"THE MEMORY OF JESUS IS BOTH SACRED AND SUBVERSIVE"
Thursday, 16 June 2016
Father Martin McAlinden PP Lurgan RIP
This homily gives a very different and important view of priesthood. I found it very touching.
Fr McAlinden was buried yesterday aged 51 To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
to hold itagainst your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
So says Mary Oliver, Martin’s favourite poet, in her poem In Blackwater Woods.
Now is our time for letting go.
Martin’s life: a beacon of brief fire. And now, after so brave a struggle, the fire is finally extinguished. So tragically sad for all of us, for his parents Barney and Mary, for his sister Linda, for his nieces and nephew, for his family and friends and all of us who knew Martin so well and who loved Martin so much.
Martin’s untimely death confronts us again with the great mystery of suffering in the world and in the lives of those we love.
Why so much pain and suffering and death?
Why does God allow such things to happen, bringing so much distress and so much grief to so many people?
Towards the end of one of his poems, Quiet Grass, Green Stone the young Pennsylvanian poet, Dean Young, concludes as follows:
“More and more I am satisfied with partial explanations,
like a fly with one wing, walking.”
As we grow older I suppose and maybe a bit wiser, as we experience something of the unfairness of the world at first hand, we come to realise that this is life.
This is just the way things are. We come to realise that partial explanations to the problem of suffering and death are probably as much as we can hope for or expect.
This is something Martin had come to realise and to live in a most impressive and profound way, especially in these last, pain-filled months of his life.
All the more profoundly impressive of course because Martin was so much in love with life, so full of the zest of living, so bright, so brave, so brimming with ideas, so creative, so funny, so fit, so full of fun, so full of running, jogging, cycling, swimming, such a prolific fundraiser for so many charities and good causes, so courageous in his illness and in his final days.
As we all know now, although in the early stages we had all hoped it might be different, that for the last two and a half years, Martin has lived with the dark and insidious presence of cancer cells coursing through his body. All during that difficult and extended time, our beloved Martin has been supported and sustained by the love and friendship of so many of us who are present in Saint Peter’s today.
At times we were hopeful, at times despairing, at other times feeling almost entirely helpless: so little we could really say or do, as much as we all wanted to share his pain and to alleviate his distress, even in some small measure. We so much wanted Martin to be well. We so much willed Martin to be well. We prayed and implored The Lord so fervently for his recovery.
And Martin himself wanted so passionately to stay. Martin wanted so fervently to live, not merely to survive but to live his life positively and productively, as well and for as long as he possibly could.
Through all the trials and tribulations of the past two and a half years: his initial diagnosis, his chemo, his surgery, his period of recovery, until the return of his cancer at the end of last summer and during all the hard hours, days and months, since, Martin was enormously comforted Barney and Mary, by your constant loving presence and support.
As we pray for dear Martin’s eternal peace at Mass today, we are also praying very much for you, his beloved parents. And for you too Linda, Martin’s beloved sister, who are very much in our hearts and thoughts today. So too, his nieces Charlene and Sinead and his nephew Connor who were so close to their uncle Martin and who are so deeply upset and sad at this long and lonely time of grief.
Mary and Barney, Linda, Charlene, Sinead and Connor, you have walked the dark road of suffering with Martin these past two and a half years, just as you have walked the road with Martin in happier and sunnier days: Martin’s journey to ordination and priesthood, his journey through the many and varied roles and appointments in the diocese, his journey to several significant academic achievements, two Masters Degrees and his doctorate at the University of Chester almost complete at the time of Martin’s death.
Mary, Barney and Linda, Charlene, Sinead and Conor, and all the other members of Martin’s immediate and extended family, we know you are bereft and heartbroken today. On behalf of all of us here in this beautiful church where Martin was baptised 51, and ordained, 26 years ago, on behalf of all of us who have gathered in this sacred place, so significant in Martin’s life, so resonant with his memory and yes so resonant of his abiding and eternal presence with those he loved and cared for during his life. As we gather to pray in Saint Peter’s today, we want to assure you, the members of Martin’s family, of the love and prayers of all of us here.
On behalf of Bishop John, on behalf of all of Martin’s friends and colleagues, on behalf of so many of his former parishioners and all of us in Saint Peter’s today, I want to extend to you, his beloved parents, his dear sister, his nieces and nephew, the promise of our prayers at this sad and lonely time. You can be so proud of Martin today, a magnificent son, a kind and generous brother and uncle, a tremendous priest and a truly wonderful human being.
