Bishop William Lee homily at Solemn Requiem Mass for Bishop Michael Russell RIP

15 Jan 2009

15 January 2009

Homily of Bishop William Lee, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore at Solemn Requiem Mass for Bishop Michael Russell RIP

Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, Barronstrand St, Waterford
We gather here in the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity to bid Bishop Michael Russell farewell and pray eternal rest on him.  Priests and people of the diocese are saddened at his passing but in that sadness there is also gratitude.  Our lives have been enriched by a gentle pastor, a generous servant and faithful friend. 

Bishop Russell was born in Loughmore, Co. Tipperary, the eldest of a family of ten. I would like to extend our deep sympathy to his surviving brothers Conor and Sean, to his sisters-in-law, Madge, Maura and Connie, to his many nephews and nieces, relatives and friends.  And on this sad occasion may I pay tribute to his family for providing Waterford and Lismore with a great priest and a worthy Bishop who served his people well.

After his early secondary education at Thurles C.B.S. Michael Russell went to Maynooth College to study for the priesthood.  In 1945 he was ordained a priest of the diocese of Cashel and Emly. 

After ordination he did post graduate studies at Maynooth and obtained a Doctorate in Canon Law. 

During his early years as a priest he was professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Thurles guiding young men towards priesthood.  And there are priests all over the English speaking world today who recall with admiration the role he played in their formation.  They remember very well his clear presentation of Theology, his common sense, his deep humanity and sympathetic understanding. 

After his many years in Thurles, he accepted the Holy Fathers wishes that he become Bishop of Waterford and Lismore and, on 19th December 1965, Michael Russell was ordained Bishop of this diocese and ministered here for 27 years.

Even though he was not yet ordained Bishop, Monsignor Michael Russell, as he was then, was present at the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. 

In his early years as Bishop the challenging Decrees of the Council were impacting on the Church. The pastoral agenda which the Council and the changing Ireland necessitated was indeed hefty. Society was changing with a rapidity that was unprecedented.  A Bishop was needed to meet the mood of the times and the measure of the new challenges.  It was no easy task to develop a style of leadership where dignity would be wedded to informality, approachability and down-to-earthness.  But Bishop Russell was more than equal to the task. 

The reforms of the Council were embraced enthusiastically by Bishop Russell.  He ensured that diocesan personnel were trained to lead the renewal in cathechetics and liturgy.  At the time he became bishop, the liturgy we are celebrating today would have been very different: he introduced the many liturgical changes that we now take for granted.  New churches were built during his years as Bishop in the developing areas of the diocese.  He also had a strong awareness of social need and encouraged every initiative that could address such areas as Care of the Aged and Community Centres.  He encouraged the formation of Credit Unions seeing their great potential.  Accord and Cura were very close to his heart. 

He gave himself generously wherever he was needed.  His energies derived from a deep faith in God and a very practical understanding of the Gospel values set out in today’s readings.  “This is my commandment.  Love one another as I have loved you.  A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.12-13).  The first reading sets out some very practical applications of the Lord’s commandment of love.  “He sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken … to comfort those who mourn”. (Is. 61:1-2)  Visiting a hospital which Michael Russell did faithfully each week or attending a funeral, were for him simply different sides of the commandment of love.  That love was expressed in a practical way and always in a gentle way.  The word gentle has been used so often in recent days. His Episcopal motto “Humilitate et Lenitate” – humility and gentleness was well chosen.

When we come to the end of our lives and appear before God, our judge will look more closely at what is generally hidden from human scrutiny.  It is what is deep within us, our motives, our single mindedness for the things of God, our love of him that he will judge.  And I know that Bishop Russell will have passed that test and passed it well. 

Central to Bishop Russell’s whole life was the Eucharist.  He ate the Bread of Life and put his faith in the words of Jesus in the Gospel: “I am the living bread which has come down from Heaven.  Anyone who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6.51).  This regular meeting with Christ in the Eucharist was the wellspring of his life, work and spirituality.  It nourished his faith as he came to know Jesus more intimately.  It sustained him as the years went by and he became more conscious that he might not have many left.  In his retirement he could be seen each evening in the Church of St. Joseph & St. Benildus, the parish where he lived in retirement, making his holy hour and saying his rosary.  Devotion to Our Lady was very special to him and he very much looked forward each year to the annual Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. 

