Homily of Bishop John Fleming at the Requiem Mass of his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Finnegan

01 Jan 2012

28 December 2011: Homily of Bishop John Fleming at the Requiem Mass of his predecessor,
Bishop Thomas Finnegan – Saint Muredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, Co Mayo

Sixty years a priest, almost twenty five years a bishop, in his 87th
year, cherished by his parents, supported by his brother Patsy, his
sisters, Pauline and Maureen and their spouses, adored by his nephews
and nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, blessed with good health,
faithful fellow workers and so many good friends, dying after a short
illness, the words of the Prophet Quoheleth seem particularly apt as
we gather to give thanks to God for the gift of life to Bishop
Finnegan and the gift of his life to all those whose paths he crossed
during his almost 87 years. “There is a time for everything, a time
for every occupation under heaven, a time for giving birth, a time for
dying, a time for planting, a time for uprooting what has been

That time has now come full circle and we gather to commend him to God
and to His mercy, as we celebrate the sacred mysteries which he so
faithfully celebrated during these past sixty years. Some years ago
Bishop Finnegan told me the story of how a well known RTÉ commentator,
with a certain degree of hesitation, approached him and asked him if
he were offended by an article which the journalist, while still a
student, wrote on the occasion of the bishop ending his time as
President of Summerhill College. Needless to say, the bishop assured
the commentator that he did not take offence. The caption in that
article read “Farewell to the dreamer”. I cannot find a better one
liner to sum up the man to whom we pay tribute on this day.

The Book of Ecclesiastes reminded us that there is a time for
everything, a time for every season under Heaven and it also reminds
us that these seasons change and follow a certain pattern. Bishop
Finnegan lived out most of his priesthood during the season of ‘new
vision’ provided by the Second Vatican Council. And he was, by nature,
a man with vision, who was blessed by God with many opportunities to
realise it. He always seemed to be in the right place when the
opportunity for change presented itself and allowed him room to be
creative and to create something new for the future.

Ordained priest for the diocese of Elphin in 1951, he settled into
priesthood, as a post-graduate student, a Diocesan Secretary and a
Chaplain at St Angela’s College, Sligo, before Blessed John XXIII
opened the windows of the Vatican and lifted the accumulated dust of
centuries from the curtains. Appointed Junior Dean at St Patrick’s
College, Maynooth, in 1960, he had his first real opportunity to be
creative, as he began to open the College to the spirit of Vatican II.
A year after the Council closed, he came into his own as President of
Summerhill College. He quickly seized the opportunity to develop the
College; providing new buildings, broadening the curriculum and
doubling student numbers. Undeterred by the voices which cautioned
care with regard to the financial implications involved, he created an
atmosphere in the College which has stood the test of time. At an
award ceremony in the College as recently as last October a past pupil
of the college, Mr Donard Gaynor, a highly successful Irishman working
in New York, recalled his student days in Summerhill and singled out
Bishop Finnegan for special mention; recalling that the bishop had
inspired him to follow his dreams.

Commenting on Bishop Finnegan’s development of the college, Mr Gaynor
recalled his own involvement in fund raising for the 1970s building,
which included bringing rock bands to the college. Only Bishop
Finnegan would have thought of inviting a rock band to a fundraiser in
the 1970’s and only Bishop Finnegan could inspire a budding
entrepreneur to follow his dreams. As a result of the inspiration
given, some forty years later, that student could speak of the
importance of faith and spirituality to him, as he lived out a
successful career at the heart of the ‘Big Apple’.

And I know that there are many other former students whose dreams for
the future were inspired and supported by the bishop. During the late
sixties and early seventies, therefore, Bishop Finnegan was regarded
as one of the leading educationalists in Ireland at a time when the
advent of free secondary education revolutionised Irish education.  A
new opportunity for developing a vision presented itself when he was
appointed Director of the Marriage Tribunal in Galway in 1979. At a
time of unprecedented change in tribunal practice, he was able to
explore, develop and broaden the criteria for marriage annulments in
line with all the developments taking place in tribunal practice at
that time. Inspired by Pope Paul VI, the spirit of canon law rather
than its letter attracted him and offered him an opportunity to show
the caring face of Church law to many. His opportunities for pastoral
outreach and care came his way in 1982, when he was appointed Parish
Priest in Roscommon. Back among his own once more and close to the
family he loved so dearly, he delighted in his work there for five
years. His fifteen years as bishop of this diocese offered him the
opportunity to implement the reforms of Vatican II and develop
important initiatives in many areas of pastoral care.  He began by
working with and for the priests of the diocese, promoting parish
pastoral councils and encouraging lay involvement in the life of the

Shortly after his appointment as Bishop of Killala, he reformed clergy
incomes and looked at a plan for the re- deployment of priests both
within and outside the diocese.  The prayerful, contemplative aspect
of his spirituality expressed itself in his efforts to introduce a
contemplative community to the diocese and it proved successful when
Holy Hill Hermitage opened in 1995. His awareness of the changing face
of the Catholic Church and its place in a new Ireland expressed itself
in his concern for adult faith formation. He devoted endless time and
effort to trying to establish a Catholic University for Mayo and to
having the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family have an
outreach at the Newman Institute. With support from the Kennedy
Charitable Foundation, he established the Newman Institute in Barret
Street, Ballina, as a first phase in the realization of his dream for
a Catholic University for Mayo. Together with the other bishops of the
Western Province, he was a founder member of the Council for the West,
which later prompted the Government to establish the Western
Development Commission.

