Homily by Father Martin Graham for the funeral Mass of James Hughes RIP

14 Nov 2016

Requiem Mass for Mr James Hughes R.I.P.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, Belfast

Fr Martin Graham, (Adm.)

14th November 2016  

 65 years ago today Joe and Margaret Hughes welcomed their first born son, Joseph onto this earth at 3 Albert Place, just a stone’s throw from this Cathedral.  22 years later, on 26th March 1974 Joseph was killed by a roadside bomb as he returned from tending cattle on the family smallholding at Hannahstown.  Today we come together to mourn the loss of Joseph’s brother, James, in equally sudden and tragic circumstances.

James was a larger than life character and he had a generosity of spirit that knew no bounds. Many people in this congregation today will have been recipients of that generosity. If I was to ask for a hands up from anyone who has a little trinket, a book, a card that James gave you I could imagine we would see a sea of hands in the air. They weren’t massive things but they were important because they were given with thought and meaning, like the little candleholder he gave his cousin Moya, to place in front of the myriad of prayer cards that she has on her mantle piece. Since last Sunday a candle has burnt in that holder as Moya, and James’s brothers and sisters Mairead, Veronica, Desmond and Michael, his brother-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews and their children, indeed this entire community, try to come to terms with James’s passing.

James trained as a Psychiatric Nurse in London; his last job was as the manager of a nursing home for older people.  When he first took over the role, people sat around the resident’s lounge, waiting for their final day on Earth to come. Others would have seen people, broken by illness or the advance of years; James saw human beings with unused talents and skills and he set about discovering what those talents and skills were. The nursing home was transformed into a hive of activity as the residents grew their own fruit and vegetables and helped prepare their own meals.  He gave them a purpose in life and they loved him for it. His determination to change things for the better was often at odds with a system that found it easier, as he perceived it, to keep people sedated and quiet and out of the way. The stress and strain of making these people be heard and seen cost James his own mental health.

In the Gospel we meet the Good Samaritan; a man who just happened to be passing by and saw a man in need. Without thinking about it he tended to the man’s needs at the scene and then accompanied him to an inn. Before he came back home James saved the life of a man who had fallen under a train. The man’s arm was partially severed and while everyone else ran, James, without a second thought jumped on to the track, put a tourniquet on the wound to stem the flow of blood and accompanied the man to the hospital in the ambulance and didn’t leave him until his family arrived. No-one knew a thing about this until his flatmate answered a knock at the door one night; it was a man with a bravery certificate for James. Typically James couldn’t understand why he should be getting an award just for helping someone in need. Like the Good Samaritan, James was passing by and immediately went to that man’s aid. It was his natural reaction to someone in need.

Although James never returned to full time employment again, the vision he had, of a world where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, remained strong within him.  There are people in this congregation today who would attest to James’s part in their mental health recovery.  Where others would see a problem James would see a person, a person suffering, where others saw brokenness James saw potential, where others saw bother, James saw an opportunity and he would try to help them to help themselves to a better life. Tragically it cost him his own life.

Today as we pray for James, we also pray, as he would want us to, for everyone with mental health issues. Pray that society will treat them kindly and with the dignity and respect they so richly deserve; but that must start first with us. James was a single human being who brought so much light and love into other peoples’ lives, his example is now left for us to follow so that the lives of anyone with mental illness, and our own lives will be transformed for the better. If one man can do this, imagine the change in our world if we all took that example and multiplied it over and over again.

In the words of an old Gospel song: If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song, If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong, Then my living shall not be in vain. If I can do my duty, as a good man ought, If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought, If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught, Then my living shall not be in vain. James lived these words each and every day; we all, all of us here, everyone in our land, need to do the same; James Hughes, Seamus McAodha as he preferred, must not have died in vain.

With his parents Joe and Margaret, his brother Joseph and sisters Anne and Nuala, may James’s good and generous soul rest in God’s peace this day and forever.