I want also to extend a special welcome to Martin’s colleagues and former students from Maynooth College. I remember very well the morning in May 2014, when Martin slipped out of our Annual Diocesan Retreat in Drumalis in Larne, to make his way to Maynooth to be interviewed for the post of Director of Pastoral Theology. It was entirely fitting of course that he started the journey from his beloved Drumalis because by then, Drumalis had become firmly established as Martin’s spiritual and pastoral home.
At the time when Martin applied for the post in Maynooth, he was in the middle of that first and very severe cycle of chemotherapy just prior to his massive and life-changing surgery. I thought he was completely mad to even contemplate the rigours of the interview process, given all that he was contending with right then and I remember one Saturday night in Legahory, prior to the short-listing and interview, telling him so at the time.
But Martin’s courage and the positivity of Martin’s vision were much broader and more expansive than mine. He travelled down from Larne to Maynooth, submitted himself to a very testing and rigorous interview and landed the job of his dreams. Maynooth clearly knew a good thing when they saw it and when they appointed Martin, they appointed a man who would give his all, his whole heart, soul and mind to his new role and to all the various responsibilities it involved.
Martin worked in parish ministry for all but one of his brief 26 years of priesthood. His priestly ministry was truly a beacon of brief fire: bringing Good News to the poor, brightening so many lives, binding so many hearts, smoothing so many paths, calming so many souls, warming so many lives. I want to warmly welcome so many of his former parishioners to Martin’s funeral mass today.
I’ll tell you a funny story. Way back in the early 1990’s, myself and Martin both served together as priests in the parish of Newry. We lived in the same house on the Armagh Road for five or six years and worked in the same area of town, that part of Newry Parish around Saint Brigid’s Church which included The Meadow, Parkhead, the Camlough Rd and Derrybeg. Anyway, in 1996, we were both transferred from Newry at the same time: me to the parish of Warrenpoint, Martin to the parish of Saval. But here’s the thing: the people of Saint Brigid’s organized a petition and presented it to Dr Brooks, the bishop of the day, asking that Martin be kept in Newry. No petition for me!!!
If I hadn’t known it before, I knew it right then, that Martin had that common touch, that ability to connect, that gift of genuine engagement with people, those gifts of truly effective ministry, which left me and the rest of us, Martin’s ministerial colleagues, stranded at the starting gate. Martin just had that wonderful gift of connecting and endearing himself to the people he came into contact with.
Saint Paul reminds us in our Second Reading today that there is a variety of gifts. Martin had so many of them and in such full measure.
He was a wonderful parish priest but at the same time there was a restlessness in Martin, always a longing for something more. It was in part a desire for the academic life but an academic life that allowed Martin to bring into play his full panoply of unique pastoral gifts and experiences.
Director of Pastoral Theology at Maynooth was Martin’s dream appointment. Martin had arrived. He loved Maynooth. He loved the company, the challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the access to books, the chance at last to read and to write and to study in earnest. He loved the company of his peers and he relished sharing his Pope Francis-style vision of the Church and his Pope-Francis style vision of priestly ministry with a new generation of students for the priesthood. He loved the whole ambience that Maynooth provides. Martin in short, had found his true priestly and ministerial home at last.
In the event, Martin had one brief but glorious academic year in his new post, rattling a few cages along the way, challenging the status quo, as Martin was of course instinctively inclined to do, before his cancer returned and took Martin down a road he had certainly considered, but one he had hoped he would not be asked to walk so soon: the road to Martin’s own personal Calvary.
As it turned out of course, this final phase of his life was to be Martin’s finest and most dazzling hour. He battled his suffering, he took all the treatment offered to him, he wanted so desperately to live, but finally, he began to face the stark reality of his condition, coming to an acceptance of his fate and its inevitable outcome with great spirit, courage, and even humour. Just a few short Sundays ago, as the afternoon sun streamed through his window in the hospice, and with the beautiful cherry blossom outside in full bloom, Martin confided to us that he was entirely at peace.
The road of suffering can be long and winding, as it certainly was for Martin. Martin had to walk parts of that road alone as we all must do when our time comes. Martin had to endure many lonely, pain-filled nights, his own deeply personal Dark Night of the Soul, but all the time sustained by the love and constant outreach of his closest and dearest friends. Many of you are present in this congregation today. You do not need or want to be named. Your hearts are truly broken for you were Martin’s most faithful and most intimate companions. In his choice of Gospel Text today, Martin reminds us that: There is no greater love than to lay down our lives for our friends. Thank you for your boundless and abundant love for Martin. We know that the love of friends was something Martin needed and valued so intensely and so gratefully all during his life and especially at the end. He inspired us by his indomitable spirit. We saw his brokenness and his terrible vulnerability up close but we were so pleased and so privileged to be counted among his friends.
