Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell for the Funeral Mass of Bishop Laurence Forristal

14 Oct 2018

13th October 2018

In the name of the Diocese of Ossory, I welcome you to St Mary’s Cathedral.  I welcome my brother bishops, the Leas Cathaoirleach of Kilkenny County Council, Mr. Andrew McGuinness and theLord Mayor, Mr Peter Cleere.  I greet the priests, religious women and men and the faithful who have come here from throughout the Diocese. I extend in particular my deepest condolences to Bishop Forristal’s sisters, Kathleen, Nan and Mary, to his nieces and nephews and his extended family.

Bishop Forristal asked for a simple funeral.  He did not want an ostentatious funeral with embellishments.  That request came out of a profound understanding of the mystery of life and death. A funeral liturgy is the handing over to God of the person who has died.  A homily is not an embellishment but an integral part of the funeral liturgy.        

Jesus was deeply moved. We are twice told he loved Lazarus. We are told that Jesus wept. In coming here this afternoon to Kilkenny we are doing as Jesus did when he went to Bethany and was deeply moved, and even wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  “Unbind him and let him go”, says Jesus and then he raises Lazarus from the dead.  Death always, to some degree, is unbinding, a liberation; we are liberated from the shackles and inadequacies of this world, human imperfections and situations are reconciled, human sickness and suffering can no longer touch us. Today the Lord wants Bishop Larry’s family, his many friends to weep, to believe, to let go and to give thanks.

The Lord asks us to let go.  Letting go is hard. For his family, to whom he was very close, there is a struggle to part with the earthly life of a precious loved one.  We have to let go of Bishop Larry who is now free to participate in the future, which of course from the Christian perspective is everlasting life.  Today, like Jesus we mourn the death of a loved one, tears as sadness as we let Bishop Larry go, but also tears of joy as we recall his human memories.  Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.

Any apartness he may have experienced in life is now transformed beyond loneliness.  May something of his new joy translate itself in time in our regard who are gathered here this morning for the celebration of his funeral Mass.

We gather to pray for Bishop Larry and to give thanks for all that God has done through his ministry as priest and bishop.  Our consolation today comes from gratitude for him, for God in him, for Christ glimpsed through him.  But our real consolation comes in “the faith that looks through death” (Wordsworth), in the hope that gathers us here, the hope that as Bishop Larry shared in Christ’s way of life, and shares his death, so he will also belong with Christ in this new life.  We cannot understand that hope and yet we can have it.   We cannot always explain that faith and yet it makes sense to our hearts today.  We cannot put words on that love of God yet when we have seen it in a good man’s life and death, we too are able to recognise it, and to say a deeper and more grateful ‘yes’ to  God.

Bishop Forristal had lived “for the Lord” during his 87 years, so he died on Wednesday morning last “for the Lord.”  During those days of his final illness he was recollected, patient, alert, visiting with family and friends who stopped by or called on the phone, despite his increasing reliance on round-the-clock oxygen, reading messages on the iPad that evoked gratitude for the memories they brought back, and for the prayers they promised.   Of course he experienced moments of anxiety about his approaching death: he said to me on Monday evening, “I think I’m dying, and I don’t know whether I’m ready.”  Then after a brief conversation about the matter, “Where’s my iPad?”  Each person, and a Bishop is no exception, faces death with trepidation.  

St Paul goes to the root of things: “All things will pass away.”  Except for love or charity (cf.1 Cor 13:9ff).  The spiritual life, at its highest pitch, is about giving your life away. The only thing we take with us when we die is what we have given away.  Relationships with each other and with the Lord are what endure beyond the grave.  What did Bishop Larry give away?  

He offered a life of service to the people of Dublin in various appointments, as Vicar General and in parishes such as Raheny and in building the new parish of Rivermount into a living Christian community. A Thomastown native and, a Kilkenny man to the core, it was merely a homecoming for him when he was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1981.  He offered a life of faith, courage, and conviction that God is everything. His life was a landscape where God was seen.  He enthusiastically put his gifts to use in the service of the church. What he had received he handed on to us.  So has it ever been in the Church and, so shall it be through you and me.

