Requiem Mass for the Repose of the Souls of Father Charles Kakumanu and Father Stephen Joseph O’Donnell
Homily by the Most Revd Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop of Lismore
St Carthage’s Cathedral, Wednesday 11th April, 2007
AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF MASS: I wish to commence the celebration of this Requiem Mass for Father Stephen and Father Charles by acknowledging the presence with us of Father Stephen’s brothers Paul and Matt, who arrived from the United States yesterday – and also two of Father Charles nieces resident in Australia, Stella and Teresa. I also acknowledge particularly the presence of Monsignor George Rossman, Regional Vicar in Australia of the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei. Many bishops, clergy and laity from around the country are also with us in spirit, together with Bishop Gilles Côté and the priests and people of the Diocese of Daru-Kiunga in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea where Father Charles was ordained priest and served for ten years before coming to Lismore. Speaking with Bishop Côté last night he told me that a large gathering of priests and people would be together with him this morning in Kiunga to offer Mass for Father Charles, and he said, ‘we shall pray too for Father Stephen as well, and remember you and all your people.’
In welcoming all of you here this morning I assure you that your presence and your prayers in this Mass will be a great consolation to the members of both priests’ families in distant countries. What we are doing compresses time and space, and unites us in a common action of great spiritual power and benefit, indeed bridging not only continents, but this world and the next.
Each year the celebration of the Easter Vigil brings back to my mind the story of the death of a priest who died almost sixty years ago. As a student I was fascinated by the ideas, new for their time, contributing to the renewal of the sacred liturgy in the time leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Dom Odo Casel, a German Benedictine monk, was a major contributor to the thinking on which this restoration was built. He wrote of the liturgy as conveying in itself the mystery of Christ’s presence and action to all who participate in it. On Holy Saturday 1948 Father Casel acted as the deacon in the Vigil ceremonies. He held aloft the Paschal candle singing three times “The Light of Christ”, and placed it on its stand. Then just as he began to proclaim the Easter Exsultet he suffered a stroke and died shortly afterwards. Suddenly the mystery in which he was participating moved forward to its full revelation. The text he was about to sing, rejoicing in the meaning and the mystery of the dying and rising of our Lord Jesus Christ, was for him fulfilled. The Exsultet question, “What good would life have been for us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer?” was for him already answered. To the recollection of the Easter passing of a priest I never knew, will surely now be added the remembrance of these two priests we had come to know so well, whose Passover from death to life also took place within the celebration of the mysteries of the Lord’s own dying and rising. The tragedy of the past week has deep within it a special grace.
Holy Week and the Triduum are always the high point of the year for us priests. The celebration takes us to the heart of our vocation, as indeed it takes every believer to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. In this week, in a very short span of time, we priests renew the vows we made on the day of our ordination, and then go on to celebrate the Mass which recalls both the institution of the Priesthood and the sacrament that is at its heart: the offering at our hands of the sacrificial Victim of the Last Supper and Calvary on altars day by day from one end of the world to the other. How mysterious, that amid all the tragedy and sorrow of their passing, that it was between these two moments that Father Steve and Father Charles were called to make their Passover from this world to eternal life. Just at the moment the Lord Himself descended from the cross and went on down into death’s domains to shatter its dark gates; just at the moment when He gathered up those who longed for his coming and led them upwards in His victory procession to the kingdom of life and light. Perhaps many of you, participating in the Triduum ceremonies, had these thoughts in mind, of our two priests now in the reality of what we were still celebrating through the sacramental veil. Christ is risen, and death has died. When our earthly body lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling in the heavens. There is no more mourning or sadness: the world of the past has gone. We go rejoicing to the house of the Lord, in that holy city of surpassing beauty where all is life, and only death is dead.
It is of course good to comfort one another with these thoughts at this time. But I think Father Steve in particular would be urging us not to get too carried away, and remember that heaven is for those who actually strive to get there. He was too much a man of the teaching of Scripture, and too strongly imbued with the Christian realism of St Josemaría Escrivá, to let us get away with the idea that the mercy of God is not balanced by the justice of God, or that the virtues that bring about our reward are not acquired without unremitting daily effort and dependence upon the grace of God. In the nine or so months that he ministered among us, people soon came to realize that he was a priest who told the truth about God, who spoke courageously of embracing the Cross, about the response God’s love expected of us, and never to be satisfied with half-measures. His teaching was passionate, and simply expressed. We needed to hear more of it, and to watch how it was lived in his own priestly example. He made you think, with a challenge that could make you feel uncomfortable. We need priests like that, men who are all priest, like Jesus Christ.
Father Charles came to Lismore in 2004, bringing to our community of settled ways another infusion of the life and vigour of the universal Church, another expression of passion for Christ and the communication of the Gospel. You see from his photograph before you that he was born in a village and was ordained in a village. Villages are communities that live a more intimate life of their own, and this was where Father Charles was at home, indeed had a winning way of making himself at home. The villages of Terania parish and the school communities around the Cathedral will long remember his unaffected cheerfulness, his wealth of stories, and his straightforward message. When he got going in the pulpit you may not have caught every word, but you were in no doubt that you were meant to take notice. There will be lots of photos with that beaming smile in lots of homes around the Cathedral and Terania parishes, and recollections of his certitudes about Christ and the Church so simply taught, as well as his lived conviction that a day when you have not had a feed of rice is a day when you have not eaten.
We can only begin to imagine the feelings of those parents who lose a child early in life. Our children were not ours, they will say, they were only lent to us. Our community has lost fathers who were lent to us, whom we thought we could keep, whom we were so grateful to have. In thanking God for lending them to us, we thank also their parents and families in India and the United States for their generous gift of their sons and brothers. In their deaths our families are united in a common love and a common grief, and have come to share above all in that common faith where we find the meaning glimpsed as in a bright diamond of multi facets and coloured light. It is that faith of two millennia that comes from the proclamation of the Son of God, incarnate for our sakes of the ever-Virgin Mother, “I am the resurrection and the Life . . whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” What a question! Our answer is as immediate and direct as Martha’s, “Yes, Lord, I believe!” It is the answer realised above all in the body and soul of Mary, Christ’s Mother and ours, assumed into glory as the first-fruits of the redeemed.
From another preacher, speaking in his last sermon just weeks before his own death, albeit three and a half centuries ago, I leave for us a final thought:
“A good life here flows into an eternal life. Whether the gate of my prison be opened with an oiled key, by a gentle and preparing sickness, or the gate be hewn down by a violent death, or the gate be burnt down with a raging fever, a gate into heaven I shall have, for from the Lord is the cause of my life, and with God the Lord is the escape from death. He shall in a blessed and glorious resurr-ection give me such an issue from this death as shall never pass into any other death, but establish me into a life that shall last as long as the Lord of Life Himself.
“There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon Him that hangs upon the Cross, there bathe in His tears, there drink at His wounds, and lie down in peace in His grave, till He vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He has purchased for you with the inestimable price of His incorruptible Blood. Amen.”
— John Donne (1572-1631) concluding passage of his last Sermon “Death’s Duel” preached before King Charles I on 25 February, 1631 (Donne died on 31 March).