Monday, 13 August 2007

Mass of Thanksgiving (Chew Magna) - Eulogy by Stephen McNulty

My Lord Bishop, Fr. Peter, Reverend Fathers, Reverend Sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Father Richard’s dear and wonderful friend, Helen, tells me that Richard asked for me to deliver a Eulogy at his funeral. That is a bit odd really, because I always told Richard that I didn’t approve of eulogies. The main reason for my reluctance is that, at a funeral, whilst we might want to thank Almighty God for the blessing of a relative or a good and kind friend, the main focus should be to pray for the soul of the deceased, and to look back at someone’s life can seem to have more to do with this world than with the next.

But, as I thought about the challenge, I realised that, as we have not had an ordinary man in our midst, a eulogy may be appropriate. Richard used the experiences of his life as pointers to his spiritual message, much as Our Lord did through his parables, and so if a Eulogy is what he wanted, it must be the right thing to do. In any case, as anyone who ever dared to attempt to refuse him soon found out, it was always asking for trouble not to do as he asked. So a Eulogy is what he will have. We must not overlook Richard in our prayers, but because of the way he touched the lives of all he met, it must be right that praise and thanks to God for his life are very appropriate.

The theme of the uniqueness of this very special man will recur several times in this address.

Why did Richard single me out? Well, probably because he always had a healthy respect for his fellow-Liverpudlians. And my father, (who died last year,) went to the same Jesuit school as Richard, St. Francis Xavier’s, in Liverpool (or SFX as it is known,) and he felt a special bond with someone such as my father ,who had learnt well from the “good” Jesuits, but had been a fellow-sufferer at the hands of the “bad” ones.

Now, in a traditional eulogy, it is common to set out details of a person’s life for those who are not so familiar with it. But Richard’s wonderful autobiography, (called “Bless and Tell”,) which he finished while here at Chew Magna, has said so much about his life in his own unique way that there is little I can add: he has such good timing in telling stories against himself, and uses wit and pathos and humour, as well as showing flashes of true revelation which reveal a deep spirituality that is grounded in his love for Our Saviour. It is well beyond me to summarise or to improve upon it all.

In his life, Religious Order abounded: the Jesuits, for good or ill, were a cornerstone of his thought. From those early days of what he termed his failure at SFX, to the kathartic moment when he took what he calls a “Great Leap” off a boat in the South China Sea to visit the grave of St Francis Xavier himself, he had a reverence and a respect for the religious life that never left him

But Richard’s great talent was to be able to pile all his experiences one on top of the other to make him the uniquely sensitive, kind, caring, and spiritual man that he was. His amazing newsletters were just brimming with jokes, cartoons, life experiences and, often as not, good Catholic teaching. He was always very clear that the failures in his life had given him strength, and the ability to see humour in the bleakest of moments.

He always said he was no academic. I remember when I told him that I was reading a book of Cardinal Newman’s sermons about Our Lady, he said he would prefer a Crime Thriller anyday! But I think his BSc in Biology, his M.Ed, and especially the Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy awarded to him by the Open University show that, as always, his low opinion of his own abilities was not shared by others, even in the academic world. But in all of this he was being genuinely humble. What he saw as his own failures made him ever ready to listen to others with their problems, and to offer just the right level of comfort and advice. He had an especial fondness for the young, and his years at Christleton and then at Mary Ward College, where he met his lifelong friend Helen, and on to the University of Aston, Birmingham Polytechnic and then Keele University, gave him a unique insight into the problems of young people and their anxieties and needs

I often felt that Richard’s favourite part of the Mass was when he gathered the little ones around the altar to say the Our Father.

He never censured anyone; he always listened, and always forgave. In fact, he was very Christlike in all he did. He had that great gift of making everyone he came into contact with, young or old, feel special, loved and wanted.

As in all his experiences of life, his heart bypass made a deep and lasting impact on him, and he remained very grateful to God for the gift of extra years after he had seemed to die on the operating table. Amazingly, after that , he went on to be elected as the Provincial of the Salvatorians, a post that he filled for two terms.

It is typical of the man that he retained his humility despite having held a position of some eminence; a Provincial has the rank of bishop, but Richard emerged with his characteristic good humour intact, although I strongly suspect he could be firm and purposeful when the occasion demanded it.

And then he came to Chew Magna. Despite Fr. Peter’s kind words about our little world here, from all Richard has said and written, the experience of coming to what seemed a rural backwater with precious few students, no bohemian parties where he could serve up his stews of leftovers, and a parish boundary that looked more like a small diocese, was a shock to him.

The message was that he had come to retire here. Or so we thought!!

But Richard was always brimming with ideas. I cannot think of a time when he was not working on a grand plan of some sort. Even in his last days he was working on a book of spiritual exercises, which seems to hark back to the Jesuits again, although this work was to be subtitled a book of “Prayerobics”, so I’m not sure how close to St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises he intended it to be.

In his eight years at Chew Magna he did so much, that it’s difficult to do justice to all he achieved. A number of things come to mind, though:

Firstly the two great parish parties at which the Sacred Liturgy was a powerful and solemn centrepiece; the first one was to celebrate his 75th birthday; and the second was held to celebrate the bicentenary of the parish.

Then there were his cheese and wine parties, which in the last year he promoted on local radio as having the express aim of welcoming lapsed Catholics, and perhaps others, to the Church; And we should not forget his wonderful parish manual, which is a masterpiece of organisation and efficiency. In it we see evidence of the extraordinary and inclusive way Richard involved almost everyone in the parish in his various ministries; a true example and beacon to other parishes. He was a man thoroughly imbued with the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council; he condemned excesses, but gloried in its achievements.

Richard did not want to die. He felt that he had so much more he had to contribute to the Church and to whatever community he was asked to serve. He gave of himself in a way which would have been impressive in a man half his age. But to run the parish the way he did right up till the operation he had in June was truly remarkable. There are thousands of people whose lives will never be the same after having had the privilege to meet and to know Richard.

His internet address book is longer than that of most popular students. But Richard’s closest friends, Mike and Helen Whitty, are people to whom our parish owes a special debt of gratitude. Richard’s own siblings are either dead or very elderly, and Helen and Mike have been his adoptive family for years. They have sustained and supported him throughout his time at Chew Magna, and without them he could not have achieved all that he has.

He talks in his book about the “Long Jump” off a boat in the South China Sea, when he had to put his faith and trust in one of the guides to catch him. Well he has made his last “Long Jump” out of this life into the arms of our Divine Saviour, who will, I have no doubt, be there to catch him. He had a very real sense of Our Lord in his life, as his book makes clear. In his own words, he tells of a revelation of Christ “as a person with whom I could have a personal relationship”, and this was followed soon after by a wonderful glimpse of eternal bliss at St. Mary’s, Highfield Street, when “I happened to look down at the altar and suddenly the world stood still. It was though a curtain, like on a stage, suddenly flashed open and I was encased in light.”

Well, unlike in his vision of 1951, the curtains will not now clash to, and he will soon be standing face to face with Our Blessed Lord.

In the meantime, we must not omit Richard in our prayers, that God will pardon his sins and give him the reward he so richly deserves. Today is, though, also one where we should thank Our Lord for the great gift of this uniquely talented, kind and loyal priest and friend.

The world is poorer without him

May he Rest in Peace.

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