Something of Martin will live on in all of us who were privileged to call him friend and in all of us who had the opportunity to love him so dearly, until we join Martin in the long sleep of death and finally in the bright peace of God’s eternal day.
As our son, brother, uncle, priest, friend, colleague, as a truly authentic human being, Martin showed us how to live and how to die well in deep and intimate relationship with The Lord and with those who really count in our all too short and sometimes stormy lives.
Martin was also a man of creative and authentic spirituality, deeply committed to The Lord but also at the same time, deeply attuned to the complexities of the world. He was so heartened by the broad and generous, person-centred vision for the Church of Good Pope Francis.
Martin was deeply sympathetic to the many shades of grey which, if we are really honest, characterise so many of our closest relationships and so much of our lives. Martin wanted so much for the Church to reach out to those who are truly hurting and to embrace them in a truly pastoral and Gospel-centred way, as we all struggle together, to navigate the ever shifting sands of these dynamic times.
Martin was a man who gave time to The Lord in prayer, who celebrated Eucharist every day of his priestly life and during his final illness from his room in the hospice, concelebrating by daily webcam with the Benedictines of Kilbroney.
A few years ago, Martin was saying Mass in Saint Anthony’s. The sun was blazing in, blinding him to the presence of the congregation. It was only when he elevated the Sacred Host that he was able to see the people. It was a seminal moment for Martin. The whole mystery of being truly in communion came into focus in a new way as communion with The Lord in the Eucharist and communion with God’s People merged and became one. The mystery of the Eucharist and this fullness of Communion, remained at the core of everything Martin believed to the very end of his life.
I have mentioned already how in recent years, Martin had found a new spiritual home at Drumalis. He loved Drumalis and all it stands for. He was greatly animated, both intellectually and spiritually by the strongly communal and caring ethos he enjoyed there, an ethos and spirit which Martin found so amenable to his own restless and ever-searching spirit, so amenable to his own ideas of Church and to ministry and to his own dynamic vision of the Christian life when it is lived wholeheartedly and well.
If Drumalis was Martin’s spiritual home Maynooth College, and of course in more recent times the University of Chester, were his intellectual homes. His doctoral studies at Chester were well advanced at the time of Martin’s death. Another six months would have finished the work but none of that really matters now. What really mattered to Martin, and what Martin greatly appreciated so much about Drumalis, Maynooth and Chester were the searching after truth, and the intellectual breathing space, that he found there and of course the new friendships that he was able to forge and which he valued more than anything else.
Once again, his friends and colleagues from, Drumalis, Maynooth and Chester, are most warmly welcome to Saint Peter’s today.
The course of Martin’s illness was unforgiving and unrelenting. Martin suffered a great deal, not just physically but of course emotionally as well. I know that Martin would want me to say thank you to all who have minded him and cared for him since his initial diagnosis, through his initial surgery and marvellous though short-lived recovery, through the reappearance of his cancer at the end of last summer, and since. Thank you:
to the staff at Wynne Hill Surgery here in Lurgan;
to the staff in theatres, in the ICU, in 4South, and in the Mandeville Unit at CAH;
to his good friend Dr Max and the staff at the Northern Ireland Hospice both at Whiteabbey and on the Somerton Road, who have provided Martin not just with expert palliative care, but who have also provided Martin with a home for these final weeks and months of his life.
And may I also, on Martin’s behalf, express a very sincere and heartfelt thank you to all involved in Martin’s care.
Martin was a voracious reader. For as long as I’ve known Martin, and that’s the best part of thirty years, Martin always had some kind of a book in his hand or pocket or lying on the seat of the car.
During his illness, poetry became a major element in Martin’s pattern of reading. Around Christmas time, he introduced me to the wonderful American poet, Mary Oliver, from Massachusetts.
I wish to read one of her poems now calledPraying. It was one of Martin’s favourites. It is a poem about prayer and is deeply moving and amazingly beautiful:
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris.
It could be weeds in a vacant lot
Or a few small stones,
Just pay attention then patch
A few words together
And don’t try to make them elaborate.
This isn’t a contest
but the doorway into thanks
and a silence
In which another voice
What a marvellous vision of prayer as the “doorway into thanks” and silence in which “another voice may speak”. Martin had come to this vision himself. He had come to sense it and to feel it in his very soul and in the secret places of his hearts. Martin had come to recognise and to embody this profound truth in his always earthy but deeply spiritual life.
Martin’s spiritual pilgrimage on this earth is finished. Everything is accomplished.
Dear Martin, son, brother, uncle, magnificent priest, born teacher, true friend:
Rest in Peace.