Homily of Very Rev. Michael Duignan at Funeral of Bishop Jones RIP
Homily of Very Rev. Michael Duignan, Diocesan Secretary of the Diocese of Elphin at the Requiem Mass for Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin (1994-2014)
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo, Tuesday 22 May 2018
These May Days
The wild ducks have arrived to reoccupy the little pond outside Bishop Christy’s house. The swallows are back as well. Back to their old nest high up and hidden against my own worn flaky facia board. Their distinctive high-pitched squeaky chatter fills the air as they swoop about my door with their forked tail feathers.
There is a sublime magnificence about these May days. Hedgerows and trees, bare just weeks ago, have donned a splendid green apparel. The primrose and cowslip and bluebell have replaced the early snowdrops and daffodils. The cherry blossom is in full bloom and the furze bush ablaze. All around us – new life abounds, as nature performs its yearly miracle of resurrection that brings to life again the world of wintery death.
In the winter of Life
These May days stand at a great contrast to the last few years and months of Bishop Christy’s life which seemed to form an almost eternal winter. In four short years the cold winds of death took with them four of his sisters. Illness and frailty was to be his, until last Friday evening, life’s winter over, God called him home to himself.
Sadness and Sympathy
Today, we gather to surround Bishop Christy with our love and to accompany him in prayer as far as we can go to the very edges of the next life – handing him gently in to the eternal merciful love of God himself.
As we do so it is only right that memories of Bishop Christy and his life and ministry come to the fore. The outpouring of sadness and sympathy since his death has been overwhelming. He touched the lives of so many people from many different walks of life.
Finding a way in life
I am sure that, when at Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon, Christopher and Christina Jones gave birth to their tenth child they had no idea where the young Christopher’s life was to lead. He went to primary school near home and then embarked on the adventure of secondary school at Summerhill College here in Sligo.
It was while at Summerhill that his interest in becoming a priest was nurtured and afterwards matured at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth where he was ordained in June 1962.
The scripture readings we have just listened to were chosen by Bishop Christy for his episcopal ordination in 1994. The Gospel is the culmination of the story of Our Lady’s divine calling. A call to which she responded with utmost generosity with the words “Fiat Mihi” (Luke 1:38) “thy will be done”. Words which, as you will see from the cover of your booklets, Bishop Christy was to take as his episcopal motto. Words which reflected a constant attitude of his – “God’s will be done”.
The first reading expresses how Bishop Christy understood his vocation to priesthood – he felt called and sent by God to “bring good tidings to the afflicted, to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, and to comfort those who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:2-3) Throughout, he endeavoured –as St. Paul so beautifully puts it in the Second Reading – to lead a life worthy of his calling by speaking the truth in word and in action. (Eph: 4: 1, 11)
True to the old Summerhill motto “Estote Factores Verbi”–“Be doers of the Word” (James 1: 22) he was a “doer” more than a “talker” when it came to the life of faith.
The weak over the strong
Bishop Christy spent almost all of his priestly life here in Sligo under “bare Ben Bulben’s head”. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He had a natural love for people and was happiest in company. He was always an advocate for the weak over the strong and a tireless supporter and campaigner for those on the margins of our society. His courageous work on behalf of the travelling community meant he was affectionately seen by many travellers as their priest, their bishop. His work with Sligo Social Services brought him close to the poor, the homeless, those suffering from addiction or domestic issues.
During his pilgrimages to Lourdes his care and concern for the sick was evident. As a founding member of the Council for the West, he was very conscious of the economic and social disintegration of the West of Ireland and the heart-breaking wrench from home that was the lot of many emigrants.
Throughout it was his-faith inspired conviction that, although scarred by their difficult circumstances, every person was made in the image and likeness of God and therefore had an innate dignity and beauty. As Bishop Christy said himself “All of us are called to treasure that dignity and help it surface through our care and kindness.” (Summerhill, 2013)
Steering in choppy waters
The times in which we live are perhaps the most challenging times the Catholic Church in Ireland has seen since penal days. Unprecedented change in society and Church, along with an Ireland struggling with developing its own identity, has created a difficult space for faith and belief.
It was in these choppy waters that Bishop Christy was called to lead and guide the Church in Elphin. He often spoke of how his first years as a priest were filled with the excitement of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which resonated deeply in his heart. Bishop Christy had no clerical pretensions – he was convinced of the dignity of the laity and of the need to support and encourage their unique role as the real sanctifiers of everyday life.
