Remembering Fr Donal O’Dea

Fr Pat Raleigh delivered the following homily at the funeral Mass for Fr Donal O’Dea at St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan on 29 July 2019.

Each one of us gathered here this morning, in this lovely Chapel where Donal was ordained, will bring our own memories of him. I am sure that many of you have been sharing stories and memories of Donal since his death on Friday last.

While we knew that he was seriously ill his death came as a great shock to us all. It was very fitting that you Eileen and Nell were with him as he slipped quietly away, to be joined a little later by Paul. Paul you were so attentive to him.

His work in the Philippines

Donal spent his entire missionary life in the Philippines apart from the last seven years when he retired back to Ireland. He spent all his time in a variety of places in the Diocese of Iba in the Province of Zambales. When he went there in the early 1950s the situation was quite tense. Foreign missionaries, because of historical circumstances, were not very welcome. Communism through the Huk movement was quite active and you had the very strong presence of the Aglipayan Independent Church which was very nationalistic.

It wasn’t a particularly good time for ecumenism and dialogue. There was a certain animosity towards the missionary. In 1950, Fr Tom Flynn from Kilkishen in Co Clare was abducted from his parish in Labrador in the adjacent Province of Pangasinan and killed. Donal and other Columbans found themselves in this very tense situation. Over the years and with great patience Donal was able to befriend those who were antagonistic.

He spent over twenty years working with the Aeta indigenous peoples who were forced to move to the lowlands from their ancestral homes due to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 which buried their homes and lands in volcanic ash. When they moved to the lowlands they were scattered and neglected. The Bishop asked Donal to help them.

He discovered that there were over 7,000 Aeta scattered over a wide geographical area. Donal became the Coordinator of the Indigenous peoples in the diocese. He was instrumental in facilitating them to acquire ownership of land, to secure rights to their ancestral land and to preserve their culture. He won the confidence of the people and he was very sensitive to their customs and culture.

He was always caring and respectful of people. Wherever he ministered he was greatly loved by the people, teachers, high school students and parents. He had the great gift of never being in a hurry and he always had time for people. He was a very approachable and the people and priests had great trust in him and many would often seek his advice and counsel. Irrespective of their shortcomings and mistakes Donal was never condemnatory or judgemental.

During his entire missionary life, he was always on the side of the underdog and the poor. He truly made the words of the Prophet Micah central to his life: ‘this is what Yahweh asks of you and only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.’

Love for Family

He had a great love for you his family and appreciated all your kindness to him over the years. He loved to visit you all and nothing gave him more pleasure than getting into his car and driving to visit family and friends in Clare and elsewhere but especially in his native parish of Quin, Clooney and Maghera.

He had a wonderful gift for keeping in touch with people whether in Ireland or the Philippines. His family and friends were always so happy to see him and they thoroughly enjoyed his company as did many Columbans and the people of the Philippines. Nothing pleased him more than sitting around a kitchen table and having a cup of tea.

When Michael Doohan, his contemporary and friend going back many years, visited him with Michael Sinnott in the Mater Hospital last Thursday, Michael told him that he would be going to Clare after the Jubilee celebrations in Dalgan on the 15th August, Donal said that he would go with him. They often travelled to Clare together and always stopped on the way for lunch.

A gentle giant at the service of others

He was often referred to as the gentle giant who made himself available to so many people. He was always ready to be at the service of others. Yet, he liked his independence. It was a great blow and disappointment when he was no longer able to drive. Just as he made himself available to people his friends now made themselves available to him by bringing him to visit family and friends. Donal was also a very private person but very witty with his own distinct sense of humour.

He was very interested in all sports including cricket but his first love was Gaelic games. He also enjoyed his game of golf and despite his weak condition in hospital he was able to ask how Shane Lowry was doing in the recent British Open.

He loved a celebration. On the occasion of his 90th birthday he had not only one birthday cake but three and plenty of chocolate. He also liked to join in the celebrations of others.

His love for the people of Quin

He never lost touch with the people of his home Parish of Quin, Clooney and Maghera. He made himself available to help out in the parish whenever he was called on. The people of Quin were very close to him and he always appreciated the financial support he received for his projects in the Philippines and even since his return to Ireland.