I want to express my gratitude to Bishop Russell for his kindness to me since I came to the diocese.  He was always encouraging and reassuring.  I will miss particularly his stories.  When he dropped in for a chat he generally lightened our discussion with a story.  He was a great raconteur and I am sure that many of you and many of his fellow Bishops gathered here today will understand what I mean.  I will miss our conversations and his vast store of knowledge of the diocese. But, above all, I have lost a good friend. 

All through his life, Dr. Russell was closely associated with the G.A.A.  In his youth, he played minor hurling for Tipperary and was a former Chairman of the Mid Tipperary Board.  He loved a good hurling match and often recalled with pleasure the great contests down through the years.

I was privileged to spend some time with Bishop Russell on the day before he died.  He was weak.  He knew the end was near and he was anxious for a chat.  We talked at length and he spoke from the heart.  There was something very serene about his passing. All of his life the Church entrusted him with heavy burdens of responsibility.  He carried them with courage and competence.  Now his life in this world was ending and he could truthfully say with St. Paul, “My life is already poured out like a libation and the time has come for me to be gone.  I have fought the good fight to the end.  I have run the race to the finish.  I have kept the faith.  All there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me which the Lord, the just judge, will give me, not only to me but to all those who have longed for his coming”.  (2 Timothy 4:6–8)

During the Christmas I was reading the late Cardinal Bernadin’s of Chicago book, “The Gift of Peace”, and I was struck by a paragraph in it.  He is looking forward to death.  “It is the first day of November and Fall has given away to Winter.  Soon the trees will loose the vibrant colours of their leaves and snow will cover the ground.  The earth will shut down and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth.  Chicago Winters are harsh.  It is a time of dying.  But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder.  It is quite clear that I will not be alive then.  But I will soon experience new life in a different way.  Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God is calling me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home”.  (An excerpt from the Cardinal’s Book, “The Gift of Peace”)

Our faith is what sustains us.  “In my Father’s house there are many rooms …. I am going to prepare a place for you and then I shall come back to take you with me, that where I am you also may be”.  (John 14. 2-3)  Jesus had told his friends that he was going to die.  They were understandably confused and broken-hearted.  But then he added: don’t be afraid; life goes on and we will be together again.  Jesus was sure of that. 

Christ loved the countryside and many a revelation of his is wrapped in a simple rural image, images that, I’m sure Bishop Russell would appreciate.  His revelation on death for example.  It was, he said, a seed put into the soil.  The seed died, is buried but not fruitlessly.    From its dying there came a rich new life.  That is how Christ saw his own death and burial – the passage to a newer and enduring life.  And it is how we see Bishop Russell’s death as well. 

The poet puts our faith so beautifully:

“Death is not extinguishing the light, but putting out the lamp because the dawn has come”.

Bishop Russell showed us an example of how to face death with courage and dignity.  The Master may come in the third watch or even in the second.  What’s important is not that we be old when he comes but that we be ready.  “Happy those servants whom the Master finds awake when he comes.  I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them.”  (Luke 12.37)

We are always asked to pray for the dead.  That we will do at this Mass.  Today we celebrate the homecoming of Bishop Russell with thanks to God. 

For his life.
For his lifestyle. 
For his humility and cheerfulness.
For his faith.
For his good sense.
For the lessons we learned from him about living well and dying well. 

We are certainly the better for having known him. 

May his soul rest contentedly in the happiness of God’s home.


+ William Lee
Bishop of Waterford and Lismore

Notes to Editors:

  • Message of condolence from Pope Benedict XVI to Bishop William Lee

The Holy Father was saddened to learn of the death of Bishop Michael Russell and he has asked me to send his condolences to you and to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese. His Holiness offers fervent prayers that the Father of mercies will grant eternal rest to Bishop Russell after his long years of Episcopal ministry and service to the Church. To all those who mourn his passing and to all present at the rite of Christian burial, the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of hope and consolation in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Cardinal Tascisio Bertone
Secretary of State

  • In attendance at Bishop Russell’s Requiem Mass:

The chief mourners were Conor and Sean Russell, brothers of the late Bishop, sisters-in-law Madge and Maura, and nieces and nephews.

