R.I.P. - Fr. Kevin O’Doherty
All Saints Church, Newtowncunningham
14 January 2020
(Homilist: Fr Niall Coll)
In our first reading, from Ezekiel, written during the Babylonian captivity, we heard an account of the prophet’s vision of a restored Temple in Jerusalem. It was envisaged as a new centre - where the water flowing from the sanctuary symbolized new life - for the praise of God by the Hebrew people who have returned from Babylon to the land of Israel.
A not totally dissimilar vision of a need for a new temple, one designed to meet the needs of a growing and developing Catholic community in Newtowncunningham led to the building of this new All Saints Church twenty odd years ago. Fr Kevin O’Doherty was instrumental in inspiring and leading his parishioners to collaborate closely together on this project.
This new church building was and is a great beacon of Christian hope, in a secular age, testifying to the enduring importance of God’s holy people gathering regularly and faithfully to be strengthened by God’s word and nourished by the Lord’s sacraments, especially the Sunday Eucharist.
How appropriate it is that Fr Kevin’s funeral Mass be celebrated in this temple and that people and families whom he served so faithfully as priest over two decades pay their respects to his memory and pray that God will take him to Himself and grant him a merciful judgment.
May this gathering in prayer and thanksgiving also bring consolation to his family as they mourn Kevin and give thanks to God for a loving brother, uncle, cousin and friend.
One way in which Kevin stood out is the extent to which, as a young man, he embraced the teachings of the Second Vatican Council with much fondness and gusto. Ordained in 1963, he began his priestly ministry in the diocese of Motherwell (Lanarkshire) at the end of the first of the three years of the Council’s deliberations in Rome.
Serving as a young priest in Scotland he was a founder member of a fraternity of clergy – the Clonmacnoise Society – who committed themselves to a close theological study of the teachings of the Council. He welcomed Vatican II’s more open, less defensive outlook on faith and life. The Council’s teachings would greatly inform the shape of his subsequent ministry in Scotland and later in Ireland when he came home to work in the diocese of Raphoe in 1987.
Let me give you just two examples from his ministry which underline the importance he attached to the renewal that Vatican II called for and which he worked assiduously to develop among God’s people. First, he had a very strong commitment to involving the people more deeply and actively in the life of faith and of the church.
In other words, he was dedicated to encouraging and facilitating all members of the parish to have a fuller understanding of the meaning of their baptismal callings. They were, he hoped, to be active, not passive in the life of faith … called to build God’s kingdom in the parish, at home, at work etc … and in this way too they supported each other on the journey of life and faith …
In a creative and experimental spirit, he gathered you together to conceive and execute the building of this church. There was an extensive process of meetings, talking and listening … Lay leadership, co-responsibility, was encouraged and developed. Decisions had to be made. How was the project to be paid for? How would the money be raised? And the people rose to the challenge, all the more remarkable for a small parish in east Donegal, a border region where the economy has never been particularly strong.
The fear of failure which can paralyse the best of us was not allowed to hold sway. And, truth be told, Kevin himself always had a clear idea of the direction of travel that was to be pursued …!
A second priority in Fr Kevin’s ministry which grew out of his attachment to the Second Vatican Council was his unstinting commitment to working for Christian unity and better inter-church relations between Catholics and Protestants. Whatever the tradition we belong to here, and they are all of great importance in themselves – Catholic, Presbyterian or Anglican – he knew that we all also belong to an older and wider tradition which precedes the major divisions of the Reformation and has survived beyond them. Thus more unites than divides us!
Here in Newtowncunningham and Killea, in the religiously mixed Lagan, he developed friendships with Presbyterian and Church of Ireland people and clergy. The trust and mutual respect which ensued led to the establishment of the much-valued Trinity Court complex here in Newtown …
Fr Kevin’s interest in understanding Ireland’s complex political and religious history and divisions also had a strong academic focus. Did you know that he was a lifelong anthropology scholar and that he spent time as a young priest at the London School of Economics and the Mellon Institute, a university in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania?
The main focus of his study, following an approach, was, I believe, the Orange culture in Ireland. Way ahead of his time, he was anxious to find ways to address old grievances, build up mutual understandingandbring about reconciliation. In fact, I believe this work involved his discreet attendance at some celebrations of the Twelfth … A not too common occurrence I would say for the Catholic clergy!
Fr Kevin’s hope was that his years of retirement would afford him the space to both complete his writing and to publish his findings. But that was not to be: failing eyesight and the onset of a debilitating sickness made that impossible. And he was greatly disappointed by this turn of events.
But he persevered… in the face of much sickness and loss of independence. He was mentally alert long after his limbs had given way. How consoling must the words of St Paul have been to him as he suffered with sickness and limitation: ‘Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ; even if we are troubled or worried, threatened or attacked … These are the trials through which we triumph, by the power of God who loved us.’
Yes, ‘by the power of God who loved us,’ Fr Kevin was a very kind, faithful and farsighted minister of the Gospel. The people of Newtowncunningham and Killea appreciated his person and ministry. Perhaps the greatest testimony to his work among you is your continued commitment to both your faith and to developing lay ministry among you, evident in the array of ministries which continue to thrive in the parish. In addition to the Eucharistic Ministers and Readers, one finds the Pastoral Council, the Finance Council, Children’s Liturgy Teams, the Choirs, the Folk Group, the Welcome and Hospitality ministers and so on.
Supporting each other on the journey of faith and life is at the very heart of the Christian vocation. And it’s not just about the present, or indeed the past, … but also about the future. A future which begins as we share Christ’s message of meaning and hope with our children, and which orientates us towards God and the world which is to come.
This new church building is a sacred space which brings God’s Catholic people in Newtown together in faith on a weekly, indeed daily basis, to worship God.
May it reverberate today in praise of God and in thanksgiving for Fr Kevin’s life, faith and ministry in the sure and certain hope that Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the life’. And that those who live and believe in him will never die.
May Fr Kevin rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen