John’s text which Msgr. Kieron read for us offers a post resurrection encounter, where the triple denial of Peter is perhaps being put to the test. They had just eaten a breakfast cooked by Jesus and Peter is soon to realise there is no such thing as a free breakfast! I am always intrigued by the question Jesus first puts to Peter, “do you love me more than these?” Was it a competition? It wasn’t. Was it looking for brownie points? It wasn’t. Was it some sort of short listing interview strategy? It wasn’t. Commentaries suggest it is artfully phrased, but also note that Peter proves himself very much up to the test. In each response he becomes more determined in his resolve.
Then we move into a dialogue that speaks of feeding lambs and sheep. I love the phrase “Tend my sheep”, meaning to look after, to care for, to protect. It’s the task of the shepherd, it’s the job of the Bishop, it’s the role of the Rector General. And it’s not easy, it brings challenges when hard calls have to be made, and the burdens of office come to bear on the shoulders of the one ordained to lead, to look after and to protect. Perhaps our Psalm best encapsulates that complete response to this call: “I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart”. The priests and people of Ossory always remained close to the heart of Séamus.
Séamus was ordained Bishop here in St Mary’s Cathedral on the first Sunday of Advent in 2007. On that day the homilist was Msgr Liam Bergin. Liam spoke eloquently then of the bell, the book and the star. The bell linked to the one given by St Patrick to St Kieran inviting him to build a monastery on the spot where the bell should first sound. And so Seir Kieran was born. The book referred to the Book of the Gospels associated with St Canice in Aghaboe. The star was associated with the call of St Vincent Pallotti inviting every Christian to become that comet, that star, which heralds the presence of Christ in our world.
All three were to be represented in Séamus’s episcopal coat of arms. Today, for us, the bell will toll one final time to mark the moment as Séamus is laid to rest alongside his predecessors Larry Forristal, Peter Birch and Patrick Collier and close to the resting place of former Nuncio, Archbishop Thomas White. It’s the same toll, it’s the same bell we are all familiar with in burying our loved ones.
The book of the Apocalypse speaks of those whose “good deeds go with them”. A word used by several in recent days has been the word ‘gentle’. Séamus was a gentle man, he was a kind man. Humility was in many respects his middle name. He didn’t yearn for the limelight. He was unassuming. His style at times understated. Seamus made time for everyone. Someone remarked to me outside the Cathedral the other evening as we waited for his remains to arrive that Séamus was the best and most empathetic listener he had ever encountered. He was as contented walking the meadows at home in Coolagh as he was processing up the aisles of Cathedrals in Rome.
I know how much the simple gestures Séamus made in people’s lives meant so much to them. For the priests it was empowering them to run their own parishes and address him by his first name. For his nephews and nieces it was the postcards from missionary destinations, the presents and the chocolates. For acquaintances it was his little notes of appreciation and thanks. For confirmandi, and there are thirty young people here today representing the Catholic secondary schools of Kilkenny, all of them confirmed by Bishop Freeman, for each, a one to one engagement with the Bishop just before or after the anointing with Chrism. For religious it was his frequent visits and honouring their special celebrations. For family and close friends it was his quick wit and sense of humour.
I remember well September 2013, it was the month after my own ordination in Carlow. Séamus suffered a slight stroke on his return journey from a visit to Knock. For Séamus that stroke was the beginning of an illness that would see him eventually prematurely retire as Bishop of Ossory in 2016. I am very conscious that the last few years of Bishop Séamus’s life has been challenging as sickness took a greater hold on him. While his body kept going until last Saturday afternoon, much of who he was, had ebbed away bit by bit in the cruel illness that dementia is. While his capacity to remember was challenged, he was not forgotten and remained fondly remembered by many and that must have been so reassuring for him to the very end.
Memory is so important. And the greatest of all memorials is the celebration of the Eucharist, the Mass as we offer the memory of those we love in life but lose to death into the greatest of all living memorials. We may forget who we are, but we can be confident God never forgets any one of us.
For Bishop Séamus, today is a coming home, to the Cathedral and its environs that he loved and began the restoration project that continues. To a Diocese where he always encouraged collaboration of priests and lay faithful, very much echoing the current synodal journey. And to a resting place where he will be forever remembered by those who pass this way. May his gentle soul rest in peace. Amen.