Homily of Bishop Joseph Duffy at the Funeral Mass of Sr Philomena Lyons

19 Dec 2001

Homily of Bishop Joseph Duffy at the Funeral Mass of Sr Philomena Lyons

Following is the text of the Introduction and Homily of Most Rev Joseph Duffy, Bishop of Clogher at the Funeral Mass of Sr. Philomena Lyons in St. Patrick’s Church, Ballybay, Co Monaghan at 12.00 noon today.


My dear friends, you are all welcome on this very sad and painful occasion. Our first duty is to offer our heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of Sister Philomena, to the members of her community and congregation and to the people of Ballybay.

In particular, I mention her sister, Mrs Phil Rawe from England, her aunt Mrs Kit McCarthy, her nieces, nephews and many cousins, many of them from Mallow. Our sympathy also to the Superior General of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, St Mary, to the provincial, Sr Brigid, and to the local superior, Sr Aloysius.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this whole area, indeed the whole country, has been in shock since we got the bad news on Saturday last. I knew Sr Philomena reasonably well from meeting her from time to time over the years, well enough to be convinced by all the wonderful tributes that have been paid to here these past few days. She was certainly prepared to meet the Lord by the way she lived her life and that must be our greatest consolation at this difficult time.


On Tuesday next, we celebrate the great  feast of Emmanuel, ‘God with us, the Word made flesh’. This year, for all of us here present, for the family and sisters in religion of Sister Philomena, as well as for the people of Ballybay,  the Christmas season will be different, to say the least. It will  be marked by an open  wound so unexpectedly and so cruelly  inflicted on this whole community that only time and the goodness of God will heal.  It will be marked by our feeling for the bereaved who will continue to fill our thoughts and prayers.  It will be marked  by the sobering truth that  the joy of the Christian life in this world can never be separated from the suffering of the Cross.

The shining witness of  Sister Philomena will surface again  next week in the triduum of feasts that will follow one another after Christmas Day :  the feast of Stephen the first martyr, the feast of St John the Evangelist, and the feast of the Holy Innocents. Stephen is remembered for his forgiveness of  those who brought him  to a brutal death by stoning. This sense of forgiveness was also the attitude of Sister Philomena. Many people over the past few days have remarked that she had no enemies, that she was such a kind  gentle person, with a friendly word for everybody, always ready to  help in any way she could. We can be certain that her forgiving nature  is reaching out today to the person who desecrated her person and robbed her of her life.

St John the Evangelist was the beloved disciple, the apostle Jesus loved. He was the preacher and teacher of the law of love. We are told that in his old age he had only one message for his disciples : love one another. Like all good teachers, he kept repeating the message until he drove it home. Sister Philomena was also a  teacher, a teacher who also taught the message of love.  All of her past pupils whom I have met over the last few days said the same things : she was a caring loving teacher who left behind her only the happiest of memories.

Our third Christmas feast is that of the Holy Innocents. Mgr McSorley said to me the other day:   Philomena was a  truly innocent woman,  a trusting person who saw only good in people no matter who they were. For her own sake we will bitterly regret  how lacking in worldly wisdom she was in this respect;  that it was not in her nature to notice or to anticipate danger. And yet in terms of her  commitment as a consecrated religious, the truth is that her life and death literally  reproduce the words of the Gospel in today’s Mass. ‘I bless you Father for hiding these things from the learned and clever and revealing them to mere children’.  When we get over the shock and trauma of the past few days, I have no doubt that we will all appreciate how her death enables us to make the link between the events of Calvary and the mysteries made real for us  in the Eucharist.

This is a very different kind of funeral for all of us. Were it not for the horrific circumstances of her death, the spotlight would neverhave focused on Sister Philomena as it has over the past few days. She was not the kind to seek publicity, least of all for herself. In this her life was typical of her own community and congregation, and of the quiet, wholehearted and faithful service given so generously by countless women religious of her generation.  In the hard times in this country, before the first stirrings of the Celtic Tiger, when our people were still on their uppers, when there was so little available  from public funds for schools or nursing services, leadership in these vital areas was left to  religious, sisters and brothers.  They became the backbone of a system that has had more than its share of strident critics in recent times. But it needs to be said that, in the main, it was a system that was founded on solid Gospel values and lived out by unselfish religious like Sister Philomena.

The Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart came to Ballybay in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress. In that year they opened St Ann’s Nursing Home. Ten years later, in 1942, they took charge of the girls’ primary school in the town and the same year became responsible for the domestic arrangements at St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, where they gave sterling service for some forty years. In 1971 the Nursing Home was closed and the present St Joseph’s Home for the Elderly opened.  Over these seventy years the Sisters have become an integral part of Ballybay.  Some of them, like Sister Philomena,  hailed from as far away as Mallow in Co Cork, but in time they  came to belong to Ballybay.  They have always been and continue to be warm homely people, women with a ready smile and an open door.

The details of Sister Philomena’s life are in this context. She entered the Congregation in 1950 and was professed in 1952. In 1957 she wento teach in New Jersey in America.  In 1964 she joined the staff of the girls school here in Ballybay where she remained until 1998 when she retired. Since her retirement she was actively involved in the local community and in the prayer group at the Convent.

My dear people, the manner of Sister Philomena’s death poses serious and far-ranging questions for all of Irish society. More and more concerns are expressed these days about the increased violence and coarseness in Irish life, about the decline of basic discipline and respect at every level . The liberal agenda has indeed led to a new sense of freedom in our society – and there is nothing wrong with that. But it has not been accompanied so far by a corresponding sense of responsibility. We know that freedom can be a poisoned chalice if we are not willing or  prepared to learn how to use it. We know that we simply cannot survive if we allow our society to drift out of control. This has now become a matter of life and death and, sadly, that is no exaggeration. This is about more than  undoing a single wrong, as happened last Saturday, or about scapegoating, or even about bringing a criminal to justice. It’s rather about all of us finding our way back to a road from which we have gone astray, it’s about opening our eyes to what is happening in our society and working it out for ourselves what we can do about it. If we were to resolve here today to face up to this immediate task, Sister Philomena’s death will not have been in vain. She will have taught us her best lesson.

May songs of the angels welcome you and guide you along your way.

May the smiles of the martyrs greet you now as darkness turns into day.

Every fear will be undone and death will be no more,

As songs of the angels bring you home before the face of God.

+ Joseph Duffy

Bishop of Clogher

19 December 2001


Further information:

Catholic Communications Office: (01) 601 6700
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797