Bishop Donal (Raymond) Lamont, O.Carm. (1911-2003)

Given at the Requiem Mass in Terenure College on August 18, 2003, by C. O’Donnell, O.Carm. The principal celebrant was Cardinal D. Connell.

In every funeral service we come together out of respect for the dead person. We commend the deceased to God; we give thanks for his life and work; we hope to take away from the ceremony some memory or thought that will help us on our own journey to God. The texts chosen for this funeral Mass reflect three aspects of Bishop Donal Lamont’s ministry: the great “Dry Bones” speech at the Second Vatican Council; his episcopal ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit; his commitment to evangelisation and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are just highlights in a life and ministry that cannot be adequately covered to-day.
Bishop Lamont was born ninety-two years ago in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim. I remember his telling me that he encountered bigotry and religious divisions even as a young boy. The experience would seem to have seared his soul, whilst at the same time strengthening his Northern tenacity and determination. He came south, here to Terenure College, for his secondary education. After school he entered the Carmelite Order, going to the novitiate in Kinsale, Co. Cork in 1929. After profession he studied in University College in Dublin, obtaining an M.A. in English with a thesis on the poetry of Richard Crashaw. He then went to Rome where he obtained a Licence in Theology, with a thesis on the divine and spiritual maternity of the Virgin Mary. He was ordained in 1937.
A major formative influence on him was a superior in Rome, the German Carmelite, Fr. John of the Cross Brenninger, whose Carmelite vision was rather harshly ascetic. In the 1960s, I think, there was a re-interment of a Carmelite burial place. When Brenninger’s coffin was being moved Italian Carmelites told me that they shook it hoping to hear bones rattle; an incorrupt body would have raised far too many questions. Bishop Lamont later would speak very highly about this German and followed him in simplicity of life, such as food, clothing and furnishings. He was always loath to having money spent on him; even in the past three months he was very reluctant to accept a new hearing aid.
Returning to Ireland he taught here at Terenure College taking special interest in dramatics and English. In 1946 with two others, Frs. Anselm Corbett and Luke Flynn, he was missioned to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. This mission was to be enormously successful. Bishop Lamont was always careful to point to the earlier evangelisation of Jesuit missioners who were previously there and who made Carmelites welcome. The first two decades were a time of enormous enthusiasm here at home amongst the members the Order, and above all on the part of people associated with our churches. These were exciting times. I remember the great efforts at sales of work at the Mansion House: three days hard work by an army of volunteers raising a huge sum for the time, £2000. We were told stories about crocodiles and bilharzia; we delighted in an iconic symbol of Fr. Andy Wright in shirtsleeves with a theodolite. It is by keeping this home enthusiasm in mind that we can appreciate how the work of Fr. Lamont and the early Carmelite missionaries was so successful. Within seven years he was appointed Mission Superior and the same year Prefect Apostolic. In 1957 he was appointed Bishop of Umtali, now called Mutare, taking as his motto Ut placeam Deo.
In these times new mission stations were constantly being opened; Carmelites were regularly sent to the new diocese. Bishop Lamont invited many sisters to work in his diocese: Dominican and Precious Blood Sisters from Germany, Sisters of Charity from Holland; Marymount Sisters—Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, from the United States; Franciscan Missionaries for Africa and Presentation Sisters from Ireland. Later he would be involved in negotiations that led to Spiritan Fathers, as well as priests from St. Patrick’s Missionary Society (Kiltegan) and diocesan priests from the Killaloe diocese coming to the diocese. In 1959 he founded a diocesan congregation of sisters, the Handmaids of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He encouraged African vocations taking great delight in ordaining priests for his own diocese.
Within two years of becoming bishop, Donal Lamont wrote his first pastoral letter, “Purchased People.” It would become a classic statement on racial injustice and human rights, translated into more than a dozen languages. It was followed by several letters of denunciation and statements opposing the colonial oppression of native Rhodesians.
In 1962 he attended the Second Vatican Council and spoke at several of its sessions. His most important intervention was a devastating critique of a draft text on the missions. Instead of a full document or decree, it was proposed to have thirteen propositions on the missions. The missionary bishops were disturbed, especially as Pope Paul VI had stated himself as reasonably satisfied with the propositions. In his speech Bishop Lamont spoke with irony and barely controlled anger: the missionary bishops had come hoping for an inspiring text to enkindle missionary zeal; they were instead offered thirteen dry bones (an allusion to Ezekiel 36). They came to Rome looking for Pope John XXIII's Pentecostal fire and were being given a penny candle; the missionary bishops asked for modern weapons to conquer the world for Christ and they were being presented with bows and arrows. Unusually at the Council, the speech was greeted with sustained applause by the bishops. The thirteen propositions were eventually replaced by a fine decree on the mission, Ad gentes.
