Remembrances for our Deceased Brothers
Fr Patrick (Christopher) O’Donnell, O.Carm. 1936 – 2020
Homily given at the Funeral Mass in Terenure College Chapel on Friday, June 5, 2020, by J. Keating. O.Carm.
For it is in dying that we are born to eternal life: the familiar ending to a peace prayer anonymously written early in the twentieth century, reflecting the thoughts and indeed the style of St Francis of Assisi. Today, we mourn the passing of a Carmelite confrère and friend. In our mourning, we wish to celebrate one now being born to eternal life, ‘confident that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life’ (Funeral Ritual).
Our media, both television and print, these days bring us face-to-face with the statistics of death as we live through the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, they also try to share the personal stories of so many lives lost: the number of families who have not been able to celebrate fully the passing of their loved ones! We too, our Carmelite Community and a few friends, gather here in faith this morning. Death brings to an end the constant dying the happens throughout our life while breaking open our storehouse of memories.
It is said that we ought not eulogize people during our funeral liturgies, but there is also a liturgy of Christian life needing to be acknowledged; lives lived in the following of Christ through consecration; walking a Gospel path. What might we learn from our brother, who chose the texts for today’s liturgy which proclaims the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians (3:8): ‘I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’?
These past few years, as his memory faded, life changed for Chris and he found it hard to let go; the Lord purifying him for this defining moment. As I spoke with him last Saturday, he was at peace and wonderfully cared for by our nurse manager, Mary Buckley, and her staff at Gort Muire. Chris, imbued as he was with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, would have come across the quotation from Gaudium et Spes, which says that death is that moment when the ‘history of our life before God assumes its irreversible shape’, and so we remember, commemorate and give thanks to God in the central act of the Christian life, the Eucharist.
For me, three aspects of Gospel life radiate from the ‘shape’ of Pádraic Christopher O’Donnell’s life. I could have picked many more but he, often the master of the pithy homily, would not appreciate it.
Chris had a small collection of owl ornaments in his room and he saw himself like the owl, watching and always curious. This extended also theologically throughout his life time. He read widely and, as the first reading for today put it, wisdom ‘will guide me prudently in my actions and will protect me with her glory’ (Wisdom 9:9-12). He savoured wisdom. Whereas his room was always a mess, his mind was tidy, insightful and illuminated. Its foundation, of course, was Love: he loved the Church, the Mother of God, the Carmelite Order, the search for Christian unity, and the beauty of the spiritual life. He loved the Church as set out in the Church’s teaching, never forgetting that she is ‘holy but always in need of renewal’. His past students remember vividly his course on the Church during his years at the Milltown Institute. He chose that first reading precisely because one of the great influences on his scholarly life, John Hyde, S.J., began his classes with this text from the Book of Wisdom. Never constrained by rigidity of thought, Chris maintained a faithfulness to the sources and the magisterium of the Church. He was the faithful servant, open to the Spirit, giving him a clarity of analysis. Perhaps, a good example of this was the article on the Ordination of Women in his five-year work entitled A Theological Encyclopedia of the Church: Ecclesia (1996) where, having explored this topic and noting of course the sensus fidelium, he says: ‘the Church would in time undoubtedly follow the Spirit’s leading’. His immense scholarly work will stand as testimony to this faith and will influence us for years to come. That curiosity extended way beyond theological matters. I remember him once arriving in Rome for a meeting and offering me his reading matter from his journey: The Irish Times, The Economist and The Phoenix.
Chris was generous with his wisdom. Acknowledging this at the presentation of a festschrift in his honour just two years ago, I noted how open he was in sharing his knowledge, his research, his lecture notes, and his time helping students and others. We, in the Carmelite Order, have seen the amount of time given to Order meetings, commissions, research programmes. At times, he was a confident to those with responsibility. In the 1995 General Chapter, together with our confrère, Filippo Iannone, now Archbishop, he steered the members of the Chapter to approve a major reform of our Constitutions. Asked to present a research paper at a seminar on contemplation some years ago, he chose a fourteenth century Carmelite, Michael of Bologna (Aiguani). He began his presentation by noting that there was no direct reference to the theme of contemplation, then he gave a detailed research revealed under the title of ‘Soundings in his teaching on contemplation’. Once again, he had made a significant contribution to our Carmelite reflection on contemplation. At home, here in Ireland he was part of the team of confrères at Gort Muire, people like Eltin Griffin, Paul Lennon, John Lawler, Aloysius Ryan, and with many women and men helping to forge a renewal of the Church in Ireland at that time.
Pope Francis, in his Pentecost homily, noted how generosity flows from the Spirit. The Apostles’ generosity, he said, set them off ‘unprepared, putting their lives on the line. One thing kept them going: the desire to give what they received’.
Chris, following what he described as his own conversion back in 1975, personally knew the gift of the Spirit and that gift grows by giving as Pope Francis put it: ‘The Spirit, the living memory of the Church, reminds us that we are born from a gift and that we grow by giving’. His diary was constantly full. Not easy for him to slow down at times, he supplemented his energy resources with coffee, Coca-Cola, graduating as time went by to Red Bull! Seriously, at the heart of it was always the desire to know Christ, ‘not having the righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ’ (Philippians).
Friendship is so important in life, none more so for him than with his beloved twin-sister, Sr Máire. He loved his Donegal roots and was aware also of his mother’s significant role in the Rising and the struggle for independence. It is sad that so many of his friends and former colleagues cannot be here with us today, but we know there are many of you with us in prayer via the video link.
Being friends with God requires time in prayer. Knowing God needs time with God, just as on a human level, good friendships continue even when others are physically separated from us. When not formally at prayer, the presence of God is not lost. It was from the relationship with God, from this deep interior source, guided by the Holy Spirit, that Chris was gifted, indeed blessed, with discernment and spiritual accompaniment. As such, he often walked with the lost sheep, bringing healing and hope – the Oil of the Sick ever in his coat pocket. Many of us are the beneficiaries of his sound guidance in the darkest moments most of us experience in our lives.
In the context of friendship, as a good Carmelite he had a wonderful devotion to the Virgin Mary. There is a painting, an altar piece, in the Carmelite church in Cordoba in Spain by the famous seventeenth century artist, Valdes Leal. It depicts our Lady of Mount Carmel, with her cloak spread out over her Carmelite sons and daughters. Two angels hold open the Lady’s cloak and her arms are extended in a motherly embrace. Chris himself reached out, not just to our cloistered Carmelite women, but to many others. But what of himself?
In these past years, I think Chris was experiencing his own dark night. As the dementia set in a number of years ago, there was a change in him. It ruptured some of these relationships. Throughout these years he himself had to struggle and face the cross before his eyes. Yet, he pressed on ‘to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold’ of him (Philippians 9:12). Alone, often we have to discover that the purpose of the cross is not pain and death, but hope and new life.
As he arrives at the pearly gates will he be let in? He delighted in telling the story of once going to the Vatican to see his friend, Michael Fitzgerald, now Cardinal Fitzgerald, and from the cut of his outfit the secretary would not let him in suspecting him to be a beggar, until Michael himself arrived and welcomed him. Sartorial elegance or indeed liturgical vesture were not among his strong points.
His death marks a certain sunset on a period in the modern history of the Irish Carmelites. We know that in this present difficult period we must await a new dawn for with it hope is born, for hope always carries the dream of the future.
I have no doubt that Mary the Mother of Carmel, with open arms, will recognize her son and welcome him, vested this time smartly in his brown habit. Chris, ‘may the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem’.