his promises will be realised for Vincent, and eventually also for us who remain. While we mourn the passing of a great missionary priest: brother, uncle, SMA confrere, friend, we are comforted by the promise of Christ in today’s Gospel:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me, I shall not turn him away: because I have come from heaven not to do my own will, but to do the will of the one who sent me. Now the will of him who sent me is that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, and that I should raise it up on the last day.”

We can rest assured that the Lord of mercy and compassion will welcome Vincent into the blessed company of Mary and the saints in heaven and comfort the bereaved members of his family, relatives, friends, classmates and SMA confreres.

Vincent Thomas Lawless was born in Lishnadrishna, Kiltulla, Athenry, Co Galway on 15 April 1931. He was the second son of Stephen Lawless and Mary Walsh. There were two priests and one religious sister in that family on Vincent’s mother’s side: Fr Willie Cummins [one time PP of Kilconieron], Fr Michael Cummins SMA and Sr Gervasi who worked as a missionary in Western Australia. So it was not surprising that, following his early primary and secondary education, Vincent decided to become a missionary priest with the SMA. He entered the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore, Kilcolgan, Co Galway, in September 1951, and, while there, also completed his Philosophical studies. In 1953 he continued his formation – including the study of theology – at the African Missions Major Seminary, Dromantine, Newry, Co Down and became a permanent member of the Society on 11 June 1956.

Vincent was ordained priest by Bishop Eugene O’Doherty in Newry Cathedral on 18 December 1956 along with 10 classmates. This was the second group of SMA ordinations that year: the centenary of the foundation of the SMA by Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac in 1856. Two of his classmates are still with us: Fathers John Flynn and Con O’Leary. He was the first priest from his home parish of Kilconieron to be ordained in 100 years, so his homecoming for his first Mass was accompanied by great fanfare and celebration.

Following his ordination, Fr Vincent was appointed to the diocese of Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, where, apart from a few periods, mostly for health reasons, he was to minister until 1990. Among the many parishes and mission stations in which he served over that time were Gawu, FadanKono, Kaduna City, Mabushi, Minna and Zuru. Vincent was a courageous and pioneering missionary who devoted himself, heart and soul, to building up the Church in the remotest parts of that vast diocese (later an Archdiocese). Most of Fr Vincent’s ministry coincided with the post-Vatican II years. This was a time of extraordinary and rapid growth of the Church in Nigeria, and in Northern Nigeria in particular – a flourishing made possible by the commitment, energy and initiatives of missionaries like Fr Vincent Lawless.

The idea of empowering the laity to exercise their rightful role in the mission of the Church, which emerged from the Second Vatican Council, was given practical application through the work of men like Fr Vincent. In the late 60s and early 70s, in the distant and remote parish of FadanKono, Vincent pioneered a training programme for village leaders, enabling them to take leadership roles in their local communities for many of the religious and liturgical functions which the community required: Sunday services, burials and prayer life. He initiated what became known as the ‘Dry Season Programme’, when he gathered together nominated voluntary Church leaders in the Parish Centre and gave them training for 3 months every year. These lay leaders returned then to their own villages to minister to their people. With their training as heralds of the Gospel, these women and men were also taught basic functional literacy and provided with a handbook and prayer books which Vincent translated into the Hausa language. His most famous handbook was Sunday Service without the Priest. This excellent vade mecum became part of every Catechist’s kit-bag in Northern Nigeria and was used regularly by catechists and Church Prayer leaders throughout many dioceses of the North with Vincent’s name and imprimatur carried far and wide.

While this training programme had humble beginnings in his own parish of FadanKono, word of the voluntary commitment of Apostolic workers grew wings and became widely recognised throughout the Archdiocese of Kaduna. The Archbishop of Kaduna, Peter Jatau, a good friend and confident of Fr Vincent, appointed him as Co-ordinator of the Dry Season Programmes through the Archdiocese, and, up to the present day, these programmes are now established in almost all the dioceses of Northern Nigeria and are part of the religious and literacy landscape of that region. Thus, Fr Vincent played a vital and indispensable part in what Pope John Paul II has termed ‘the historical drama of charity, heroism and sacrifice’ which has made the African Church the vibrant, fast growing plant it is today – a Church that has itself become missionary and which provides the SMA with a substantial amount of priestly vocations today.

While Fr Vincent’s outstanding contribution was in the area of what we call ‘Primary Evangelisation’, he was also called upon to exercise important leadership roles in the Society of African Missions. He was elected Deputy Regional Superior in Northern Nigeria from 1979 – 83, and served with Fr Joe Maguire, the Regional Superior.  After that period of service he was then elected SMA Society Superior in Kaduna and served in that role until 1987.

Though generally a strong and fit man, with a passion for sport, Fr Vincent experienced several bouts of ill health during this 33 years in Nigeria – including a heart bypass operation and severe injuries resulting from a car accident in April 1982. Followinga lengthy period of convalescence at SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork, Fr Vincent returned to Nigeria in 1984 and continued his valuable ministry.

Eventually, physical, mental, and pyschological exhaustion, compounded by the lingering effects of that terrible car accident, forced Vincent’s return to Ireland in 1991. For the next ten years, he continued his priestly ministry in his home diocese of Clonfert, serving in the parishes of Killoran and Gurteen. During this time, Fr Vincent became actively involved in the GAA. This included being Chaplain and President of the Galway Camogie Board – during which period Galway won an All-Ireland Senior championship. He also took up golf again and enjoyed regular golfing outings with family and friends. In 2001, Fr Vincent retired formally from fulltime parish ministry though he continued to help out in neighbouring parishes when his help was requested by the local clergy.

In February last year, with further deterioration in his health, Vincent came to St Theresa’s Nursing Unit at SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork where he received excellent care from the specialised staff there. Several visits to hospital followed as his condition became more serious. During this time he was sustained by frequent visits from relatives, friends and fellow SMAs with whom he had worked in Kaduna. He attended the regular community exercises each day, including daily Mass and meals.

Fr Vincent’s life of committed priestly and missionary service, was inspired and nurtured by his family, his parents, brothers, sister, relations and friends, and the local Catholic community into which he was born. Undoubtedly, it was the example of their faith and spirit of service, of love and devotion to Christ and his Church that inflamed in Vincent a desire to cross geographical and cultural borders to share that faith with the people of Nigeria. Many members of his family and parish community are here today and I wish to acknowledge their presence and thank them for the support they gave him all through his life, right up to the end.

Fr Vincent lived a full and fruitful life in the Lord’s service. He brought the light of God’s grace and the nourishment of God’s presence into the lives of many people, both in Nigeria and Ireland. He endured his share of suffering – not always with patience – but with admirable courage and the determination to make the best of his situation. He now ascends to the mountain of the Lord, to partake of that great heavenly banquet where “every tear will be wiped away”, where all the mysteries of life will be illuminated and where he will be united with his parents, family members, relations and friends, to contemplate the face of God for eternity. May his great heart rest in everlasting peace!

Fr Michael McCabe, SMA Provincial Leader

Obituary of Fr Vincent Lawless SMA

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