Fr John McNamara, OCD (1938 – 2020)
Let me share with you some of the experience of the last few days. We received word on Friday last that John had been diagnosed with Coronavirus, the very mention of the name sent our hearts into our boots, the very word sounded like a death sentence. After all that John had been through with the pain in his back since December, with the emergency surgery, and then the struggle for rehabilitation, it was a very heavy blow for us, one can only imagine what it was for him. Life can be so hard at times! On Sunday then, we got word from the hospital that they were taking him off ventilation, and at first, we took this as a good sign that John despite our fears was making progress. Later in the day, we found out that this was not the case, that it marked a removal of treatment. I don’t know what it was like for Fr Prior but it struck me as a grievous blow. There was John dying of this terrible disease alone in a strange environment and here were we unable to go to comfort him and to sit with him. It was some of the worst days that I can remember in Carmel. We were totally helpless to change the situation and appeared to be beating our heads against the brick wall of still trying!
Given the situation it is not hard to imagine the position of those sisters in Bethany. In the Gospel, Martha comes flaming down the road to meet their so-called friend Jesus. Martha is full of distressed and angry questions as to what took him so long? Why had he tarried? Why did he seem so indifferent? And the most devastating statement of all “if you had of been here my brother would not have died.” Martha is, of course, speaking in the first flush of her grief and she was helpless to do anything about the situation and anger is rising in her heart. Who is to blame? This so-called friend! Given the events of the last few days we find ourselves in a similar situation- why didn’t he come and why didn’t he do something about it?
Jesus comes to the funeral of Lazarus, as he comes to the funeral of John, as truly a strange friend, he arrives to this funeral without any flowers, without a card, and without the usual accoutrements of mourners. And he does not even bother to answer Martha’s and our desperate questions. Instead, of answering he comes up with his own question for Martha and in turn ourselves. “Do you believe in me?” At such a moment to those people gathered around the family of Martha and Mary, the words must have sounded tone deaf and inappropriate. You can imagine many shaking heads, harsh intakes of breath, and tut-tuts. People whispering behind their hands how dare he ask such a question at such a time, why doesn’t he just stick to flowers and cards like the rest of us.
The question that Jesus poses contains within it a force all its own. The force even stops Martha in her tracks as she is driving home her own questions. She is forced to look up from her grief and distress and take a good look at the one who has just arrived for the funeral of Lazarus. And to see not with the superficial glance of worldly reasoning but with the eyes of faith. That this strange friend who has arrived late is not just some holy man or self proclaimed prophet. So much more than that has arrived at Lazarus funeral. The Son of God pondering the grief and fear of the World, saw Martha’s distress at the death of her brother and was profoundly moved by her plight. He jumped to his feet and abandoned the glory of heaven and stepped into this troubled and dubious old world. He came all this way just for Lazarus’ funeral.
He did not arrive on time for the funeral of Lazarus because mystically he had stopped off in Jerusalem for three days. In these three days he was busy about his Father’s affairs, he had to celebrate his last Supper, his garden of Gethsemane, he being found wanting by human trial, his scourging at the pillar, his carrying of the Cross, his being nailed to that cross, his death to the last drop of water and blood for us, and then rising from the tomb on the third day. He arrives a day late; the fourth day, after all of Martha’s fear’s, he had not tarried. St Augustine asks us to see the one who arrives after his long journey to Bethany not so much as the good shepherd but as the good physician or the good doctor. In his stop over in Jerusalem, at the Last Supper, in the Garden, on the Cross, in the tomb and coming out alive was all about generating the medicine, not just medicine for Coronavirus but for eternal life.
All these events, he poured into a jar creating a potent mix of ointment. Ointment to soothe the wounded and bereaved heart of Martha, then to reach and heal the dead body of Lazarus, and then to share eternal life with Fr John. The medicine has been beautifully described by the Evangelist “God loved the World so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” The great epistle scribe writes of the medicine “nothing therefore can come between us and love of Christ… these are the trials through which we triumph by the power of him who loved us.” Martha steps back and sees it, recognises it for what it is, and asks for the medicine, the ointment with the words – “you are Resurrection- you are Life!” We must find our own words at this moment.
There are many things that one could observe about the life of our dear brother John McNamara. His devotion to his parents William and especially Mary, his mother. We could also bring up his pride in Ireland, even though he was born in Barrhead Scotland. He saw himself very much as a child of immigrants from the west of Ireland so much so that when he went to the community in Loughrea it was as if he was returning home. There were many roads that his life went down, his life as a Redemptorist brother, his life as a Diocesan priest, and then as our brother in Carmel.
I don’t know if many people knew but John was a devotee of all things celluloid, he said of himself that when he went into a cinema he returned to childhood, he became embroiled in the action, the story carried him away, and he was lost to time so much so that he would not have eaten what he had brought with him. He could repeat long sections of the script and there was always a flash of excitement in his eye, every time he said them. In terms of character, he was able to express his own mind and had no difficulty about telling you what was on that mind. Over and over, he repeated that he had damaged his own wrist trying to keep this younger friar in line!
There is something that I would be seriously remiss if I did not mention it. Our late Prior once joked that we in Termonbacca had our own “Padre Pio.” Fr John’s role in the confession box was anything but a joke. John Paul II spoke of the dignity of the priesthood, “The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus! No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!” It became very evident in the time that Fr John was absent from his normal duties in the Confessional box just how Derry regarded the priesthood of John McNamara.
It truly is a special gift to be a good shepherd in the confessional box. It says many things about the person under the stole. To be able to be a merciful priest takes you to have got a real grip on your own humanity, that you are not running away or that you are not disguising your own weakness. It also tells you that the person has had some profound experience in their life of the gift of mercy from the Lord, that they have accepted that mercy wholeheartedly and are living that mercy out. And lastly, they have found their own way to express to the person opposite just how much the Lord Jesus loves and embraces them precisely in the place of deepest weakness. John was able to chatter away in the box, he was able to tell disarming stories, he was able to empathise with peoples distress, he felt their pain, he was able to show them that as their pastor he loved them and wanted only the best for them. Also, he was capable of telling a few home truths when they were needed to wake the person out of their stupor.
There was a sign that John had fixed to the bottom of the crucifix in his confessional. It distilled the wisdom of his approach in Confession to the people of God – “Your sins are forgiven you Full stop!” And the full stop was underlined. And then under that again “your faith has made you whole …. Start again!” Encouraging those in his care, to utter confidence in the Mercy of the Cross and then to take responsibility for making the most of the gift of mercy after the absolution, to live not in fear and trembling but as children of the Heavenly Father. St John Vianney summed up what John was doing in his ministry, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
But the person we remember and pray for at this Mass would be the very one twitching in discomfort at my talking about him. He would have hated it and tried to change the subject. His eyes would have been rolling in his head and he would be spraining his wrist trying to get me to stop right now. John had his own quite way. A way in which he followed the advice of St Benedict to his monks, to take responsibility for their own weakness and failure and to ascribe to God their success and strength. Maybe the best thing, therefore that we could say of him was that in his ministry Jesus took the bread of mercy, broke that mercy, and gave it to the people of Derry, those whom John loved so much!