Bishop William Lee, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore was the Principal Celebrant.

Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland presided at the Mass.

  • Assisting Bishop William Lee were:

Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly
Bishop John Magee, Bishop of Cloyne
Rt. Rev. Mgr. Michael Olden VG
Dom Michael Ahearn O.C.S.O. 

Bishop Denis Brennan, Bishop of Ferns and Bishop Sheehan O.S.A. (retired missionary) concelebrated along with priests and religious from the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore and other dioceses.

Rev. Michael Twomey served as deacon.

Representatives from other Churches:

Rt. Rev.  Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel and Ossory (C of I),   
Rev. John Parkin, St. Patrick’s United Methodist / Presbyterian Church
Roger Johnston, Society of Friends

President Mary McAleese was represented by her Aide de Camp, Captain Murt Larkin. An Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen was represented by his Aide de Camp, Commandant Michael Foley.  The Government was represented by Minister Martin Cullen. 

Fr. Paul Murphy PP accompanied Captain Larkin as chaplain. Fr. Brian Power PP acted as chaplain to Commandant Foley and Fr. Brendan Crowley was chaplain to Minister Cullen. Dr. Edmond Cullinan PP accompanied Bishop Burrows and other religious leaders as chaplain.

The Mayor of Waterford, Councillor Jack Walsh, members and officials of the City Council and  members of the Oireachtas.

The combined choirs of the Cathedral and the Lourdes Diocesan Group, under  the directorship of Ms. Mary Dee, led the singing at Mass.  Ms. Cecilia Kehoe was organist.

  • The Liturgy

The first reading, taken from the Prophet Isaiah, was read by The Mayor,  Councillor Jack Walsh.  John Quinlan, a close friend of Bishop Russell from Kilkee, was responsible for the second reading,  an excerpt from the first letter of St. John.  The Gospel was proclaimed by Rev. Michael Twomey, who will be ordained as priest for the diocese of Waterford and Lismore next Summer.  The readings emphasise the power of God to accomplish great things if we open our hearts in faith. “I commissioned you to go out and bear much fruit, fruit that will last” (Gospel). 

The Prayer of the Faithful was led by Jim Russell (nephew), Breda Carroll (niece) and Miriam Russell (niece).

Padraig O Fainin, former president of the GAA and John Lane brought forward the offertory gifts. Both were close friends of Bishop Russell. The offertory was accompanied by instrumental music.

The hymns at Communion time, Cead mile failte romhat and Eat this Bread were particularly apt as Bishop Russell had a deep devotion to the Eucharist. The Song of Farewell sung during the final commendation gave eloquent expression to the spirit of humility that marked the life of Bishop Russell. The final hymn, Magnificat, was a prayer of praise and thanksgiving the for wonderful gifts  of faith and love bestowed so abundantly in his life. 

  • Burial

The burial took place in the Cathedral grounds.  

  • Biography of Bishop Michael Russell

Bishop Michael Russell was born on December 10th, 1920, in Loughmore, Thurles Co. Tipperary. He received his secondary education at the Christian Brothers’ School in Thurles. He studied for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and was ordained on June 17th, 1945. He completed post-graduate studies in 1948 when he was conferred with a Doctorate in Canon Law.

He was then appointed Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Thurles and lectured there until 1965. He served as Vice-President of the College for a number of years. His appointment as Bishop of Waterford and Lismore was announced by Pope Paul VI on November 8th 1965. He was ordained in the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, Waterford,
on December 19th, 1965. Bishop Russell retired as Bishop of Waterford and Lismore on May 27th 1993. He died peacefully on Monday, January 12th, 2009.

Bishop Russell’s Motto was Humilitate et Lenitate…(with humility and gentleness)  

  • Photographs

Photographs from the Requiem Mass are available on request from Joe Evans at [email protected]

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer (087 233 7797)
Fr. Liam Power, Diocesan Communications Officer (087-289 9843)