As first chairman of Meitheal Mhaihheo, the Mayo Area Partnership
established by the Government in 1991 to tackle the problem of
long-term unemployment in the West, he linked in to his personal
interest in emigrants and emigration. In the late 1980’s when
unemployment was high and a new wave of emigration to America denuded
the parishes of the diocese of their youth, he sent priests to New
York and Boston to walk with the youth of Ireland in the States and to
London to do the same.  His love of Irish lead him to support many
causes aimed at the revival of the language and he was instrumental in
bringing the All Ireland Fleadh to Ballina in 1997 and again in 1998.
His concern for the Missions lead him to founding the Killala Diocesan
Mission in the diocese of Miracema, in Brazil, which is one of the
last diocesan missions still remaining. For many years he was Chairman
of the Bishops Conference Commission for Emigrants, for Education and
for Catechetics.

Bishop Finnegan’s ecumenical spirit and his care for all Christian
peoples were evident in his warm relations with the other Church
leaders in this area. Paying tribute to him yesterday, Archbishop Neil
said “His ecumenical spirit, his care for people and his warm sense of
humour were all part of a life of deep integrity and spirituality.
Bishop Tom was a man whom you not only trusted but also loved as a
true friend”.

Roscommon by birth, Sligo and Mayo by adoption, he grew to love his
adoptive counties greatly. Lacken was his chosen place of retirement.
Coney Island was his second home. These places and their communities
were always uppermost in his affections. I often thought that the sea
and the strand must have inspired his creative spirit to wonder and
sometimes to wander. His attachments, apart from his family and his
diocese, were few; his small notebook and his mobile phone apart. He
was legendary, at meetings of the Bishops’ Conference, for rushing out
from the room as his mobile phone claimed his attention and disturbed
the deliberations of that assembly. Some of his colleagues were known
to ask if “Killala was a busier diocese than Dublin?!”

During his years of retirement he continually counted his blessings,
especially with regard to his own family and the priests, religious
and people of this diocese and that of his native diocese of Elphin. I
fully realise the love and time which he gave to his family but I
equally realise the love and gratitude which they always showed to
him, especially during his illness in these days. No words of mine
could express the debt of gratitude which this diocese owes to them.
Equally, I know just how much both he and they appreciate the support
which he received from the priests, religious and people of the two
dioceses in which he served. And, if I may, Fr Paddy Hegarty must be
singled out for special mention in this regard. One of his greatest
insights, and the one which he rarely if ever spoke about, was his own
grasp of the spirituality of the diocesan priest. He was, first and
foremost, a deeply prayerful man. The Oratory in Bishop’s House and
the open seas at Coney Island, and later Lacken, were his favourite
places. Near to God in these places, his contemplative spirit
generated the spiritual strength which he then used to create and
support his pastoral ministry. Deeply aware that ours is a
spirituality of activity and pastoral care, he nonetheless realised
that its roots lie in prayer and that without prayer it falters. He
brought to the oratory the ebb and flow of his ideas and their
reception, his worries and their pain, placed them before God and,
with new strength and resolve, went out again to further them.

Christ was the centre point and the still point of Bishop Finnegan’s
life. His life was, as St Paul once wrote “hidden with Christ in God”.
The Stations of the Cross were a hallmark of his spirituality and he
produced two booklets on them, one in the 1970’s and one only last
year, based on the Stations of the Cross in Lacken Church. The Letter
to the Phillipians, which we had read to us, sums up his spirituality.
“I believe that nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme
advantage of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For him I have accepted
the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if
only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. All I want is to
know Christ and the power of His resurrection and to share in His
sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That is the way I
can hope to take my place in the resurrection of the dead.”

We believe that Bishop Finnegan’s hope of taking his place in the
resurrection of the dead has now been fulfilled. Throughout his life
he got to know Christ Jesus. He accepted the many losses of the
diocesan priest. In his sufferings, especially during the past ten
days, he shared in the sufferings of Christ and reproduced, as Saint
Paul said, the pattern of his death. Nothing happened in his life
which outweighed the supreme advantage of his knowing Christ Jesus,
his Lord. Therefore, in the words of his former student, the RTÉ
commentator, we can, albeit with sadness, now bid a fond farewell to a
man of vision, to an inspiring leader and a much loved family member,
priest and bishop.


For further information contact Martin Long, Catholic Communications
Office, Maynooth 00353 861727678

Notes for Editors:

– Picture available of the late Bishop Thomas Finnegan RIP from the
Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth.
– Thomas Anthony Finnegan was Bishop of Killala from 1987 to 2002.  He
was born on 26 August 1925, in the parish of Castlerea, Co Roscommon.
His parents were Patrick Finnegan and Margaret Connaughton. He
received his early education in Runnamoat National School, CBS Primary
School, Roscommon and Summerhill College, Sligo. Thomas Finnegan was
ordained a priest at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 1951.
Bishop Finnegan (86) died on Christmas Day, 25 December 2011, in Sligo
General Hospital after a short illness.