Fr Robert (Luke) MacCabe, O.Carm. (1926-2011)

Given at the Requiem Mass in Terenure College Chapel on June 2, 2011, by M. Kilmurray, O.Carm.

As Christians we are still in the Season of Easter. Easter is the time when our memories of suffering and death are transfigured by the joy of Christ’s Resurrection, and by the promise that we will have life in Him – life that will be abundant and forever.

It is in this spirit that we are celebrating the Funeral Mass of Father Robert Luke MacCabe who departed this world peacefully on Saturday morning.

Father Robbie’s life had been joined to the life of the Risen Christ when he was baptised at the Church of Our Lady in Mallow, Co. Cork, soon after his birth there in July 1926. We never really thought of Robbie as a Corkman; his family moved, within a few years of his birth, to Sandycove, County Dublin, where he grew up. Robbie often spoke of an idyllic childhood with swimming, tennis, cricket and a variety of other sporting activities. He developed a keen interest in cars – including sports cars – an interest which lasted through life.

Robbie always spoke with great love and affection for his parents. His father, a medical doctor, keen sportsman and trainer of the first Irish trained horse to win the English Derby, had served in the Boer War and in the Great War. He later served as a doctor in the Army of the newly established Irish Free State. Robbie’s mother had worked in the War Office in London during the Great War and was deeply saddened by the tremendous loss of young lives at the Front. Robbie learned at first hand from his parents about the horrors of war and this made him abhor violence of any kind. He was a man of gentleness and peace.

Robbie arrived back in Ireland on the day that Queen Elizabeth was visiting Cork and he was delighted to be able to see a snippet of this historic and reconciling visit to our country. We were all pleasantly surprised by Robbie’s brightness on that Friday afternoon but, unfortunately, it was not to last.

Robert MacCabe joined the Carmelite Order at Kinsale in November 1954. He was a qualified doctor and had been practising medicine for four years. In those days, it was the custom in Religious Orders to receive a new name to mark the beginning of a new way of life. Robert was given ‘Luke’, after Luke the Evangelist who is described in Chapter 5 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians as the ‘beloved physician’.

In a mysterious way this naming pointed to Robbie’s future ministry as a Carmelite. However, at that point in time Robbie would have thought that he was leaving behind the work of a medical doctor since Catholic priests were not allowed to practise medicine under Church Law. The name Luke would be used within the Order for a number of years but he reverted gradually to the more significant baptismal and family name – Robert – Robbie.

While still a medical student Robbie was diagnosed with TB. There were no anti-TB drugs available so rest, bed and healthy eating were the recommended remedy. He said that the enforced seclusion for six months came to resemble for him a six month retreat. The fit young student who had been playing tennis at Wimbledon six months before – and had been Irish Junior Champion in 1944 – was now laid low.

His faith in God withstood the trial. He later wrote that his mother had introduced him to the ‘prayer of trust’ in times of difficulty. He found spiritual sustenance in reading the autobiography of the Carmelite St. Thérèse of Lisieux – Story of a Soul. Robbie now felt that God was calling him to religious life. But being a sensible young man he sought advice and he was advised to keep up the prayers, hasten slowly and continue his medical studies. Robbie’s health improved sufficiently to allow him return to his studies and he qualified as a doctor in 1950. Soon afterwards he moved to Ashford in Kent and, again, a link with the Carmelite tradition emerged in his life. At nearby Aylesford, the medieval Carmelite Priory was being restored under the guidance of Father Malachy Lynch. Robbie would visit Aylesford often and join in the Carmelite devotions and was present when the Relics of St. Simon Stock were brought there from Bordeaux in 1953. He had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Lady of Mount Carmel. He was impressed with the life and spirit of the Order.

By 1954 Robbie had decided that the Carmelite way of life was the one that he should now follow. The next six years were to be challenging for him as he coped with a severe relapse of TB together with studies in Philosophy and Theology. He was ordained priest on July 10, 1960, with Fergus O’Loan and Laurence Lynch. Robbie was helped to reach that joyful day in his life by his strong faith, the support of his Carmelite brothers and his family, and by his tenacious spirit.

By 1961 he and Fr Fergus O’Loan were on their way to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. The dry and warm climate would be good for his health but he did not expect to be practising medicine there. However, Bishop Donal Lamont, a fellow Carmelite, decided that the talents of such a good physician should not be wasted. He sought the necessary permissions from the Church authorities and Robbie took up medical duties at the Hospital at Regina Coeli Mission.