He had an abiding interest in people; he spent time with them and enjoyed the company of a very wide circle of friends especially, if they had lots of time to talk to him. (Anecdote: Glencomeragh Retreat Centre, Kilsheelan). In his meetings with people he was informal as he spoke to them. His humanity spoke and, the priesthood of Jesus Christ radiated.  He was a great raconteur with a great wit and a sense of humour. His memory for parochial and sporting details was the stuff of legend.  He was immersed in Kilkenny hurling; he could recall every match, who played where and, who scored.

In these last years his life was joined to the cross of Christ. It was never “pity me, pity me, you, my friends, for the hand of God has struck me” (Job 19:21), but “when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).   When he was young, Bishop Forristal “put on his own belt” and worked tirelessly in Archdiocese of Dublin and travelled the length and breadth of this Diocese visiting schools and parishes every year.

Following his retirement, he increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly he understood the truth of the words: “Somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (Jn 21:18). And in this very communion with the suffering Lord, he continued to proclaim the Gospel, the mystery of that love which goes to the end (cf. Jn13:1).

Bishop Forristal offered a life devoted to prayer.  In prayer, he discerned the voice of the Lord, saying, follow me. Throughout his 63 years of priestly life he did not place any barriers in the way of the original summons which God placed in his heart. Prayer was not just part of his life, it was central to his life and, enabled him to distinguish God’s footsteps among the welter of interior noises.  Every day he set aside a portion of the day for God and God alone.  On Monday evening last he prayed the Divine Office and the Rosary.  He knew very well who it is in whom he had placed his trust. Out of a life rooted in prayer he knew that the Providence that guides our steps is indeed a footprint of God in time given in order to lead us to a purpose for history itself. Indeed, how he became a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin was providential – a story he loved to recall!

As a canon lawyer with a particular interest in jurisprudence, he offered a compassionate interpretation of the law. We often times hear a narrative that canon lawyers are insensitive and out of touch with the ordinary lives of people.  Bishop Forristal belied that portrayal with a pastoral approach that took into consideration both the general and the individual aspects of a person’s life. For him, this interpretation did not remain something just theoretical, but translated into feelings of compassion and tenderness towards those who suffered.

It would be remiss of me to let this day pass without acknowledging Bishop Forristal’s contribution to addressing the grave issues, serious wrongs and past failures that have come to light in the past twenty five years, as the scale and depth of the sexual abuse crisis have been revealed.  This scandal has undermined the lives of many children and vulnerable people; it has eroded trust and goodwill, and hangs like a cloud over all who seek to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  

It is fair to say that the years 1994 to 1996 were tumultuous for the Church as the reality of crimes by clergy against children began to come to light.   As the Church began to respond to these failures Bishop Forristal chaired the Committee that was to listen to and learn from the experience of all sectors concerned for the wellbeing of children. The Committee was multi-disciplinary and its work necessitated a very broad consultation process.  His wisdom, his effectiveness, and his sensitivity as Chair were pivotal in producing the so-called ‘Green Book’ (Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response).  When it was published in 1996, the Green Book gained wide acceptance as a solid foundation upon which the Church could address this scandal which damaged so many lives, and which still has so many negative effects for individuals, for relationships, for families, and for communities, including the community of faith.   

Bishop Forristal brought people with him through his manifest integrity, clarity and commitment to openness.  His leadership was of course informed by his own painful learnings as he dealt with these problems in Ossory.

The only thing we take with us when we die is what we have given away. No matter how great or slight our achievements might be, we cannot depend on them.   No, we come before God empty-handed so that we can receive the one thing necessary: a full measure of God’s mercy.

Bishop Larry now returns to the house of the House of the Father, making that journey to eternity which we all must one day make. He gave all these things away and much more; he brings them with him as he continues his journey into the eternal embrace of the Father.

We pray for him that he who worked so tirelessly, who proclaimed the gospel so faithfully, who led so wisely, who reached out to so many, and who inspired us here in Ossory, may now enter into the joy of the Lord and see in that new life the fulfilment beyond all imagination and expectation the words of the First Reading: “After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God.  He whom I shall see will take my part: those eyes will gaze on him and not find him aloof” (Job 19:27).