Funeral of Fr Jimmy McCaffrey – January 23, 2018 – Abingdon
Many people have commented on the providential date on which Fr Jimmy died. Providential in the sense that it was the day on which we read the opening chapter of St John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the word. St John’s Gospel was especially close to Fr Jimmy’s heart. His doctoral thesis was based on it. It was a gospel he contemplated often. It as a lovely providence that Christ’s earthly birthday should coincide with Fr Jimmy’s heavenly birthday.
Fr Jimmy was born in Sligo in the west of Ireland in June 1930. He always retained a great affection for his hometown and loved to return there. He loved specially to spend time at the sea. For many years swimming was one of his favourite forms of exercise – swimming all year round when he lived near the sea. He boarded at our school in Castlemartyr and in September 1948 he entered the Order in Loughrea. He made his first profession in 1949 and was ordained in 1957. He studies Sacred Scripture in Rome and obtained a doctorate on the theme of the temple in St John’s Gospel. His priestly ministry started in Dublin teaching out theology students and later as prior of the community. When we joined the Milltown Institute he taught there and was elected president. He later taught in Ushaw College before going to Australia where he was director on our retreat centre in Varroville near Sydney. He returned to Boars Hill and took on the editorship of Mount Carmel magazine. With the assistance of Joanne Mosley, he made it one of the leading spirituality journals.
They also published several top-class books on spirituality in the Teresian Press. During his years in Boars Hill he led many retreats both here in many different parts of the world. He enjoyed robust health until quite recently. His death on Christmas morning was a huge shock for us all and especially for his brother Fr Eugene.
Since his death I have received nearly seventy emails from all over the world. What struck me particularly was the number of people who told me that his preaching touched their lives. A Carmelite nun in New Zealand wrote: Dear Father Jimmy was here in Christchurch not long before my Final Profession in 1987. It was after one of his wonderful talks on the Passion in scripture which so deeply touched me that it helped me make a decision that I couldn’t be anywhere else but in Carmel!!
Thank you, Fr Jimmy, for the grace that came through you.
A priest who is now rector of a seminary wrote: I encountered his priestly presence and his vibrant compassion (in addition to his lively sense of humour) at a time in my own life when I was unsure of what the Lord was asking of me and if it were possible for me to live out my own priesthood with fidelity and joy. It was through Jimmy (or better through Christ and his priest Jimmy) that I came to embrace my own humanity before the Lord. His words still ring in my heart and life, and I have shared them with many brother priests.
Those two testimonies touch on important aspects of Fr Jimmy’s life. The first is his humanity. Jimmy confided in a friar that he was quite rigid in his earlier life but learned that that was not the Christian way. Events in his life led him to embrace his own humanity, his broken humanity. That allowed the light of Christ to shine even more brightly through him. People have spoken to me about his compassion in the confessional; his constant encouragement no matter how much a person failed.
There was a wonderful warmth about Jimmy that made him attractive to many people and led to long lasting friendships. He has a great spirit of hospitality and many of you would testify to the welcome he gave to everyone who came to Mass or the retreats at the priory in Boars Hill.
I believe that that humanity and warmth came not just from life events but even more important from his growing knowledge of Jesus. Jimmy did not just read and study the Scriptures, he prayed them. He came to know Jesus through this prayer. Jesus became more and more his friend and the inspiration of his life. His praying the scriptures lead to a particular kind of familiarity with them – a loving familiarity. It was a joy to listen to him explain the scriptures. I cannot help seeing a parallel between him and Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn with us as he explained the Scriptures to us?” Our heart burned within us as he explained the Scriptures to us.
In God’s Providence Jimmy was lead to enter the Order of Discalced Carmelites. He loved the spirituality of the Order. He expressed this in his faithfulness to prayer. He was always present for the prayer times. He also had a custom that inspired me a lot of going to the chapel at night before he went to bed. He would spend a quite a long time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament probably praying in gratitude for the graces of the day. He was certainly faithful to the injunction in the Rule of St Albert, that we “ponder on the law of the Lord day and night and keep watch in our prayers.”
He also loved the writing of our Carmelite saints and became an expert in many of them. I am sure I am not alone in being inspired by the way he could quote long prayers of our saints from memory – I am thinking especially of St Thérèse’s Offering to Divine Love and St Elizabeth of the Trinity’s Prayer to the Trinity. All our saints loved the Scriptures and were familiar with them. That attracted Fr Jimmy and he read their works through the lens of Scriptures. Those who attend Mass at Boars Hill will remember the many homilies he gave linking the Scripture readings of the day to the spirituality of the Carmelite saints. We might have complained about them being a bit long – but were they rich!
For a man who loved Scripture so much and who loved St John’s Gospel, and who incarnated the Scripture messages, there was something very appropriate that he should have gone to God on the morning of the feast of the Incarnation. We pray today in gratitude for a long and rich life, lived in the words of our Carmelite rule, “in allegiance to Jesus Christ.” To say that Fr Jimmy will be missed is a bit of an understatement! One of his particular loves was St Thérèse. Carmelites add a special devotion to the name at profession. Fr Jimmy’s full title as a Carmelite was Fr James of the St Thérèse of the Child Jesus. I am sure that she has welcomed her brother into heaven with open arms. Like her, I am sure he will spend his heaven doing good on earth.
May he rest in peace.