This assignment by Bishop Lamont gave a direction to Robbie’s life which only concluded within the last month at Lokitaung in Turkana. From then on Robbie combined priestly ministry and medical practice. He developed a particular interest in the study and treatment of tropical diseases. He was awarded a Gold Medal by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the degree of Doctor of Medicine by University College Dublin for a dissertation on the Study of the Pattern of Diseases among Africans living in Nyamaropa, Zimbabwe. Robbie wore these successes lightly and saw them in terms of helping the sick and needy.

Robbie was above all a disciple of Jesus Christ who in his earthly ministry was concerned for the physical as well as the spiritual well-being of those who flocked to him. We recall from the Gospels that Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, forgave sinners. Robbie as Carmelite priest and medical doctor embodied for many the love of Jesus Christ, the tenderness and compassion of God.

The Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila reminds us that we Christians are now ‘the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on the world, the feet with which he goes about doing good, the hands with which he blesses’. Robbie’s gentle smile, his healing touch, his encouraging word communicated something of God’s tenderness and love to the many people to whom he ministered. A message from Kenya in the past few days said ‘Robbie left a legacy and so very much goodness’.

By 1977 the security situation had become very difficult in Zimbabwe and it was no longer possible for Robbie to remain there. But he wanted to continue working in Africa. He was given permission to work in Turkana, Kenya, in an agreement with the St Patrick’s Missionary Society. This would be life at the edge and it appealed to Robbie. He had a pioneering spirit, probably inherited from his father.

Robbie brought all his organizational and medical abilities to bear on a challenging situation. He established a mobile medical unit with a staff, which travelled out to the nomadic peoples providing medicines and health care and health education. Over the years Robbie brought healing and comfort to thousands. Some of the photographs in his book – Desert Nomads – show him attending to the people who came to this mobile clinic. He went to the people offering to care for them.

Yes, it was life at the edge but, again, it was sustained by his faith in God and his commitment to medical care. Each day began with the celebration of Mass and with the recitation of psalms from the Prayer of the Church. Robert felt close to God in Turkana and he was the eyes, hands and feet of a Saving God for many people. He left them only when his physical energy gave out.

Robbie was gentle and he was strong. He reflected in his life something of the words written by St. Francis de Sales that ‘nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as real strength’. It took physical, mental and spiritual strength to live and work in such a hot and barren land for so many years. But Robbie saw people who needed his particular gifts both as priest and doctor. He always kept the two in balance as reflected by his letters and I quote: I have been very busy with mobile work travelling to distant places where the staff and I have seen hundreds of patients....I am on my own for all the Easter ceremonies. I baptised 34 people, including a tiny sick baby. Robbie – priest and medical doctor.

His research in tropical diseases is part of his legacy. He was proud of his association with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Robbie was pleased to be able to share with students and doctors there the fruits of his research and of his work on the ground in Turkana. I know that he was a very popular lecturer. Two years ago he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. He was delighted but as I remarked earlier Robbie wore such honours lightly. He lived very simply; whatever he received was used for his work among the people of Turkana. The publication of his book – Desert Nomads – was a great achievement for him as well as being a useful resource for nurses, doctors and others engaged with tropical medicine. He appreciated the friendship and support given to him by so many at the College.

Robbie loved his natural family and his religious family, the Carmelites. While at Gort Muire he delighted in spending Saturday or Sunday afternoons at Sandycove with John, Pat, James and Michael. He went there on his bicycle until John succeeded in convincing him otherwise! He visited his sister Mary in Cardiff each year and had paid occasional visits to his niece, Anne, in Malawi over the years. At Gort Muire he took part in the prayer and fraternal life of the community, delighting in being with his Carmelite brothers. Robbie had an old world courtesy which endeared him to everyone. He treated all those he met with the utmost respect. He related easily to young and old.

Robbie’s long life was marked by faithfulness, gentleness, courage, service and self-sacrifice. The blueprint for right living set down by the Prophet Micah in the First Reading: ‘act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God’ found expression in Robbie as did the Christ-like qualities set down by St. Paul in the Letter to the Colossians: love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, gratitude.

Robbie, we commend you with confidence to the peace of God, the God who we trust is greeting you in the spirit of our Gospel reading: Come, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world for when I was sick you visited me. Robbie, rest in Peace. Amen