Fr James Jarlath O’Hea, O.Carm. (1927–2017)

Sermon given at the Requiem Mass in Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin, on January 31, 2017, by J. Murray, O.Carm.

Welcome, as we gather together to celebrate the Mass of the Resurrection for Fr Jarlath. A special welcome to his family: on behalf of the Carmelite Community and the local community of the parish I want to offer our condolences to you, his family, Maireád, Mary, Anne and Joan; nieces, nephews, grandnieces, grandnephews and friends who feel the loss so deeply. To you, on behalf of all of us, I offer our sincere sympathy.
Before he died, St Ambrose said: ‘You who loved me in life, remember me in death, and especially in the Eucharist’. That is what we do for Fr Jarlath this morning as we reflect on his pilgrimage of faith.
Fr Jarlath is in very familiar surroundings today. This was the place where, in his retirement, he so often offered the Sacrifice of the Mass for the local community, celebrated Funerals for the dead, heard Confession, and prayed.
The first reading is, appropriately, taken from the Book of Wisdom. He was a wisdom figure, a prayerful presence. ‘I prayed and understanding was given to me. I entreated and the spirit of Wisdom was given to me. May God grant me to speak as he would wish’ (Wisdom 7:7, 15). Fr Jarlath developed a wise and discerning approach to human wisdom. He was a man of simple needs, simple tastes, a quintessential Carmelite who was very aware of the importance of Community life, prayer and service. His breviary and rosary were always with him.
Wherever he served he gave generously of his time. He could rejoice at the wedding feast, comfort the dying, mourn with the bereaved, and forgive the sinner. His authenticity was what won him so much respect.
He was a Corkman and proud of it. He was born in Ballinspittle, near Kinsale. When he joined the Order he commenced his studies in University College, Dublin, and was ordained priest in 1952, giving sixty-five years of faithful service to the Church and to the Order.
He was willing to serve wherever he was sent and he enhanced the reputation of wherever he went. His first appointment as a teacher was in Carmelite College, Moate, where he worked from 1955 to 1960. He was Novice Master in Kinsale from 1960 to 1961, and Master of Students in Gort Muire, Dublin, from 1961 to 1964. As a superior he took authority seriously. His opinions were respected and his word was law. He kept the rule and thought that we should have the same facility for keeping it as he had! One could not but be amazed at his meticulous efficiency with unexciting details. He believed that all our talents as students should be used to the full for he was a perfectionist. Imagine having a non-singers choir – and he had!
He then went back to Moate as teacher and prior. He was there until 1970 when he moved to Terenure College, Dublin, where he taught until he retired.
It was as a teacher and confessor that he made his greatest contribution to the Church and the Order.
Teaching is a special vocation. It is about releasing energy between three centres: God, the pupils, and the teacher; and that energy is truth. The teacher can lead pupils to God in as much as they have discovered that truth for themselves. It can be one of our most creative activities.
The teacher can contribute so much to the development of young people. They share such an important part of their adventure into life. Values are taught through everything they do. In the school you learn to be caring, kind, creative, respectful of others and to share. Fr Jarlath taught those values. The journey was more important than the destination and the future was fashioned by the present. Brian McMahon said that the teacher left the track of his teeth on three generations. Jarlath’s mark would have been a little gentler.
As Oscar Romero said:
       This is what we are about:
       We plant seed that one day will grow,
       we water seed already planted,
       knowing that they hold future promise.
       We lay foundations that will need further development.

As a pupil in his class I remember his kindness, his hard work and his sensitivity towards the weaker pupil. Past pupils look back on their days at school with great respect for him. While in Moate he trained the first Carmelite team to reach a Leinster final. He is remembered for his restoration work on the friary church to mark its hundredth anniversary in 1968. His last teaching post was Terenure College where he taught until he retired. He then went to Whitefriar Street, Dublin, where he worked until quite recently. Wherever he was he always devoted time, energy and talent to the task that lay ahead for he was a perfectionist, competent, meticulous, practical, punctual – words one might use to draw a portrait of him. Modest about his achievements, he was a gentleman with a gentle spirit.
The gospel is taken from last Sunday’s Mass – the Beatitudes. There we discover that Scripture, like life, puts emphasis on the future being fashioned by the present. Life and after-life are related. It enshrines the essence of what Jesus would teach about life. Jarlath’s life reflected so much of the spirit of the Beatitudes. The first Beatitude and the last one state: ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. There is a satisfaction and contentment when the kingdom breaks into our lives. In his life, Fr Jarlath enshrined so many of those blessings.
He had strong convictions about many things – religion, politics, sport – and his certainties often surprised and amused us. Going to a hurling or football match generated a boyish excitement in him. For him there was something addictive about it. Cork was the county and hurling was the game. It took him years to come to terms with ladies’ football but with Cork’s many successes he became converted. His programme of the game would contain, in very neat writing, the scores and the time of each. It read like he had taken the minutes of the game. As a matter of interest, no matter what committee he was on, he was appointed to take the minutes!
Afterwards he would talk with childish enthusiasm about it all. I remember in Terenure organising a Summer holiday rota for Masses. Jarlath took out his diary in which he had marked in when he was free and when he would be in Thurles for the hurling, or Croke Park for some match, and apart from that he was willing to do anything for you.
‘Life is a gift’, he would say, ‘and we cannot count on receiving it tomorrow.’ A great role model, he had a desire to make a difference, and he did. More than his words, his life was his message. He had a very fulfilling life as priest, teacher, confessor and friend. One could not but be touched by the authenticity of that life.
This is a rather condensed summary of the life of Fr Jarlath O’Hea, some snapshots from the album of memory. The story of his life is more instructive than nostalgic. His death brings home to God a great and faithful servant, totally dedicated to the Church and the Order, and who now sees clearly what he believed in this life.
They say that when we go we should leave nothing behind but a good reputation. Jarlath left little of this world’s goods behind but he did leave a good reputation. While we feel the loss deeply all we can say is ‘thank you, Fr Jarlath’, and celebrate his memory with a prayer. We wish him the peace that comes from a life well lived. May his memory and example continue to inspire us.
With St Paul he could say: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2Timothy 4:7). With equal conviction we could say to him in the words of Marcina Wiederkehr, O.S.B.:
       Once again death’s mystery
       holds us in its arms
       and we are memoried by a thousand things
       you were and are
       and always will be.
       Tá Jarlath imithe uainn, fear mór, anam chara.
       Bhí an-ghrá aige da theanga dhuchais agus ba
       chainteoir líofa Gaeilge e.
       Duine specialta do bae ea.
       In iothlann Dé
       go dcastar sinn.
       Go rabhaimid le cheile.
       I gcríoch na beatha buaine.