The Society of Jesus (a.k.a. “Jesuits”) ingrain in the minds and hearts of their students in high school that their ultimate aim in educating them for the future is to help them become “a man for others.” Almost every graduate of a Jesuit High School for boys knows that phrase as well or better sometimes than they know the Hail Mary. Jesuits themselves attempt to live their lives for others, be they their students, people in the parishes where they serve, or in various ministries throughout the Church universal. Probably the most significant Jesuit priest to serve on the West Coast of Florida died on January 3, 2011 and if you are a reader of either paper you will know that he was beautifully remembered in those articles this past week. Father Michael Kennelly wh0 was born in Ireland but educated in the United States went home to the Lord on January 3, 2011 at the age of 96. I will share with you my reflections on his life and ministry which I preached this evening at St. Anthony Chapel on the campus of Tampa Jesuit. Hopefully it may be helpful in reflecting on Christian death as well as a priestly life well lived.
First, I would like to express my appreciation to the Jesuit Community here present and to all of you for both the invitation to celebrate this Mass this evening in memory of our beloved Father Kennelly and for allowing the time to change to seven o’clock. I had Mass for a group at the Tradewinds Resort on St. Petersburg Beach at 4:45 p.m. Also, I somewhat reluctantly accepted the invitation to be the homilist in lieu of many of you who knew Father Michael better than I. So please allow me some reflections which center more on death and the priesthood of Jesus Christ which was lived by Father Michael as I will let the beautiful tributes which appeared in both papers to serve as a more eloquent eulogy.
I often recall that as different as we all are, there is one thing which is sure and certain and the same for everyone [popes, presidents, kings and queens, day laborers, priests and religious] – death. In Math, which I was never all that good at, it might be called the common denominator. We all know that the Lord will come for us some day, perhaps when we know and are ready and perhaps when we least expect it.
For people of deep faith, death is the moment we all live for. Oxymoronic as that might sound, we echo throughout our lives the words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “thy will be done – thy kingdom come.” They are, of course, the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Father Kennelly was granted the gift of the Creator in spending ninety-six years on this planet and almost sixty-four years as a priest, seventy-seven in his beloved Society of Jesus. During all those years he lived the beatitudes: comforting those who mourned, helping the meek and poor seize an opportunity which without him might otherwise be denied, bringing peace to the sons of Jesuit High School, sons and daughters at Loyola New Orleans where he served as President, at a high school in Houston when uncertainty, fear, anxiety were present in their lives. We must recall that he prepared men for adulthood during the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the cold war and women and men in the first four years of the turbulent ‘70’s. He was always a minister or mercy and of hope.
The justice of this holy priest now in the hands of God has been attested to by those who knew him here in Tampa. Stories abound of assistance given to students and families in time of economic challenge. It was his vision to buy the very property on which tonight we worship. His vision was to reach beyond the simply attainable to the seemingly unattainable. So significant is his legacy that I have only one question to ask him when, hopefully, I join him in eternity: “Mike, why did you build the Rectory at Sacred Heart and totally shield those beautiful stained glass windows on the right of the Church from the rays of the sun?” Well maybe there is a second question – the parking garage where this school once stood but that might not have been his decision!
My personal time with Father Kennelly was all too brief. I hardly knew him but I loved being with him. Witty, concerned, focused on only those who were present to him, he was a fountain of wisdom for me in my early years in this diocese. As pastor emeritus of Sacred Heart at that time, he took his turn at the late night phone calls from Tampa General and answered the door for the homeless and hungry walking Florida Avenue. If the battle between Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno was intense for who would have more victories prior to retirement, then the gentle contest between Monsignor Higgins and Father Kennelly as to who would perform more marriages in their priestly lives was also at play. The winner of that one is the one still witnessing marriages today.
With both memory and motion beginning to fail him, he acceded to saying farewell to active ministry and placed himself under the care of the community of priests and brothers to whom he himself had dedicated his life. He awaited the day when no further torment would touch him and he would finally be at peace. That peace came on January 3rd.
Non-believers generally have a harder time dealing with death than do those who believe. For them it is the ultimate “riddle of life”. So maybe the answer to the riddle of Christian death is that in that nano-second when we pass from this life into the next, we join not only Christ in Eternal Life, the Father and Spirit, the Mother of the Redeemer and St. Joseph, Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Robert Bellarmine, but lesser luminaries yet still heroes like Michael Kennelly. He was not only the quintessential Jesuit man for others but equally a man for all seasons.
Tonight we pray for this great priest: “receive his soul and present him to God the Most High!”