For him a Church that did not read the “signs of the times” and speak meaningfully to the realities of the man and woman in the street was no Church at all. (Gaudium et Spes, 4)
Bishop Christy was convinced of the importance of marriage and family life as a fundamental good that needed to be proclaimed, supported and protected. He was a powerful advocate for the unborn. He was deeply sadden by the prospect of a removal of the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution. Even in his last days of illness, he had hoped to be able to vote on Friday. In his presentation to the hearings of the Oireachtas Committee for Health and Children in 2013, he spoke about the beauty and preciousness of every human life from that moment of conception to natural death.
He spoke of the care and compassion that all mothers and their unborn children so rightly deserve. He urged all women and men of good will, regardless of creed or culture, to be a voice for the unborn who have no voice to plead for their lives. On Friday, by voting no, he would have seen himself as that voice – and I have no doubt he would hope all here present would do the same.
Bishop Christy had a particular pastoral heart for young people and was a champion of the unique contribution of Catholic education.
He valued the noble vocation of religious, in particular religious women and forged good relations with our brothers and sisters from different Christian traditions. In 2009, he led the way nationally and took the ground-breaking decision to restore the Permanent Diaconate to the diocese. Perhaps, it was in affronting Clerical Child Abuse that his most difficult challenge lay as he struggled to respond to victims, their families and to priests. I witnessed him many times cry at his desk with the horror of it all. In response, he set about building the child safeguarding mechanisms we have in our Diocese today that in many ways contributed to what was to become the norm across the country.
Looking to the next life
When Bishop Christy asked me to preach this homily, he chatted with me about his illness and his impending death. He loved life and if God had been willing would have loved a few more years to enjoy the beauty of Sligo and the company of his family and friends. But that “Fiat Mihi” – “God’s will be done” was always there too. Deeply grateful to God for the opportunities he had been given and the life he had lived.
He was also deeply conscious of his own flaws and imperfections – how he hurt easily, and found it at times difficult to let go and move on, how he might have come in too quickly or too hard and caused hurt or pain, how, in particular, he might have asked too much from priests or have been too judgemental. How there was much more good he could have done that remained undone. For those times, he wanted me to say today that he was sorry and to ask for forgiveness.
Bishop Christy was always a grateful man even for the smallest of kindnesses – be that helping him to negotiate his new smart phone or iPad or giving him a lift. And true to that Spirit he wanted me to thank everyone that crossed his path in life and enriched it so much.
He was also deeply grateful to his family – his dear sister Eileen, sister-in-law Pauline, his nieces and nephews along with his brother priests and bishops and his lifelong friends for all they had given him and in particular for the care showed by so many for him during his illness.
Today, we are very much brought face to face with those deep down questions the ending of life brings: Where is Bishop Christy now? Has he time to play Golf?
Or to listen to what he called his “Cassettes”? Has he met those who have gone before him – his parents, his sisters, his brothers? Will we meet him again?
I have no clear and certain answers to these questions – for death remains a great mystery. But despite that – I do have hope – a hope I clutch on to on days like today – hope from our Christian faith – that death is not life’s ending – but rather eternal life’s beginning.
Two thousand years ago on a hillside outside Jerusalem, Jesus slept the sleep of death. But that was not to be his end – three days later God raised him to the glory of everlasting life – filling us with hope – promising us that for those who believe in him death itself would not be their end but rather everlasting fulfilment in a new life with God himself.
With the hope this faith brings we can pray that last Friday evening, Christy exchanged his short life here on earth, full of its seasons of change and decay, for the peace and rest of ever-lasting unchanging life.
Someday, we do not know when or where or how, but we too will do the same. That day we hope to enter our eternal home –where the ever present uncertainty of pain and illness will be over-come. There we hope to be reunited with Bishop Christy and all those who have gone before us.
In these May days of ducks arriving, swallows nest building, birds singing, trees growing green, and wild flowers blooming. In these May days as nature reawakens after its winter slumber – let us take hope that just like in nature where life goes on – Bishop Christy now goes on too – albeit it in a different way- in a different realm – in a different existence –but real nevertheless – real and pain free, smiling and happy and hopeful in the eternal summer that is the presence of the living God.
A Easpag Christy, a chara dhil – go bhfáiltí sluaite na n-aingeal romhat
go bhfaighe tú suaimhneas síoraí
agus go mbuailimid le chéile arís,
go gcoinní Dia i mbos a láimhe thú.
In confident hope – for this we pray – this day. Amen.