A Homily for Fr O’Sullivan delivered at his funeral by Fr Edmund Campion
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry (W B Yeats)
Fellow members of the People of God,
My sisters and brothers,
This morning we are farewelling one of the last of our Irish-speaking priests.
Fr Micheal O’Sullivan was in the last line of an apostolic succession that begins with Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn who came here more than 200 years ago as an undocumented immigrant and who was expelled six months later, leaving the Blessed Sacrament in the care of the Catholic laity. Gone, in six months.
He had, said someone who knew him, ‘the swiftest and sweetest tongue of Irish that ever my ear heard.’
Then, John Joseph Therry, who came here to serve the convict Irish, in 1820. He came, he said, for only four years but he remained here for 44 years. Father Therry wrote his name in our history, as you know.
His friend, Archdeacon John McEncroe, died four years after him, a principal architect of the Catholic church that we knew until just the other day – parishes, dioceses, Mass on Sunday, devotions and sacraments, Catholic schools staffed by teaching orders, hospitals and even a Catholic press. Archdeacon McEncroe’s name was on all of these.
McEncroe and Therry never forgot Ireland, they sent money to All Hallows seminary to educate priests for the Australian mission and they raised funds to succour the starving Irish in the Famine years.
After them, Patrick Tuomey, known universally as ‘Doc’ Tuomey, cared for the needy Irish in the desperate times of the Troubles. He was a stalwart of the Irish National Association. One hundred years ago, a court fined him 30 pounds for speaking publicly of the crimes of the British Empire in Ireland. One of the curates he formed was the great John McSweeney, who acknowledges his influence in his autobiography.
His autobiography, Light of other days, is the best book to give anyone going into parish ministry. It’s the book of a creative pastor, for he knew that parish ministry is all about people. On his deathbed he told everyone who came to farewell him, ‘It’s all about Jesus; it’s all about love.’ Father McSweeney died only six years ago.
I want to digress, to tell one story about him. It’s about a book launch. I go to lots of book launches, it’s part of my life. But this book launch was unique in my experience. The atmosphere was tense, it was electric. The book being launched was Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s book on the sex abuse crisis. Someone told me that people from Catholic education hadn’t come to the book launch, in fear of losing their jobs. Bishop Robinson himself said that he was unsure what the future held for him. Then from the back of the hall John McSweeney spoke up, telling the bishop how much the Sydney clergy loved and respected him. With these words the tension in the air evaporated and calm was restored to that conflicted atmosphere.
So, an apostolic succession.
Like McSweeney, Micheal O’Sullivan was an All Hallows man, and so a pastoral man. I want to say one thing about him, to add to the fine eulogy we have just heard. Coming to Sydney in 1952, he let his Irish language lapse. Then new waves of Irish emigrants set up a need for the Mass in Irish; so Miceal re-learned the tongue he had known as a boy. In time, he would teach adults Irish in annual language schools. He wrote a booklet on the Men of ’98 monument at Waverley cemetery and became a regular participant in the Folk School in the west of Ireland.
Jeremiah O’Flynn …. Father Therry …. Archdeacon McEncroe …. ‘Doc’ Tuomey …. Father John McSweeney …. Micheal O’Sullivan
An apostolic succession over two long centuries. Each one of them, in the words of today’s Gospel, was salt of the earth, lights to their world. As the Alleluia verse says, their good deeds shone for all to see.
Now, it wasn’t their adherence to canon law that made them worthy of our recall today. No. Our reading from the Letter to the Romans tells us that it’s the Spirit, not prescriptions of law and legalism, that is decisive. ‘You shall see the face of God and live,’ as our psalm hymn says. For these men the face of God was Christ Jesus.
He was their vision, their guide, their mentor, their friend, their confidant, their brother… and the face of God to them.
Each one of them could have sung with conviction that verse of the old Irish processional hymn:
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart,
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Micheal O’Sullivan was a worthy member of an apostolic succession. May he rest in peace.
Fr Edmund Campion
Fr Ed Campion is Professor of History at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, and the author of books on Cardinal Newman and on Australian Catholics. He is perhaps best known for Rockchoppers (1982) and for his biography of Ted Kennedy (2009).