Funeral Mass for Monsignor Austin McKeon – Homily of Bishop Kevin

Homily of Bishop Kevin at the Funeral Mass for Monsignor Austin McKeon

Wednesday 27th April 2016, Feast of St Asicus

Church of SS Eithne and Fidelma, Tulsk, Co Roscommon 

We gather this morning from all over the Diocese of Elphin and from further afield to join with Monsignor Austin McKeon’s family and friends to give thanks to God for his life and for his ministry as a priest for almost 54 years. It is not without significance that we gather in the Church of Saints Eithne and Fidelma and on the Feast of Saint Asicus, patron saint of the diocese. It was Patrick himself who baptised Eithne and Fidelma and who ordained Asicus as our first bishop, laying in them the foundations of faith on which every parish community in our diocese is built.

The use of the word “maol” as part of a name is quite common in Irish (maol-Iosa, maol-seachlann).  While it literally means a person who was bald, it usually refers to a tonsured monk who served one of the saints. I mention this because I notice that Austin was born and grew up in the town land of Rathmulpatrick (or Rath Maol Padraig), which literally means the place of the holy servant of Patrick. What better reminder can we have of the fact that Austin’s faith, like that of Eithne, Fidelma and Asicus was one of the fruits of the mission of Patrick.

As a priest of the Diocese of Elphin, however, Austin associated himself more closely with the mission of Patrick “building up the body of Christ” through his many years of service to Catholic education and his twenty five years service here in the parish of Tulsk. Here he preached; here he baptised and here he laid the dead to rest, in the very place where legend has it that Eithne and Fidelma listened to the preaching of Patrick, where they were baptised by him and where they were eventually laid to rest.

The ministry of a priest is essentially the same today as it was in the time of Patrick, but the context is quite different. Even in his own lifetime, Fr. Austin saw many changes. He completed his studies for the priesthood just as the Second Vatican Council was about to begin. The Council, while re-affirming the essential mission of the Church called for a more open dialogue between the Church and the modern world. It encouraged greater participation of the lay faithful in the mission of the Church. Austin embraced all of these things, as can be seen from his CV which is printed in the Mass booklet and which Bishop Christy presented to us in some detail yesterday evening.

At the same time, he remained faithful to the essentials of priestly ministry; celebrating the Eucharist for the people, breaking open for them the bread of God’s word, forgiving sins in Jesus name, anointing the sick and comforting those who mourn. Like the disciples, who were sent out two by two, Austin settled down where he had been sent and proclaimed the kingdom of God. Many of you here this morning are witnesses to that.

Our first reading this morning was from the Old Testament book of Sirach. It began with the words: “my son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal”. Another translation would read a little less starkly: “prepare yourself for a challenge”. Whether it was in his responsibility for a large diocesan college, or the development of pastoral services here in Tulsk, or navigating the sometimes choppy waters of school management in the diocese, Austin’s ministry was motivated by faith in Jesus Christ. He took challenges in their stride. He took to heart the wisdom of Sirach, following a “straight path” and “trusting in God to uphold him”.

Monsignor Austin faced the uncertainties of recent months with the same trust.  It was difficult for him to be lifted out of his parish so suddenly when illness came last October but he was greatly supported by the loving care of his family. We offer to them today, both our sympathies and the promise of our prayers. Shortly after Christmas he took the difficult decision to step down from his ministry as Parish Priest, without having the opportunity to say goodbye to you his parishioners. I know how much he appreciated your kindness and support. Perhaps today’s celebration is, among other things, the opportunity to say goodbye.

In all of the conversations I had with Austin over the past six months, the only regret he expressed was that he no longer had the energy to celebrate Mass properly and, like so many other things, if he couldn’t do it properly, he didn’t want to do it at all. But even in those last few days, his breviary and his rosary beads were always by his side.

St. Paul talks about the ministry of pastors and teachers who are called to “knit God’s holy people together”.  I have never associated knitting with the ministry of a priest but, when you think of it, it’s a very creative image and it reflects something of the patchwork of the diocese and of every parish, which is made up of so many gifts, all of which have to be drawn together in a coherent way. This is a ministry with a future in a world in which so many of the structures of community have disappeared. To anyone who would be inspired by Austin’s full and fruitful life to follow Christ in the priesthood or religious life, I would say: “yes, certainly prepare to be challenged, but trust in God and he will uphold you.