A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Funeral Homily for Fr John Kelly ocso

Abbot Brian  Keogh OCSO

Abbot Brian Keogh OCSO

Alive or dead we belong to the Lord

The Rule of St Benedict urges monks to prefer absolutely nothing to Christ. Fr John took this to heart and willed it with a God-given determination: he had a will of iron, as we say, and once his conscience signalled a course of action, he responded accordingly. Youthful experience led him to distrust the affective side of his personality for he was prone to choose friends and then seek to hold on to the relationship exclusively, possessively. By the time he was 20 years of age he realised that this exclusiveness was hindering his love of God, and so he made the decision never to permit it to happen again. It was a very costly decision, perhaps not a very wise one. It was to be many years later before the effects of this decision were undone.

Fr John’s personal motto might have been Love alone counts. Love of God was certainly the focal point of his life, the source of his every desire. He ardently longed for, as the Book of Revelation puts it, the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth: God was his beginning and his ending.

It is possible to understand his life as a series of expanding horizons, accompanied by a slowly evolving vision: the family farm at Alleen, six miles from Tipperary; primary education at Donaskeigh, just down the road; then the monastery of Mt Melleray, Co. Waterford, where he gained his secondary education and early seminary training, before entering the community in 1950; and later the Angelicum University, Rome, in 1961 and 1962 that was both a blessing and a source of bewilderment for him. After years of silence and solitude at Mt Melleray, he was now urged to communicate with his confreres and spend his leisure time exploring the glories of Rome. And worse still, the hours of lectures followed by study and assignments interfered with his desire for contemplation. But from it all he gained an abiding appreciation for the writings of St Thomas Aquinas , and it is no exaggeration to say that, for Fr John, Aquinas was the ‘fifth evangelist.’

Fr John arrived at Southern Star Abbey on February 25, 1967. Over the years he contributed greatly to the life and work of the community as teacher, farm manager, bursar and abbot from 1992-1998. At the end of his six-year term, he chose not to make himself available for a second term, realising the community needed a new direction.

The last decade of his life was very fruitful. He became an assistant to the Guestmaster and was always available to visitors seeking counsel and guidance. He relished this contact for he began to appreciate his widening sense of love for God’s people and their love for him. Always a writer, he worked consistently at refining his ideas. His writing was characterised by a rational frame of mind, but it was forged out of his experience. Fr Carl Telford SM, editor of the “Marist Messenger” at the time, asked for an article on prayer and so began a series of regular articles on spirituality. And there are more to come!

In 2009 it dawned on Fr John that his teaching that Love alone counts was inadequate; and it was his beloved Thomas Aquinas who rescued him. Aquinas taught that love of God “is a kind of friendship between God and a human being”. Friendship involves two people, for both love each other. So also in the act of charity two are involved, two love each other, God and I. An act of charity is not a choice, an act of the will that I make alone. Consequently, when we perform such an act we are responding to God’s prior love for us, co-responding with God’s inspiration and co-operating with God’s grace. Hence in the act of charity God and I love one another. Grace had saved Fr John from the shadow side of the tenacity of his will.

The last three weeks of Fr John’s life were spent at Hawkes Bay Hospital which offered a new form of monastic enclosure for him. His life there was one of simplicity: free from attending Choir seven times a day, no longer celebrating the Eucharist to which he was so devoted, unable to read, dependent on nursing staff and yet, as all who visited him noted, content and happy. His constant prayer was “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus ….”. To the very end he was a devoted disciple of the Lord Jesus, formed both by his family and his monastic community.

It is more than appropriate for me today to imagine the Lord Jesus raising his eyes to his Father and, in the words of the Gospel just proclaimed, saying of Fr John: Father, I want Fr John, whom you have given to me, to be with me where I am so that he may always see the glory you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

I have every confidence that this is so.

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