He would be very pleased to see representatives from the Parish of Quin present this morning. We are very grateful for your presence and also for the presence of Fr Tom O’Gorman, Parish Priest of Quin. I do know that Donal and the O’Dea family would like me to thank you for your generosity and interest in his work in the Philippines.

The Work of the Apostolic Society

Donal took a great interest in the work of the Apostolic Society in the Diocese of Killaloe and the parish of Quin. His mother was the founding member of the Apostolic Society in Quin. Whenever he was in Ireland, he would always attend their displays. He very much appreciated the wonderful work they did and their support for his projects and indeed for the projects of many missionaries.

His close affinity and friendship with the Columban Sisters

Donal had a very close affinity and genuine friendship with the Columban Sisters and very much appreciated their work. His two sisters, Rita and Mary were esteemed members of the Congregation and did very fine work in Peru and the USA. He would be very pleased to see so many of you here today and again last night.

He loved to visit Magheramore and on many occasions I had the pleasure of his company on these visits. How appropriate and fitting it is today to have with us Srs Cecilia Cuizon and Perlita Ponge from the Philippines. Perlita spoke to me before the Mass of Donal’s great kindness to her family when her mother was ill. He visited her mother in hospital on a daily basis and was the main celebrant at her funeral Mass in Olongapo city.

Last Friday, on hearing of the death of Donal, Sr Kathleen Geaney phoned to express her sympathies and sadness at Donal’s death. She expressed her gratitude to him for his many acts of kindness over the years and especially for his frequent visits to her late father when he was ill. He held you all in very high esteem and I know that you also greatly appreciated his kindness, friendship and generosity.

Scripture Readings

Donal was a man of prayer and had a very close relationship with God. The first reading that I chose is very familiar from the Book of Ecclesiastes. In this reading we are told that there is a time and season for everything and God made everything suitable for its time. ‘There is a time to be born and a time to die.’

In Donal’s case God saw it fitting to welcome him home on Friday 26h July on the lovely feast of Saints Joachim and Anne. While we are genuinely sad at his leaving us we are very grateful that he had such a good long life. His parents, Stephen and Nell, sisters, Srs Rita and Mary, brothers, Fr Seamus and Paddy and sister-in-law Catherine will have had a very warm welcome for him.

The second reading is that lovely reading from St Paul to Timothy. As death approaches, St Paul reflects on his life. He is happy about his life and hopeful for the future. Like St Paul, Donal can rightly say, ‘I have fought the goof fight, I have finished the race and I have kept the faith.’ In the words of St Paul, Donal is now enjoying the crown of righteousness in the loving embrace of a gracious and compassionate God.

The Emmaus Story

For the Gospel, I have chosen the story of the two disciples on their way home to Emmaus, a story that Donal would have often read and which would have appealed to him. The death of Jesus had shattered their world and reduced their dreams to rubble. They were confused as many of us are at times.  Jesus appears to them. He engaged them in dialogue. The first thing he does is to open their minds to understand that his death, far from being the end of the dream, was the very means by which it was fulfilled.

As it was near evening they invited him to join them for a meal. Then he opens their eyes and they recognised him in the breaking of bread. It was this experience of the presence of the risen Jesus that helped them to pick up the pieces. Donal, like Jesus, was a person who helped so many people during his missionary journey to pick up the pieces after a loved one died, or a tragedy struck a family or community. He was always present to help them find hope again. Through this lovely Emmaus story, we discover that death is not the end but the beginning of a new life with the Lord. We should take great consolation from the words of Jesus when he says, ‘I am with you always to the end of time.’

Returning to the Source of Life

We now hand Donal back to God the source of life. We give thanks to God for the many ways that he has enriched our lives and the lives of so many especially the poor of Zambales.

Today his life story passes before us, with its memories, joys, sorrows, disappointments and successes. May we continue to hold the story of Donal’s journey of faith close to our hearts. May we continue on our journey of faith to hold dear the Christian values by which he lived and which he shared with us and so many people.

We give thanks to God for the many ways he has enriched our lives. We thank you Paul and Eileen and all the family for gifting Donal to the Missionary Society of St Columban and for gifting Srs Rita and Mary to the Missionary Sisters of St Columban. We will miss his gentle presence amongst us here in Dalgan and you as a family will also miss him. On this feast of St Martha, we commit Donal to God’s loving embrace. May he continue to remember us from his place in heaven.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.