4 August 2009
Homily of Bishop John Kirby for the funeral Mass of Brian McKeown
I also sympathise on behalf of Trócaire. Its current director, Justin Kilcullen, and staff are well aware of the huge debt that the organisation owes to Brian for his vision and drive. I had an email yesterday from Sally O’Neill, former deputy director to Brian and currently Trócaire’s representative in Central America. She wrote to express her sadness at Brian’s death.
In this Mass, we give thanks for Brian’s life; we pray for the repose of his soul and we pray too for the consolation of his grieving wife and family.
Humanly speaking, death is final. It is the end. No more laughter, no more tears, no more friendship, no more misunderstandings, no more insights, no more leadership, no more wisdom, no more hugs and kisses. The tearing of the temple veil in two expresses the finality of death. Rent. Shredded. Sundered.
On the other hand, one of the core beliefs of Christians is that death is not final, but transitional. We believe that life continues in a new transformed way. As the preface of the Mass says, “Lord for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.”
We base this belief on the conviction of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. St Paul reminded the people of Corinth: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. (1 Cor 15:14). He encouraged the Roman converts: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you”. (Rom 8:11)
In St Luke’s Gospel, which we’ve just read, the death of Christ is not a moment of weakness. In this account, Jesus cries out with a loud voice: “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit!” This is a verse from Psalm 31 of the scriptures. The psalms were the prayers of the Jewish people. They are prayers from the heart, based on firm convictions. There is nothing soft or sentimental in the psalms such as might be found in modern piety. Psalm 31 is a psalm of hope, of trust and confidence in God. It begins: “In you O Lord, I seek shelter; let me never be disgraced”. Later is the line “For you are my Rock, my fortress for the sake of your name guide me, lead me” and then comes the line quoted by Christ on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my Spirit; you have redeemed me O Lord”. Perhaps Christ recited the complete psalm. It is certainly a psalm of hope. It is neither a cry of despair nor a plea of weakness.
Thus, death can be a time of reaching out, of going forward. I know that this is not the common perception but it is an aspect that is worth considering. In a sense, death is high point of life. It is not a time of weakness, but a time of strength. Everything we do is preparing us for that moment of transition. The use of the idea transition does not in any way diminish the contribution we make here on earth. That contribution can be hugely important for one’s family and friends and for society as a whole. Brian McKeown made his contribution in a very significant way.
He grew up in a small Catholic enclave in East Belfast and this may have contributed to his gritty approach to life. After secondary school and university he joined the Legion of Mary and was for four years a member of the Peregrinatio pro Christo, or Travellers for Christ in the recently independent Congo. This experience opened his eyes to the need for development work and he next became involved in CIDSE, the umbrella body for Catholic Development Agencies.
In 1971, the bishops under the leadership of Cardinal Conway (also a Belfast man) decided to set up a new Irish Catholic Development Agency. Bishop Eamon Casey was named as the new chairman and Brian McKeown with a known expertise was the first director of the agency, Trócaire, the Irish work for compassion.
Brian McKeown was a man of extraordinary vision and courage and he provided the inspiration and leadership which established Trócaire as a radical voice on poverty and social justice. He understood clearly the social role of the Church and the work of justice as the second Vatican Council and the 1971 Rome synod had defined it.
Brian shaped the new organisation as one based on the principles of justice and social action. His thinking on the causes and response to global poverty and injustice was radical and profound at that time and still remains inspirational and relevant today.
The new organisation and particularly its approach came as a surprise to many in both the Church and the world of politics. However, with the support of the Bishops’ Conference and Trócaire’s chairman Bishop Eamon Casey, Brian McKeown withstood the criticisms of Trócaire’s approach which were made at that time.
Brian was particularly proud of one of the earliest projects supported by the new agency: funding for a hospital caring for children in Hanoi, North Vietnam who suffered hearing loss in the intense bombing. He believed that people should not be denied Development Aid because of the regime in which they lived. He was also proud of the fact that Trócaire devotes 20% of its funding to Development Education in Ireland, so that people will know of the causes and the real reasons for world poverty. With the advent of globalisation the need for development education becomes ever more important.
After retiring from Trócaire, Brian continued his interest in Human rights. He co-founded Human Rights Trust promoting education, research, training in the monitoring and investigating of human rights issues. At different times headed up E.U. Human Rights missions to Rwanda, Togo, Congo and Croatia. There’s a line in the book of Genesis, the first book of the bible summing up the great exploits of the men of earlier times: “There were giants abroad in those days” (Gen 6:3). While it would be difficult to call Brian a giant because of his small stature, he had the qualities of a giant in relation to Trócaire and his commitment to Human Rights.
But now that’s all in the past and on the record. As we remember him in life, we commit his spirit to the mercy of the Lord in the belief that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to this mortal body through the Spirit who dwelt in him.” (Rom 8:11) Or as the psalm says: “Into your hands we commit his spirit.”
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678