Homily of Bishop John Kirby for the Memorial Mass for the late Sally O’Neill Sanchez RIP

10 May 2019

College Chapel, Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth

  • Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez referred to Sally as ‘Our Angel’ for her support to parish communities in Honduras in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch – Bishop Kirby


I welcome you all to this Memorial Mass following the tragic accidental death of our friend and former colleague, Sally O’Neill Sanchez.  I welcome Sally’s daughter Xiomara, her siblings, Pat, Tommy, Kate, Anne, John, Gemma and Margaret and their extended families.  I sympathise with all of you and with Sally’s husband, Roger, her son, Roger and her daughter, Rhona who are unable to attend.  For you this has been a family and personal tragedy away beyond a public event.

I welcome also Uachtarán na hÉireann, Mr Michael D Higgins who knew and supported Sally personally.  I thank you for your attendance.


“Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” (Lk 23:46, Ps 31:5)

Luke was the only Gentile among the writers of the various books of the New Testament.  He was an early convert to Christianity and was a disciple of Saint Paul, accompanying him on some of his missionary journeys.  He tells us that he decided, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account” of the life and death of Jesus (Lk 1:3).   In his account of the arrest and trial, he presents Jesus as accepting the suffering imposed on him, while remaining ‘his own man’ throughout these sufferings.  He mentions Jesus forgiving those who planned it all, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 46:34).  According to him, the final words of Jesus were from one of the psalms, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46, Ps 31:5).  Clearly, Jesus was not simply on the receiving end of human machination but was fully committed to the will of his heavenly father.  In that sense, he was ‘his own man’.

I like this gospel passage as it crosses the line from defeat and sadness into Good News. Despite the combination of betrayal, denial, weakness and duplicity on the part of others, death was not the end of the story for Jesus.  The unnamed women coming on an errand of care for the body of Jesus found an empty tomb.  When they later informed the disciples that Jesus had arisen, they were not believed.  Indeed, Luke uses the two sceptics on the road to Emmaus and their meeting with the risen Christ as the final proof of the resurrection. 

This gospel is particularly appropriate for the death of a person linked to Trócaire.  It highlights the transformation from weakness to strength, from sadness to joy, from death to life.  This is a clear expression of the core of the Christian Gospel.  Trócaire has a similar objective.  It focuses on an intention to change situations of despair to development.  Since its beginning in 1973, Trócaire has never been simply an overseas aid organisation, but it “raises awareness about the causes of poverty and encourages Irish people to campaign for global change and an end to poverty as a matter of justice.”  It works to achieve this objective through supporting sustainable livelihoods, unlocking the potential of women, protecting human rights and responding to emergencies.  Trócaire envisages “a just and peaceful world where people’s dignity is ensured and rights are respected; where basic needs are met and resources are shared equitably; where people have control over their own lives and those in power act for the common good.”  It begins with the world as it is and seeks to help people transform difficult situations into zones of development, hope and growth.

Over the years, Trócaire has taken on many issues affecting development.  It has campaigned against land mines and cluster bombs.  It supported Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid; it campaigned in favour of Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni people in Nigeria.  It supported Honduran fruit workers against Fyffe’s.  It argues for the banning of the sale of goods produced in occupied territories such as the Israeli occupied West Bank, in Ireland and in the EU Currently it is one of the major campaigners for Climate Justice.  It highlights the need to protect Human Rights Defenders, who are being killed for defending the right to land, water and a safe place to live in countries including Honduras and Guatemala.  Trócaire’s latest campaign exposes the complicity of large corporations and governments in violating the rights of communities, and calls for a binding UN treaty on business and human rights.  Trócaire has also highlighted Ireland’s slow response to reaching the UN of target €7 per €1,000 of Gross National Product on Overseas Aid, despite being in the top ten countries in the world on wealth creation per person, and continuously pressures the government to meet this commitment and to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Sally O’Neill fitted very well into these campaigns.  She was not just a member of Trócaire; she was in many ways an embodiment of its attitudes and ideals.  She adorned it.  She first came in to contact with Trócaire in Peru when she was working there as a nutritionist.  She formally became a staff member in 1978 and it was due to her links with the area that Central America became a major field of operation for the organization.  Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala were all in the grip of civil wars.  Sally led parliamentary and Church delegations to see the full impact these conflicts were having on the livers of ordinary people.  She developed a friendship with Bishop Oscar Romero, now a canonised saint and with some of the Jesuit martyrs murdered in 1987.   Back in Ireland as Head of Programmes, Sally played a major role in organising Trócaire’s response to the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and the Somalia famine in 1992.  

Sally married Honduran Roger Sanchez and she moved back to Honduras to lead Trócaire’s Central America programme.  While we had met occasionally in Trócaire’s Booterstown office, it was in Central America that I go to know Sally and to appreciate her drive.  She had a very strong commitment to Catholic Social Teaching and to the mission of Trócaire.  She did not tolerate half-measures.  If you wanted to disagree with her, you had better have well considered arguments to support your view. 

On four separate visits to Central America during my time as chairman of Trócaire, Sally was a guide and a minder to me and to others in San Salvador in November 1994, in Cuba for the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998, in Honduras during the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in November 1998 and in Guatemala for a Human Rights conference in July 2005.  I got to know her and her commitment during those visits.   Her attitudes were well thought out and were clear.

On each of these visits to Central America, I came home chastened by the experience.  In each case, there was huge work to be done and the commitment of Sally and indeed of other Trócaire staff members was vital.  In particular, Sally was very close to women in the many communities and villages where Trócaire worked.  The women would come out to greet her and she would hug them and laugh with them.

In San Salvador, she supported human rights workers who were openly critical of the government.  She would accompany them on their early morning motor bike tours of San Salvador recording the number of bodies strewn by the roadside.  Many of those killed worked in the human rights office established by Archbishop Oscar Romero.  During our visit to San Salvador, Sally brought us to the small chapel in which Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass.  On the same day, we attended Mass and visited the University of Central America building in which six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed in the middle of the night only six years earlier.

Along with two other bishops and Trócaire staff, I was with Sally in Honduras in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.  This was a devastating blow, wiping out work painstakingly built up over many years.  Fifty-nine projects were destroyed and one hundred villages disappeared.  Tens of thousands in the Trócaire programme were homeless.  Sally galvanised the project partners to tackle these enormous challenges.  She had already an enormous network and quickly got relief work established even in the remoter parts of the country.  Her friendship with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez SDB enabled her to get support from the parish communities throughout the country.  He referred to Sally as “Our Angel”.

Sally O’Neill was a missionary of love, truth and justice.  The pastoral letter of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference on the foundation of Trócaire published on 2 February 1973 established the organisation with a mandate to work for justice.   Sally brought that mandate to life and made it real for millions in Ireland who began to see poverty and disaster not as natural or inevitable but the results of decisions taken by the powerful and the wealthy.  She also lived that commitment herself and working for justice was a major aim for her.   Despite being retired from Trócaire for the past few years, she was still wearing herself in a life of care for others.   It was on a working trip in Guatemala that the accident that took her life occurred. 

We began with the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ.  While we mourn the loss of Sally, and the awful accident that caused her death, we continue to proclaim faith in the Resurrection.  Luke who reminds us that he investigated everything from the first is quite clear about the Resurrection of Jesus.  He relies on the evidence of the women at the empty tomb and of the men on the road to Emmaus.  He presents Jesus very much as His own man.  We can now express a similar convection in the resurrection of Sally O’Neill Sanchez to a risen new life in the Lord.  She well deserves it.


  • Bishop John Kirby is Bishop of Clonfert and a former chair of Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

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