Almost without fail, every year around the same time as ordinations a local church (diocese) will lose at least one priest to death and the same was true of this year. Just before the ordinations, Father Raymond O’Neill who only retired from active ministry last July suffered a heart attack and went home to the Father’s house. On Monday we beautifully bade him farewell at the parish where he had served for well over the last decade. Born in Ireland, Father Ray was …..well, I will share with you my homily at his funeral Mass and perhaps you will come to know this gentle servant of the Gospel better. Three of the five ordained the previous Saturday came to the funeral which gave my heart great joy and the fourth took the Masses at his home parish so his pastor could attend. The bottom line: the Lord gives His Church new priests but he also takes and only a Christian can rejoice in both realities.
It could be said that Father Ray O’Neill ate and drank too much but it was not what caused his death but rather is likely to be what guaranteed his entrance into heaven. “He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him up on the last day. [JO 6:54]. To know Father O’Neill was to know from his personal witness as well as his preaching that hardly a day went by when he did not say Mass, eat the flesh and drink from the cup. He took the words of Jesus literally and spent his life breaking bread and sharing the cup with many of you. So much of our memory of him is painted with this altar as well as in Gulfport, St.Joe, Pinellas Park, Dunedin and St. Petersburg. He was never happier than at the table of the Lord.
And he was a just man. Can anyone who ever went to confession to him suggest that he was never anything but unfailingly kind, quietly but effectively compassionate, and just. Is there a person here who does not think that he is now in the hands of God? And when he was down the street at the funeral home, his quiet presence brought or restored calm to the torment, which touched so many people in their hours of dealing with death.
In his priestly ministry he craved anonymity. When he was at Sacred Heart-St.Joseph, he prayed that we in the Pastoral Center would forget about him, lose his Rolodex card. From Gulfport to Pasco County, he hid from me but not from God. I can still remember the sigh when I called him to ask him to come here in 2001 – he greeted my voice on the phone with that quiet compassionate Irish sigh which translated, “you again, hopefully not me again!” But he was always a good priest, a good soldier, ever reluctant to journey forth into virgin territory but never needing to be dragged while screaming.
The great movie producer John Ford made a movie in 1952 and filmed much of it at Ashford Castle, north of Galway, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and the quintessential Father O’Neill like Barry Fitzgerald and called it the “Quiet Man.” However I should point out that Fitzgerald did not play the parish priest in the movie, Ward Bond did. And the town is called Innisfree. I don’t to this moment know why this has anything to do with Father O’Neill except he was in every way a quiet man, a gentle man, a kind and loving man. He would be embarrassed to hear my speak of him in this way as he never bragged about his virtues and he didn’t have but one vice – formula one racing.
When he told me of his love for their noise polluting cars, I could not believe my ears – perpetually quiet man in love with racings most expensive, noisiest and most dangerous cars. When my wonderful chancellor Joan Morgan told me of his sudden and unexpected death, my first thought was to call Marie Dupheney and tell her, “let’s delay the funeral Mass until next Monday and I promise to be finished with it before the start of the Indianapolis 500.” He would have been happy. He has a collection of Formula One cars, which he treasured and when asked why, he simply said in his usual understated terms, “I can talk to them and they don’t talk back to me.”
But we commend him back to God just hours and days before Pentecost – this coming weekend. As most of you know, Father O’Neill was born in July of 1966 in Dublin but ordained as a member of and for the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. They sent him to Africa for six years and like most young newly ordained serving in Africa, he taught high school and served as a pastor. I think of yesterday’s Gospel for the Ascension and how Jesus told his disciples that they needed to get off their “duffs”, spread out and bring the kingdom of God to many places. He came to us and auditioned us in 1986. We briefly failed the audition because he left rather soon and went to Australia but that was for a year and then he returned to remain until God came for him last Wednesday.
For vacation he would travel home to Ireland where he is survived by his brother but every year after a short visit, he would take off for the continent and take bus and riverboat tours covering all of Europe. He understood the history and culture of every place he visited and never met a fellow bus traveller again after the final day.
Today we celebrate his goodness and the grace of his presence in our midst. If you are like me, there is a little tinge of anger at God in my mind for not giving me the opportunity to say “farewell” and “thanks” one more time. He was as good to priests as he was to all of you and both Fathers Rebel and Madden felt the loss deeply. But it is hard to be too angry and he would have none of it because Father O’Neill was comforted by Paul’s words to the Romans “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also live with him.”
Father Ray ate often of the bread of heaven. He was never better or more of a priest than when he would stand behind that altar and effect the great mystery. We already miss him though there were already signs that his remaining days on earth would most likely be challenging. I think a provident, loving and gracious God afforded a provident, loving and ever gracious priest a happy end to a life of service. A quiet man. A deep and pensive thinker. He has gone home to the Father and in that light and with his faith, we rejoice that on May 13th, God visited his servant Raymond and beckoned him to Himself.