At the Council he was elected by the bishops to the newly formed Secretariat for Christian Unity. He served on this until 1975. As an ecumenist he was doctrinally cautious and watchful, but active and enthusiastic about the crucial ecumenical task of personal relationships. He was friendly with the Methodist Bishop Muzorewa and with the Church of Christ pastor, Garfield Todd who was Rhodesian prime minister until 1965. On his return to Ireland he pursued ecumenical contacts especially in the North of Ireland.
Bishop Lamont attended three synods of bishops. In Rhodesia, as it still was, he became more vocal in his denunciation of racism and of the white minority government of Ian Smith. Civil war broke out in 1972. He was arrested under the Law and Order Maintenance Act and charged with permitting some of the sisters under his jurisdiction to give medical aid to what the Smith government called “terrorist guerrillas” and the people called “freedom fighters.” He also advised the sisters not to report such assistance to the authorities. In a much publicized trial he defended the morality of giving medical assistance to people in need and his refusal to countenance informing by his flock. He was sentenced to ten years hard labour, later reduced to deportation and deprivation of his Rhodesian citizenship.
Whereas many white supporters of the Smith regime regarded him as a communist, his stand was warmly appreciated by other native Rhodesians and by people abroad. The Kenyan government issued a stamp in 1979 in recognition of his service to Africa. Honorary doctorates from several American universities followed and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. It is too early for a definitive judgement, but when the political, social and ecclesiastical histories of Sub-Saharan Africa are written his role will certainly be judged to have been very significant. After the civil war he returned to Zimbabwe for a few years before handing over to a native bishop. His stand on race was to prove very important for the Church in the whole of the country and it was recognised as a friend by the new government under President Mugabe, who several times publicly acknowledged what the Church and Irish Carmelites had done for his people.
On his return home he lectured extensively and like many bishops found great joy in conferring confirmation. It is nice to know that there is at least one perk going with the office of bishop. His years in Africa and his delight in nieces, nephews, and later grand nieces and grandnephews gave him an ease with children, so that children and he could really enjoy the confirmation day. He took immense interest his own family and was immensely proud of their many achievements.
Bishop Lamont was a very cultured man, sometimes too cultured perhaps for us here, especially when he quoted metaphysical poets and Shakespeare when we were having our cornflakes. He had a profound love for the Church was extremely pained to the point of becoming physically ill when reading negative reports on the Church. He was an assiduous reader of The Tablet in which his letters frequently appeared. He read the weekly Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, with great care, sometimes leaving it conspicuously in our College community room with a page opened on an article he thought we should all read. He read constantly. He borrowed books, read them quickly, and unlike many a Carmelite, he returned them promptly.
Even though he and the Carmelite Order in the past may not always have seen things in the same light, he was very proud of his membership of the Order, and the Order was proud of him. It was his wish to be buried, not in episcopal robes, but in his Carmelite habit. He treasured the contemplative dimension of the Order. Particularly dear to him were daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours said in community, until weakness and his deafness made this impracticable. He loved the Rosary, frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the Stations of the Cross.
It was never easy to convince Bishop Lamont that he was wrong on practical matters, or on theological affecting the role of bishop. Though he was a great enthusiast for Vatican II and its teaching some, however, would find his interpretation of the Council’s doctrine on the episcopacy rather maximalist.
He mellowed a good deal in his last years. Enjoying good health for most of his life, he found the weakness of recent months very difficult. After a fortnight of very distressing illness, he reached the perfection that God had planned for him in this life on last Thursday.
How do we sum up his life? We don’t – the final judgement must be left to God. In the end all human achievement except love is as straw in God’s eyes; we all must come in the end to rely not on what we have done, but solely on God’s mercy. Standing at this point in time we can genuinely give thanks for having known and having lived with a great personage, one who was also had real human weakness as well as one hugely endowed with gifts that he used for the service of the Church and Zimbabwe. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas dá anam misniúil.