One of my favourite feast days is the Feast of St Joseph the worker which falls on the 1 May each year. The feast day falls at that time of year when April turns into May and the signs of spring and new life are everywhere. Nature, as it stirs into new life after a long winter, mirrors the resurrection of Christ from the dead and we are all filled with hope – hope not just that the summer months will bring growth and plenty but also that one day each one of us will, like Jesus, journey through death to a new springtime of life with the Father.
Fr Felim Kelly died early in the morning of the first of May, on the feast of St Joseph the worker. It seems appropriate that he died on that day because throughout his life he was a worker, a man of action, a man who got things done. What inspired Felim to become a priest and what motivated him in life were Scripture passages like that first reading from the Prophet Isaiah which says: Share your food with the hungry and open your home to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear. Felim had a social conscience and that became obvious early on in his ministry, just one year after his ordination, when as a curate in Tierworker in the year 1966 he became involved in the NFA. He took an active part in the National Farmers Association country-wide protests as they tried to get a decent incomes for farm families. Those of us who remember back to the mid 1960s remember a time of poverty and want and Felim, being close to people, recognised the plight of his parishioners, and set about doing something about it.
Later, while a curate in Newtownmanor, he saw that the young people of the area had no social outlets, no facilities and so he involved himself in setting up youth clubs and in promoting Gaelic football, a sport he had played himself and a sport he remained interested in throughout his life.
Pope Francis, who has been one of the great blessings for our Church in recent times, has much to say to us priests about what we should be doing and how we should live our lives. Several times in recent years he has told us priests not to live our lives aloof from people. He told us to get involved in people’s lives, to, as he put it, to ‘get our hands dirty’, as we set about caring for those, especially the poor, who are entrusted to our care. We must be people of action, Pope Francis tells us, we must walk the dusty road with others as we journey through life and he warned us priests against a clericalism which sees itself as an elite group living aloof from ordinary people’s lives. No one could accuse Felim Kelly of clericalism and he strived throughout his life to walk the road with others and to give a helping hand, whenever he could, along the way.
One of the great risk for our generation of priests is that we would become involved in a sort of mindless activism, that we would become a social worker of sorts, without ever knowing what we should be about. The Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests in the Second Vatican Council is quite clear about what should be the central purpose of a priest’s life. It says, and I quote: The priests must have, as their primary duty, the proclamation of the gospel of God to all.
What could be simpler? The most important task we priests have is that of preaching, of proclaiming the Good News about Jesus Christ in season and out of season. And Felim Kelly did that throughout his life. He was a gifted preacher. He prepared well. He had a way with words and in a short, and well thought out homily, he preached the Good News wherever he was. He had that knack of linking the words of Scripture with life as we are living it here and now and in doing so gave sense and meaning and touched many people’s lives.
Over the past few days, I have heard many people talk about Felim and the character he was. He called a spade a spade. He spoke directly and bluntly and, as you know, sometimes used colourful language. I remember once, shortly after I was ordained, I had a wedding in the Cathedral in Cavan and Felim was concelebrating the wedding Mass with me. I had not officiated at too many weddings at the time and was a slightly unsure of myself and besides I found the large sanctuary in the cathedral a bit daunting. And so just before we left the sacristy I asked Felim if he would stay close to me throughout the ceremony and prompt me about what to do. He told me to buzz off or words to that effect and using colourful language, went on to say that anyone who played full back for Leitrim should be well able to do a wedding on their own! But of course he did stay close throughout the wedding ceremony and could not have been more helpful.
Felim was blessed in his family and in his friends. And wherever he ministered, whether it was in Tierworker, Newtownmanor, Cavan, Drumkeerin, Ballyjamesduff or Castlerahan he built up many friendships. And so today we remember all those who are sad and grieving. May Mary, who stood by the cross as her Son was dying comfort them all at this time.
Felim, like all of us human beings, had his faults. And today, as we gather for his funeral Mass, I ask, on his behalf, for forgiveness from anyone he hurt, wronged or neglected in any way throughout his life. We all need forgiveness ourselves and we all need to forgive. The second reading from St Paul to the Colossians has much advice, much wisdom for us on this matter. It says: Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you, now you must do the same. And today, as we gather here for Fr Felim’s funeral Mass we ask the God that he believed in so much to forgive any wrong he may have done and to welcome him warmly into his loving embrace. May he rest in peace.