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Fr Gregory McGovern Funeral homily

Fr Gregory McGovern

Homily preached by Fr Fachtna O'Driscoll, SMA Provincial Leader at the concelebrated Funeral Mass on Friday, 31 December 2010 at 12 noon in St Joseph's SMA Parish Church, Wilton, Cork.

Wisdom 11:  22 – 12.1    -    1 Cor 15:  51 – 57
Luke 23: 44-46, 50, 52-53. 24: 1-6

There is a natural symmetry about burying one confrere in the week leading up to Christmas and burying a second confrere in the week leading on from Christmas. Tony O’Donnell and Greg McGovern dedicated their lives to making the person of Jesus known, the one whose birth as the Son of God on earth we commemorate again each Christmas season. Together they amassed 117 years of missionary priesthood with the SMA. There is some symmetry too in praying our brother Greg home to God on this the very last day of the year. I think Greg waited till this week so that he could be sent off surrounded by this wonderful display of flowers! For the man who spent some of his early years in the undertaker business today marks his final journey. No dray horse on this occasion; rather the procession and accompaniment of family, friends and fellow missionaries to his place of final rest.

Yet, of course, we believe that his mortal remains will not rest in the graveyard indefinitely, as our Christian faith tells us otherwise. We gather here this afternoon to give thanks, to celebrate a life lived well through infirmity, and to renew our faith and our hope. Greg has been released from the prison of body infirmity and will reclaim that body, then a glorious resurrected body, on the last day. Greg’s death, no more than any death, is not the conclusion of a life well lived. Rather it is the beginning of a new state of life. In the gospel passage just proclaimed the terrified women are told “why look among the dead for someone who is alive”. We believe that through the resurrection of Jesus Greg continues to be alive in the presence of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been quoted as saying “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” A full fifty years of Greg’s 89 years of life was lived with the sign of suffering. Now his suffering is finally over. In the early afternoon of last Monday Greg yielded up his spirit and breathed his last.

We Christians have been graced with a priceless gift, the gift of faith. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus passed from death to new life. The resurrection of Jesus means the death of death. As we heard how St Paul put it when writing to the Corinthians, “death is swallowed up in victory” He challenges death “where is your victory? where is your sting?”.  Resurrection means that death is not the end any more. It means that our destiny is life. So when we die we do not pass out of existence. Rather we pass from life to life. Death is that extraordinary moment when the Christ who is life can finally take me to himself for ever, when God and I can never, ever, be separated from one another. That is what it means for a Christian to die. That is what it meant for Greg.

Gregory not only lived that faith but he shared that faith for almost 60 years as a priest in the Society of African Missions. He was born on October 31st, 1921 in Bawnboy, Co Cavan. Some time later the family moved to Swanlinbar. Greg identified with Cavan and his soul was nourished by all things to do with Cavan. His contempories tell me he was a formidable footballer in his youth and indeed many of his quips had to do with football imagery. It was something of a pain for him to acknowledge how his beloved Cavan Gaelic football team had fallen from the heights reached during his own young days.

Greg took his secondary studies – after a short stint in the undertaker business, as mentioned earlier – in St Patrick’s College, Cavan. He then joined the SMA formation system and was ordained, incidentally, in St Catherine’s Dominican Church, Newry in June 1951.  He was assigned to the Prefecture, later diocese and archdiocese, of Kaduna, Nigeria and spent the next 47 years in ministry there. He served in such stations as Minna, Zuru, Kontagora, Kano, Zaria and Kaduna city. A sign of the remarkable growth in the Nigerian church through his years of ministry is that so many of these stations have now been developed into dioceses in their own right. Greg was a fine pastor, compassionate and caring and these gifts came to the fore again in his later years working as a hospital chaplain in St Gerard’s, Kaduna. His love for and expertise in the native Hausa language meant he communicated with his people at the level of the heart as well as the head. I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s saying “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart”.

Our reading from Corinthians today speaks about our perishable nature needing to put on imperishability and our mortal nature putting on immortality. Greg knew better than most of us what a perishable nature really meant. Billy O’Sullivan described for us the other evening the freakish nature of how Greg was struck down with polio within ten years of his reaching Nigeria. But he bore his sickness with great courage and equanimity – and, as Dan reminded us last night, without bitterness or resentment. He never let the sickness define him. Even up to the end he stubbornly retained his independence to the extent of frowning on those who might dare push his wheelchair.  Eventually the creeping and unrelenting march of polio disease meant that he had to withdraw completely from pastoral ministry in Nigeria. He retired to Blackrock Road in 1998 and has been held in high respect and deep affection by the community and staff there ever since.

Greg bore his sickness graciously, generally placidly and with no little humour. The utter frustration it must have evoked on so many levels was generally not apparent externally. Whatever inner mental torment was being churned up was not usually visible to the observer. He was a large framed expressive man and a wonderful host who liked to share his talents with the community. His commitment to lead the choir at daily morning Mass never dimmed. And how we will miss his deep resonant voice as he proudly belted out that classic of the Mississippi, Old Man River.  

One word that seems to fit Greg very well is resilient. That he remained in priestly service for almost 60 years is truly remarkable, given the parlous state of his health for the past 50 years. In more ways than one Greg was truly God ordained. As the Book of Wisdom tells us this morning, “how would anything have endured if you had not willed it? or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?”

Greg learned to be at peace with his condition, at peace with others, at peace with others knowing his condition and, most importantly, at peace with God. In this way he was a real inspiration to us all.  I was not privy to his internal processes but I cannot imagine that his expression of external serenity would have been possible had it not got its source from a very deep space of internal serenity. The fact that there was the odd occasion when a tough stubborn streak manifested itself does not detract from the overall sense of serenity he exuded. The American journalist, Howard Cosell says “Courage takes many forms. There is physical courage; there is moral courage. Then there is a still higher courage, the courage to bear pain, to live with it, to never let others know it and to still find joy in life; to wake up in the morning with an enthusiasm for the day ahead.”

Greg seemed to exude that enthusiasm for life. He had a lovely engaging, almost impish smile. He was easy to warm to. He was a real character, a larger than life figure. There was always that glint in his eye that suggested some kind of honest devilment being contemplated. He liked to tell stories and recollections and enjoyed the funny side of the innocent behaviour of others. 

Today we recognise that we will not see this almost boyish enthusiasm again on this earthly journey. This larger than life figure has now passed on.  But our faith assures us that we will encounter him again in God’s own time when we will all come together again in the fullness of His Kingdom. Such a confidence allows us to let him go in peace.

Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.