Parish Bereavement Mass: 08.11.23
One of the hidden roles undertaken on ordination as a priest, is the duty of burying one’s family. The first funeral I recall attending was at the age of ten, my uncle Michael. He was a Columban priest, a missionary who worked in Japan, who died at the young age of 48 from a serious heart condition. Nowadays he would be a candidate for a bypass, but not then. That was 1973. Uncle Tony, Aunty Mary, Uncle Jim, Aunty Mona, Aunty Kitty, Uncle Paddy, Uncle George all died in the years that followed.
When I was ordained in 1988, a family funeral became much more than just attending, reading or carrying the coffin; I suddenly was plunged into becoming the celebrant. With that comes the task of ‘holding it together’ for everyone else’s sake. Sometimes it was easy or maybe more accurately easier, often anything but. Auntie Peg in 1997, Auntie Eileen in May 2000, Auntie Betty in December 2002 and several uncles and aunts since.
When parents die the home changes completely, Dadda in 2006, Mamma in 2010. For Dadda it was a long struggle into death, a strong man who milked cows since 1956 and had a passion for all things dairy, a tradition my two brothers and their families continue to this day. Unlike his youngest he could stand the east wind howling through the open milking parlour! I can’t manage the west wind, not to mention the east! Sickness is cruel, it was the morning of the winter solstice in 2002, he couldn’t get out of the bed. Four years of round the clock care, with impaired movement, speech and absolutely no swallow. It probably took its toll on all of us, without us realising it. Carers are never paid enough. I’ll repeat that, carers are never paid enough. For Mamma it was the morning of the Atlantic Ash cloud. Before the pandemic, we never thought anything could empty our skies, but the ash cloud in April 2010 did just that. Planes were grounded and so was Mamma. She slipped into eternal life shortly after the ten o’clock morning news on the radio. Like a light switch, death came.
Each of you come with your own story this Wednesday evening. A story replicated in every parish of the diocese and indeed of this island as Parish Bereavement Masses are offered to honour those gone before us, leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’. Death isn’t easy. There is a loneliness still even though the weeks, months, maybe years have passed. The Church in her wisdom invites us to honour moments around death, like the prayers immediately after a loved one has slipped off, like the wake, like the removal, like the Requiem or Funeral Mass, like the burial, like the Months Memory, like the First Anniversary, all markers on this journey from time with family and friends into eternity with God.
As a priest you bury family and friends; as a Bishop you bury priests and family, while also supporting the wider diocesan community as best one can in their moments of grief. In my ten years as Bishop, I’ve buried 24 priests, including Bishop Jim. The last priest buried, Fr. Thomas’s uncle Fr. Jim Gahan only last Saturday. Of the 24 priests, 19 were retired, 4 were very active and very engaged PP’s. Tonight I include PJ Byrne buried in Tinryland; John Cummins laid to rest much too soon in Newbridge; Jimmy Doyle whose ashes are interred in Clonegal and Denis Murphy buried last December in Doonane. None of us are a priest on our own, we belong to a presbyterate, the death of a colleague echoes through the entire presbyterate.
St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians assures us there is no need to grieve like others do. But who are these ‘others’ St. Paul speaks of? Those who have no faith, no hope in eternal life. We have and we do, that’s the difference. And that’s what brings us here this Wednesday evening. St. John takes up a similar point, speaking about the many rooms there are in the Father’s house. We all like our space, a space to put our things. I recall the bedroom growing up I shared with my two brothers, each of us had our own space, I remember my box for my bits and pieces. The reassurance that our loved ones have their space gives great comfort this Bereavement Mass evening. Our earthly life can be precarious, marked often by fragility and failure. What is brought to fulfilment in eternity is that person we were, warts and all, except God doesn’t look at the warts, he sees the person. The many rooms remind us how our individuality flourishes in eternity with God.
When both parents die, there is that sense of unbelonging, it’s a very new world. But remember all of us are loved by God, and all of us belong in God. Dadda liked his dairying and felt he would meet God wearing his wellington boots, in his own words “boots and all”; Mamma loved her knitting, sewing and of course wearing the half tie-around apron. Maybe the loved one we remember tonight was the last stitch on that knitting needle that held us all together, let’s do our best as a parish, as a diocese, as a family to keep it from unravelling. We owe it to ourselves and we owe to those gone before us. Our faith doesn’t sweeten the bitterness of death but it reassures of what awaits all of us – our belief in the resurrection. I love that Irish phrase: “Ní imithe uainn atá, ach imithe romhainn” (they are not gone from us, but gone before us). May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.